The first championship between the continental champions to be held under the auspices of FIFA takes place over ten days in the middle ofDecember - an opportunity to assess the strengths and weaknesses of thebest teams from the different confederations.
Brazil will be there, alongwith Mexico, South Africa, Australia,Uruguay, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Czech Republic.And at stake will be a striking new trophy which bears the name of KingFahd of Saudi Arabia.
The event is the first FIFA/Confederations' Cup, to be played from 12 to21 December in what has often been described as the world's mostbeautiful stadium : the King Fahd Stadium on the outskirts of Riyadh,the capital of Saudi Arabia, famous for its unique tented structured andscene of the final and other matches of the 1989 FIFA/Coca-Cola WorldYouth Championship.
The same stadium has also been host to the first two editions of theIntercontinental Championship, hosted by Saudi Arabia on behalf of theAsian Football Confederation in 1992 and 1995. Argentina, the SouthAmerican champions from 1991, won the first of these two tournaments andthe EURO 92 champions, Denmark, won the second. But now the event hastaken on a new dimension by becoming an official FIFA event, held againin Riyadh as a sign of respect for the country which gave birth to theevent five years ago.
The concept is basically the same : to invite the champions of each ofthe continental championships to contest a tournament among themselves.Hence the composition of the eight-team field :
The previous two invitation tournaments had aroused great interest amongthe Saudi public and also captured a fair amount of international mediaattention. Only four teams took part in the first event in 1992, butthey produced plenty of goals. Saudi Arabia beat the USA in the firstgame but then lost the Final to Argentina, 1-3, the South Americanshaving defeated Côte d'Ivoire 4-0 in their own first match. The USA tookthird place by beating Côte d'Ivoire 5-2. Saudi Arabia's matchesattracted crowds of over 70,000.
In 1995, the field was expanded to six teams, in two groups of three.Japan and the home team were eliminated in the first round, leavingMexico to face Nigeria in the third place match (where the CONCACAFchampions won on penalties after a 1-1 draw) while Denmark produced afine performance to beat the Argentinian cup-holders in the Final, 2-0.
Now the elevation of the tournament to official FIFA status, with thebacking of Chevrolet as presenting sponsor, the support of other FIFAsponsor companies and the continuing patronage of the Saudi royalfamily, assures it an even greater success this time.
The timing of the tournament is especially interesting, coming as itdoes so soon after most of the contestants had gone into the hat at theWorld Cup draw in Marseille. It will give the teams a first opportunityto weigh each other up, with the prospect of valuable psychologicalpoints to be gained at this early stage by winning against a potentialWorld Cup opponent.
But success in the FIFA/Confederations' Cup will bring prestige in itsown right, for by definition the competition brings together a handfulof the world's strongest national teams. The African and Asianchampions, in particular, will be out to prove that their continentaltitle is every bit as hard won as those in Europe and South America,while the aim of the representatives of Oceania and CONCACAF will nodoubt be to show that their own championships, neither of which are ofsuch long standing, are already producing winners who can compete withthe best.
As an official FIFA competition, the Confederations' Cup gives teams theright to call up players from their club teams as for any officialmatch, and the stars are expected to be out in force under the desertnight sky. Having had the privilege of automatic qualification forFrance 98 (sometimes considered a dubious privilege as it eliminates thepossibility of competitive matches), Brazil will be using the tournamentto put their players seriously through their paces, while of courseSaudi Arabia and their neighbours from the Emirates will be spurred byparticularly strong local support.
With all the games in one stadium and the teams living under one roof,organisation of the tournament comes close to being a competitionmanager's dream. But the double-header schedule format, with gamesalmost every day for a week and a half, will make for an intensiveschedule that will ensure that the winners will be well worthy of thehonour.