Mexico won the 1999 FIFA Confederations Cup on home soil after a thrilling 4-3 victory in the Final against defending champions Brazil. The competition, which saw European Champions Germany crash out in spectacular fashion, was illuminated by attractive attacking football in Mexico City and Guadalajara.
Despite all the prophets of doom, principally in the European media, Mexico 99 turned out to be a thoroughly entertaining football festival with a deserved champion. The host country, strengthened since France 98 by new faces and astute tactical changes, was not only the best team, it was also by far the the youngest, boasting a talented side in which the average age was 24.
The Final victory in front of 115 000 impassioned fans in the legendary Azteca Stadium was the unquestionable highlight of a tournament which over the span of two weeks showcased top-level football at its best. In an absorbing climax to the competition, Mexico went two goals ahead after half an hour and looked to be cruising to victory. However, Brazil reduced the deficit just before half-time and drew level shortly after the break. Just when the tide seemed to be clearly turning in the South Americans' favour, Zepeda grabbed his second for Mexico. The roller-coaster ride continued: no sooner had Blanco restored the two-goal lead than Ze Roberto clawed one back for Brazil a minute later. The hosts then held on for an amply-deserved victory in one of the best-ever finals of a FIFA competition.
Mexico's high tempo football, clever passing and combativity had often stretched the Brazilian defence to breaking point. The quality of the game was even more remarkable bearing in mind the fact that the teams had played five matches in less than two weeks without the sort of recovery periods usual in world or continental championships.
Germany succumb to Brazil
The excitement began right from the opening game between 1997 Confederations Cup winners Brazil, ostensibly weakened by the omission of five key players, and European Champions Germany, obliged to leave a few experienced campaigners at home. Their absence would be sorely missed, particularly that of strikers Oliver Bierhoff and Ulf Kirsten.
The clash between these traditional powerhouses, the first ever in any senior FIFA competition, was decided in the last half hour - in Brazil's favour. The South Americans tore the German defence apart in a devastating 30 minutes and emerged comfortable 4-0 winners. The flood of goals would continue over the following days. Mexico's star striker Cuauthemoc Blanco was the hero of the day in the first game at the Azteca, beating Saudi keeper Al Deayea four times in an hour, three times with headers. Also remarkable was the high number of goals scored directly from free-kicks - perhaps the FIFA Technical Study Group will be able to provide a reason for this phenomenon.
After their opening win, Mexico seemed to have already sewn up Group A, but they suffered a scare when they squandered a 2-0 lead against an
Egyptian team reduced to ten men by a red card. In the end they were happy to settle for a draw. However they sealed their progress to the semi-finals with a win over Bolivia, a result which simultaneously qualified Saudi Arabia in second place in the group.
For their part, the Saudis defeated Egypt 5-1 in the first clash between the two Arab giants for 12 years. However, the rush of goals could not disguise the game's ill-tempered edge, with three Egyptian players shown the red card.
New Zealand close to a sensation
In Group B, Brazil had secured their place in the last four with a win over the USA to follow their success against Germany. However, victory was clinched only by the narrowest of margins, and a sluggish performance was almost punished when the Americans missed a penalty.
New Zealand made life difficult for Germany before admitting a 2-0 defeat, and then came within a whisker of creating the ultimate upset. Against a lacklustre Brazil the Kiwis repeatedly threatened to equalise before finally succumbing to a second and decisive goal. The match for second place in the group turned out to be a stroll for the USA, who defeated Germany for the second time this year and for the first time in a competitive match.
It is difficult to imagine two semi-finals more different in character. At the Azteca, Mexico and the USA battled it out in a fiercely-contested CONCACAF derby which saw spectacular displays by the two outstanding goalkeepers of the competition. Kasey Keller's performance featured some of the miraculous saves that have become his trademark, denying Mexico what seemed to be certain goals. However, Keller could only watch as teammates Ernie Stewart and Cobi Jones were repeatedly thwarted by an equally inspired Jorge Campos at the other end. In the punishing midday heat the game went to extra time, in which Blanco's Golden Goal, the only one of the competition, clinched Mexico a place in the final. The events in Guadalajara's Jalisco stadium were far less dramatic, at least at the start. Brazil quickly went two goals ahead against Saudi Arabia and appeared to be effortlessly cantering towards victory. They had not reckoned with Marzouk Al Otaibi. The speedy and skillful striker embarrassed the Brazilian defence twice within the space of ten minutes and brought his team level. Ironically, his equaliser signalled the beginning of the end for the Asian champions. Stung into reaction, the Brazilians fired in two goals before half-time and followed up with four more after the break in the middle of a tropical downpour.
Young talent in the spotlight
The Confederations Cup has often been described as a stage for emerging talent to shine, and this proved to be the case again in Mexico. Ronaldinho, the 19-year old Brazilian striker whom the world first glimpsed at the FIFA World Youth Championship in April, and then again at the Copa America in July, was arguably the biggest sensation.
The new champions could also boast an outstanding player who had also appeared in Nigeria: defender Rafael Marquez immediately impressed with a composed display on his senior debut and went from strength to strength as the competition progressed. His performances earned him a long-term contract with French club AS Monaco. Youth also eclipsed the old guard in the Bolivian team, where the youngsters performed significantly better than ineffective veterans such as Erwin "Platini" Sanchez and Marco "El Diabolo" Etcheverry. The competition's statistics make for impressive reading: an average crowd of 65,000 and almost 3.5 goals a game.
The high standard of play and the excellent entertainment value, allied to the fine efforts of the local organising committee under Alejandro Burillo, will ensure that the future and the format of the FIFA Confederations Cup is discussed and debated at length during the coming months. The dates in July/August need to be reviewed, both in terms of the weather and the timing of the international football calendar. However, the value placed on the competition by the majority of confederations remains undiminished, and will if anything have increased, particularly in view of the possibility of reverting to the December/January period.
Interest in hosting the 2001 edition has already been declared informally by a number of countries - FIFA intends to maintain the biennial rhythm - providing clear evidence that the FIFA Confederations Cup is here to stay.