Confederations Cup 2017: Winners and Losers
Go on, then.
But whether you believe the quadrennial eight-team competition is a major tournament or nothing more than a series of tune-up friendlies for the World Cup host nation, it never fails to produce its share of talking points.
With the 2017 edition now in the books, let’s look back at who made the most of their stay in Russia and who might’ve been better off staying home.
Let’s start with the obvious.
It’s not like Joachim Löw hadn’t already secured his place as a world-class manager. After all, the 57-year old – who’s been in charge of die Mannschaft for over a decade now -- led Germany to their fourth World Cup title in 2014 and has never failed to reach at least the semifinals of every major tournament since 2008.
But his managerial display this past month in Russia might’ve been some of his best work yet.
Instead of succumbing to pressure from home -- and from the host nation -- to field a first-choice squad of German stars, Löw opted to give a combination of young guns and overlooked veterans a chance to shine on the international stage.
You know what happened next.
Jogi’s group responded by going undefeated over five matches, capturing the title over a full strength Chile squad that had won each of the last two Copa Americas.
He tinkered with formation and lineups throughout the tournament but settled on an attacking combination -- Timo Werner up top, Lars Stindl and Leon Goretzka in support from midfield – that demolished Mexico 4-1 in the semifinals and gave the Chileans fits on the counter attack while keeping them at arms’ length on the defensive end in the final.
If we’re honest, Löw's decision to give Bernd Leno a shot between the sticks in the opener against Australia may have been his only misstep. (More on Bernd later.) In short, this was another master class from one of the game’s best managers and a reminder of how good -- and how deep -- the German talent pool really is.
Imagine what Löw will do next summer with the full squad at his disposal.
Can you really be a winner while simultaneously losing your job?
If you’re Claudio Bravo, apparently you can.
While Manchester City’s signing of Benfica’s Ederson for $45 million -- a world-record fee for a keeper -- means it’s increasingly likely Bravo’s one-year tenure as the Etihad No. 1 has come to an end, the 34-year old still showed he’s got a future in goal for someone after his Confed Cup performances for Chile.
After missing the first two matches of the group stage with a knock, Bravo recovered in time to help secure advancement for La Roja with a perfect performance in the semifinal penalty shootout against Portugal.
While none of the Selecao’s three spot-kicks were particularly well-placed – could Nani possibly have stuttered more in his approach? -- they still needed saving, and the former Barcelona man came up with the goods each time.
The Chilean captain will likely need to find a new club home this summer, but after his display in Russia, his services should be in demand once again.
You could easily insert any of the young German stars into the Confed Cup winner’s circle, but the 22-year old Schalke midfielder might’ve made the biggest impression over the past three weeks. (Just ask Bayern Munich and Arsenal.)
Goretzka scored three times in four matches -- tied with teammates Werner and Stindl for the most in the competition -- but his influence extended beyond his clinical finishing.
The 6-foot-2 midfielder showed the capability of playing effectively in a variety of positions, whether as a creative force in the park’s center, a false nine further forward, out wide on the wing or deeper in perhaps his preferred defensive role.
His aptitude to know when to get forward and his ability to finish chances won’t be forgotten soon by Low, and if he can build on the success of the summer in the upcoming Bundesliga season, it’s hard to imagine Goretzka won’t soon become a regular in the German “A” squad like some of his other cup-winning teammates.
Always a winning choice. Thank you, Chilean Men’s National Team, for reminding us all that the best place for a tattoo is as close to the jugular vein as possible.
Russia (As World Cup Host Nation)
Anytime a new country emerges to host a major tournament, the typical questions regarding preparedness, cost and safety usually come to the forefront.
With Russia, the unease surrounding its political dealings – and those within FIFA, for that matter -- lent to a much different conversation in the lead-up to this dry run before next summer’s main event.
But despite that backdrop, and even though the Confederations Cup included just one-fourth of the teams and the sites that will feature in 2018, the prospects for the Republic to be a successful World Cup host were only enhanced by the experience of the past month.
The stadiums themselves and the atmosphere in and around them were exemplary; the infrastructure -- specifically the new Fan ID system -- appeared to go off without too many hiccups; and any concerns of violence were thankfully unsubstantiated.
While France’s EURO 2016 was plagued by hooliganism -- spurred on in part by Russian ultras, if you recall -- Russia’s Confederation’s Cup 2017 was as incident-free as possible, with only relatively minor traffic delays and mild consternation about VAR implementation the only things most have found to complain about.
Yes, this is the friendliest, smallest “major” international tournament out there. And yes, there are World Cup stadiums that still need finishing and a number of transportation issues that will need sorting out before next June.
But for now, FIFA couldn’t have asked for a better showcase for Russia as a host nation than the one we just witnessed.
Russia (As Relevant World Cup Participant)
Most would say Stanislav Cherchesov’s side performed as expected in their bow as hosts of a major international tournament. Their defeat of minnows New Zealand and subsequent losses to Portugal and Mexico ensured them a third-place finish in Group A, the spot most would’ve predicted they’d finish.
However, the question remains: is that good enough?
In all honesty, the Russians aren’t there yet as a footballing power -- after all, this is a team ranked 63rd in the latest FIFA rankings, just below Uzbekistan and just above Haiti -- but any hope of home field advantage spurring them on to great things next summer was diminished by what was displayed this past month.
Yes, injuries to mainstays Alan Dzagoev, Artyom Dzyuba and several others made this squad much more inexperienced than the one the hosts should field in 2018, but none of the young talent brought in seemed to click in Cherchesov’s system, and it showed with an attack that could only muster two goals and nine shots on target in three matches.
Unless they’re gifted a particularly easy group -- and bear in mind, this is FIFA we’re talking about here -- it's a strong possibility that Russia will join South Africa in 2010 as the only World Cup hosts to fail to reach the knockout stage on home soil.
The 2016 Iceland-inspired narrative that little countries can pull off the incredible took a bit of a hit in Russia, as little guys New Zealand and Cameroon bowed out with a whimper.
The All-Whites of Oceania lost all three matches by a combined score of 8-1, with their lone shining moment of the tournament coming against Mexico, when winger Ryan Thomas picked a fight against half of El Tri’s outfield players as stoppage time approached.
As for Cameroon, the African champions had pre-tournament aspirations of qualifying for the semifinals, but a lack of finishing quality (minus an exquisite chip from Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa against Australia) and poor defending doomed them to another winless group stage exit.
Despite the poor showing from the underdogs this time around, it’s likely next summer’s World Cup will still give us a few Cinderella success stories. Just don’t count on New Zealand or Cameroon to supply the goods.
While CR7 helped lead Portugal to the semifinals with two goals and an assist in the group stage, you know why he’s on the shortlist of disappointments from his time in Russia.
Marred by a tax fraud case in Spain, sexual assault allegations in America and persistent rumors of a forced move out of Madrid, the four-time Ballon D’Or winner has admittedly had a tough month off the field. To make matters worse, he chose to sit out a decisive penalty shootout for the second time in the last four major tournaments.
You’d think Cristiano would’ve learned from the backlash of the 2012 EURO semifinals, but once again, he chose to watch his teammates flounder from the spot as he waited to take a glory penalty that never came.
There's no denying he's still one of the best players in the world, but this summer has proven once again that things are never straightforward when it comes to Ronaldo.
Mexico In Big Matches
The familiar narrative of El Tri crashing out spectacularly against elite teams in knockout rounds continued in Russia, as after going unbeaten in the group stage, Mexico again lost their footing when it mattered most.
Yes, the 4-1 semifinal defeat to Germany wasn’t quite as decisive as the score indicated -- at least according to Juan Carlos Osorio -- and yes, it wasn’t the 7-0 hammering Chile put on them in last summer’s Copa America, but make no mistake. This three-goal defeat to a German “B” side with a “major” final beckoning will be an albatross hanging around Mexico’s collective neck until next summer.
German Goalkeepers NOT Named Manuel Neuer
Bernd Leno of Bayer Leverkusen turned what should’ve been an easy German victory over Australia into a real contest after gifting -- gifting -- the Socceroos two goals on either side of halftime.
As you’d expect, his manager came to his defense in the postgame mixer, but that didn’t stop Löw from confining/chaining the 25-year old to the bench for the remainder of the tournament.
In Leno’s stead, Jogi turned to Barcelona No. 1 Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, and while MATS deserves credit for impressive eight-save performances against Mexico and Chile in the knockout stages, he had a bit of a howler of his own against Cameroon and set the table for Alexis Sanchez to equalize in the final after a flubbed save, only for Sanchez to fire wide from close range.
In other words, let’s just say Neuer’s job is safe for the foreseeable future.