The History of the Confederations Cup

Confederations Cup Trophy

Confederations Cup Trophy

As we look forward to an unexpected final between Brazil and the United States in the 2009 Fifa Confederations Cup we look at how the competition was established and developed.  Has a tournament with a troubled history finally ‘made it’?

The Artemio Franchi Trophy and the King Fahd Cup

The precursors of the Confederations Cup as intercontinental international trophies were the Artemio Franchi Trophy and the King Fahd Cup. Neither managed to establish themselves as prominent fixtures in international consciousness, but both — along with the Afro-Asian Cup — did embed the idea of regular competition between continental champions.

The first Artemio Franchi Trophy, contested by the European and South American champions, was won by France (winners of Euro ’84), who beat Uruguay (winners of Copa America ’83) 2-1 in 1985 at Parc des Princes, Paris. It’s fair to say the trophy was not a resounding success, with just over 20,000 showing up in Paris, and a repeat affair not taking place for another eight years. In 1993, Argentina (Copa America ’91) beat Denmark (Euro ’92) on a penalty shoot-out after a 1-1 tie, in front of 34,683 in Argentina.

At the same time, the Afro-Asian Cup had been developing as a contest between the Asian and African champions. It was first held in 1978 between Iran and Ghana, though never completed as political problems in the former country led to cancellation of the second leg. It wouldn’t reappear until 1985, but was then played regularly until 1997, when a dispute between the two confederations led to a decade-long hiatus.

Competitions such as these showed some demand for intercontinental contests, but it was the King Fahd Cup, inaugurated in 1991, that first showcased intercontinental competition including more than two confederations (if we exclude the “Little World Cup” of 1980, a somewhat different one-off conception deserving of its own post).

The King Fahd Cup — or “Intercontinental Championship” — was first held in 1992, featuring Argentina (Copa America ’91), the United States (CONCACAF Gold Cup, ’91), the Ivory Coast (African Nations Cup, ’92) and the hosts, Saudi Arabia (Asian Cup ’88). The local crowd flocked to see Saudia Arabia’s two games, a 3-0 win over the U.S. in the “semi-final” (also the opening round!) and a 3-1 defeat to Argentina in the final in front of 75,000.  There was less interest in the other semi-final, attended by 15,000 as Argentina crushed the Ivory Coast 4-0, or in the third place play-off, won by the U.S. in front of under 10,000 spectators.

King Fahd II Stadium, Riyadh

King Fahd II Stadium, Riyadh

The tournament was a minor success and, bankrolled again by King Fahd’s kingdom, it returned in 1995. It was expanded to six teams, to accommodate the European champions Denmark as well and to allow Saudi Arabia to enter as hosts, since Japan had won the previous Asian Cup. Also participating were African champions Nigeria and Gold Cup winners Mexico. Two groups of three gave the tournament added longevity, with Denmark and Argentina advancing to the final. In a half-full King Fahd II stadium, the Laudrups of Denmark led the Europeans to a 2-0 victory.

The FIFA Confederations Cup

Fifa sniffed a commercial prospect and took over the contest from 1997 on, though for the final time, it was played in Saudi Arabia that year, with the cumbersome double title of the FIFA/Confederations Cup for the King Fahd Trophy. For the first time, every Fifa Confederation was represented, with Oceania (represented by Australia) appearing for the first time. The tournament was expanded to eight teams, with the previous World Cup winner (Brazil) also invited along with the Asian Cup runners-up UAE (presumably because Asian Cup winners Saudi Arabia already had automatic entry as hosts). Brazil crushed Australia 6-0 in the final, the latter having somehow squeaked that far despite winning only one of their five games in regulation time.

The Fifa Confederations Cup (as it would from now on simply be known as) had been established on the international stage, but it still lacked a solid purpose, and the refusal of certain continental champions to participate undermined its legitimacy over the next decade (Germany opted out in ’97 and ’03 and France in ’99). The always shifting qualification procedures confused the public, such as Mexico’s entry into the ’03 tournament based on their win in the Confederations Cup two years earlier.

That 1999 tournament saw the Cup moved away from Saudi Arabia for the first time, and the switch to Mexico proved to be a rousing success: almost one million attended the matches, at an average of 60,625, almost triple the average of two years previously. A goalfeast – 3.44 goals per game, and stellar performances by Ronaldinho, Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Saudi Marzouq Al-Otaibi with 6 goals each — certainly helped matters. Mexico’s epic 4-3 win over Brazil in the final was watched by 110,000 at the legendary Estadio Azteca.

Yet it still wasn’t entirely clear why the tournament was taking place when and where it was. Why was it held every two years, and where would it go next?  In 2001, the eventual long-term solution was found, as South Korea and Japan co-hosted the Cup as a dry run for their role as World Cup hosts the next year. Crowds were down somewhat, with a 557,191 total attendance (34,824 per match), though most matches saw stadia close to capacity – helped by Japan’s surprising run to the final, where they were defeated by France.

Perhaps as reward for winning the ’01 tournament, France were chosen as hosts for the ’03 event. This tournament, though, would mark the low point in the history of the event, as Cameroon’s Marc-Vivien Foé died on the pitch of heart failure during their semi-final with Colombia. His death sparked a debate about the demands the international calendar placed on top players, and the value of the Confederations Cup. Sepp Blatter hardly helped matters by immediately stating the final would go ahead three days later with many questioning whether Cameroon should play at all. Though Fifa initially promised to consider renaming the event after Foé, nothing came of that (there will be a brief ceremony before tomorrow’s final remembering the Cameroonian).

Marc-Vivien Foé

Marc-Vivien Foé

The Confederations Cup did return two years later, once again as World Cup dress rehearsal, this time in Germany. A pretty impressive turnout — 603,106 (37,694 per match) — saw a run to the semis by the hosts, who were beaten by eventual champions Brazil, who in turn defeated Argentina in the final 4-1.

For the first time, the Confederations Cup was not held two years later, and Fifa announced it had settled on a definitive formula: the Cup would be held every four years by the next World Cup hosts. All six confederation champions, the host nation and the reigning World Cup winner would be the entrants — though for the South American and European champion only, participation remains optional.

It seems this formula, along with Fifa’s smart decision to package the rights to the Confederations Cup with the World Cup, has finally established the tournament as a serious proposition. The opportunity for nations to compete at the next World Cup’s venue and for the host themselves to get a meaningful warmup and operational dress rehearsal gives it practical purpose. And it’s a fine carrot for the less prestigious continental championships to offer their winners.

Perhaps most importantly, there is finally a sense that the world cares and is watching. As U.S. forward Charlie Davies posted on his Twitter account today ahead of the final,  “off too [sic] training, We gotta do it big tomorrow on ESPN!!!! Shock the world part II”.

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