The Confederations Cup – A curious weather vane for the world

Smoke, or steam, or some other white smokey substance, billowed forwards and upwards from the road. The gathered crowd began to run backwards, away – away from the cloud, away from the slowly oncoming line of riotgear-clad police officers. It was tear gas, dispersing protests in Brazil in 2013 which surrounded the Confederations Cup.

There are those who say that the Confederations Cup is a meaningless non-event (barring the boring tests of footballing infrastructure in the next year’s World Cup host nation). This is incorrect.

FIFA go home


2001: South Korea and Japan

The Confederations Cup is actually a very young tournament. It started life as the King Fahd Cup, a tournament with the same qualification requirements as the existing tournament, but an entirely Saudi Arabia-organised affair. For the third King Fahd Cup, FIFA took over and renamed the tournament the Confederations Cup, though this 1997 edition of the competition (whichever name you call it) was still held in the Gulf State.

It was a biannual event until 2005, which marked the start of the exclusively pre-World Cup staging, but it was the 2001 tournament which was the first to act as a dry run for the big event the following year. The build up to Japan and South Korea’s Confederations Cup, however, was far from simple.

It was one of the few lobbying campaigns where the Prime Minister of a bidding nation brought up the example of a 1930s Olympic marathon runner. Sohn Kee-chung was the first ever medal winning Korean Olympian when he won gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. As he climbed the podium, it was the Japanese flag that was unfurled and anthem that was played. Sohn competed under the name Son Kitei too, the Japanese version of his name, the version in the language of Korea’s current occupiers.

Deciding important things like who hosts the final in a co-hosted tournament and whose name is first on the tickets is a thorny issue, but it is even more so when one of the nations was annexed by the other’s Empire for 35 years. South Korea’s Prime Minister, Lee Hong-koo, brought up the case of Sohn Kee-chung to make it clear that sensitivity in these proceedings was absolutely necessary so that an ‘already stressed’ relationship did not flare up again.

Both nations had bid for the World Cup independently, and the decision to award the competition to both nations was, writes academic Alastair McLauchlan, ‘a statement of hope, [but] also one of desperation, aimed strategically at avoiding the inevitable fall-out which would accompany a decision in favour of either of the two quarrelsome contenders’.

It was not simply the practical issues of the World Cup which caused issues, but non-sporting issues as well. In early 2001, the Japanese Ministry of Education approved a new history textbook written by a group of conservative scholars. The book downplayed Japanese aggression and expansionism in the Sino-Japanese wars, the Korean annexation, and World War Two, including the particularly sensitive topic of ‘comfort women’, women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial army in their occupied territories.

Estimates of the number of comfort women vary largely, but even the lower limits have the figures in the tens of thousands; the highest in the hundreds of thousands. Opposite the Japanese embassy in Seoul, a bronze statue of a young girl stares out at it, in remembrance of the comfort women.

Tensions still exist, though there is a sense that the tournaments forced the two countries to come together – a little bit, at least. The Confederations Cup got off without a hitch, with both nations doing relatively well, a precursor to their performances at the World Cup. Japan may only have reached the round of 16 in 2002, but they were eliminated by a Turkey side who went on to reach the semi-finals.


2005: Germany

Four years later, in 2005, the emphasis was firmly on the sporting matters rather than the political. Though Germany were runners-up in South Korea and Japan, this was bookended by poor showings at European Championships. ‘Euro 2000 was a semi-disaster. No: a total disaster’, Thomas Hitzlsperger says in Das Reboot, ‘then 2004 brought confirmation that we couldn’t simply go on. Something had to happen, right now’.

This ‘something’ had been in place since the late 1990s. A combination of bidding for the 2006 World Cup and a poor showing in France at the 1998 World Cup convinced the German FA to improve the country’s youth system. The ‘ineptitude’ at Euro 2000, as Raphael Honigstein writes, ‘pulled the rug from under the last doubters’ feet’. Germany’s third place at their own Confederations Cup ‘saw an outbreak of mild euphoria at last’, the public ‘exhilarated and worried in equal measure’ by the attacking style. Hitzlsperger again: ‘The Confed Cup showed everyone that we could play good football’.

But it was not just on the pitch that the winds of change swept. The Confederations Cup also brought something else – a lot more modern than German football success, but no less recognisable in 2017 – Jurgen Klopp.

It was here that Klopp made his debut to the world (or ZDF viewers, at least) as a TV analyst. Klopp was, to quote Honigstein, ‘a revelation’, speaking to viewers ‘as a friend in a pub might’. Jan Doehling, a sports editor at ZDF, said that ‘If he had started a political party, they would have voted him into government immediately’. But even more important than politics, the level of tactical detail which Klopp brought to the mainstream ‘genuinely broke new ground’.

As well as the performance of their men’s national team on the international stage, Germany is now one of the nations at the forefront of tactical development and understanding. It may well be that the Confederations Cup (and, of course, the World Cup which followed) were turning points for both.


2009: South Africa

A milling crowd of fans, proudly wearing the shirts of their home nation, flock to the Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg. Nearly 60,000 fans will be there, eager, hungry to devour this special night of sport. South Africa will be trounced, but the crowd may not care too much – they have already wrapped up the series against the British and Irish Lions and the game tonight, football of the rugby variety, is a dead rubber.

That night was July 4; nine days earlier the South African football team had played their semi-final of the Confederations Cup against Brazil, where they also lost (although only 1-0), to a respectable crowd of 48,000.

The attendances of the two tours are interesting to compare. The Lions tour yielded a trend that one would expect – steadily growing attendances throughout the Lions’ warm-up matches, with huge crowds for the official Test matches against South Africa themselves.

The Confederations Cup was slightly different, although some of the fluctuation was dependent on the stadium. Ellis Park in Johannesburg drew larger crowds, generally, than the Royal Bafokeng stadium in Rustenburg, for example. Yet South Africa’s final group stage game against Spain in Bloemfontain only attracted around 2000 more individuals than their second group stage game against New Zealand in Rustenburg.

What’s more, the game against New Zealand actually drew more fans than the game against Spain when compared to the other matches that were played at those stadiums during the group stage. Bloemfontain’s other two group stage matches averaged a crowd of just over 29,000 – South Africa’s group game against Spain an increase of 9,000 then – while Rustenburg’s other two averaged just over 22,000 – South Africa’s group game versus New Zealand giving a boost of 14,000.

In all stadiums bar Rustenburg, peak Confederations Cup attendances fell below maximum capacity by around or at least 10,000. In Rustenburg, thanks to the Bafana Bafana match against New Zealand, this gap was closer to 5,000. That group stage game against the small Oceanic nation drew a larger crowd than South Africa’s third place play-off against Spain – an attendance which fell below the capacity by around 10,000. The two Lions Tests held at grounds featuring Confederations Cup matches, unsurprisingly, beat the highest attendances that FIFA’s tournaments brought to those stadiums.

This is all to say that the attendances at the Confederations Cup, while actually fairly strong, seemed to suggest that they were partly driven by the spectacle of the event rather than the sport. There was a fear before the South African World Cup of ‘white elephants’, that the stadiums built for the event would soon become largely empty relics. This has certainly happened.

In a paper for the journal Leisure Studies called ‘Hosting major sports events: the challenge of taming white elephants’, the researchers developed a score for stadiums build for a particular sporting event after that event had taken place. The score (SUI) was based on the number of events at the stadium and the attendances at those events compared to the maximum available. If a stadium annually hosts 20 events with maximum attendances of 50,000 then it gets a score of 20.

The highest scoring stadium in their study was Turner Field in Atlanta (of their 1996 Summer Olympics) with an SUI of 50. The highest score that a stadium used in the 2010 World Cup received was an SUI of 4.87. Of the five stadiums built for the South Africa tournament for which data was available for the study, the average SUI was 2.268. As the researchers concluded, ‘the 2010 tournament has contributed to an over-capacity of venues in a country where football already had major problems attracting big crowds before the World Cup’.

It was not hard to predict that coming, even before 2009. Even so, none of the stadiums used in the Confederations Cup were built specifically for the World Cup, although one – Rustenburg’s Royal Bafokeng stadium – received an extension. Barring 646 fans in England’s group game against the USA, this extension was not required in either Confederations or World Cup. If these stadiums could not come close to capacity for the Confederations Cup, how were the brand new grounds going to be filled once the FIFA train had rolled out of town?


2013: Brazil

The Confederations Cup protests were beyond widespread. 300,000 people filled the streets in Rio, and demonstrations took place in another 80 cities, the Guardian reported at the time. The total turnout may have been as high as two million people – around or larger than the population of Manchester. The protests seem to have been ongoing ever since.

Like with so many public uprisings, it was started by a relatively mundane spark. A rise in bus fares in São Paulo led to calls for the president to be impeached on corruption charges. The police’s hands started to get heavier. Sympathy for the protests, which had been holding up city infrastructure and a tendency for turning a little towards violence, started to build.

Operation Car Wash, the investigation into the corruption which surrounds the upper echelons of Brazilian politics and the state-controlled Petrobras oil company, started in 2014. Key figures in the government were alleged to have taken bribes to award contracts to construction companies at inflated prices. Just a few days ago, President Michel Temer was charged with accepting bribes – the first time that a sitting Brazilian president has faced charges. A third of his cabinet are also under investigation.

But Brazil’s problems do not just stop at politician’s being corrupt. The country’s economy has suffered since being one of the BRICS countries – the ‘exciting’ name that economists gave to the major emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – in the early 2000s. Part of this is due to global financial decline and part of it is due to China’s boom, which led to it buying products Brazil was selling, disappearing. During the boom, instead of saving for a rainy day, Brazil spent the money coming in (although some economists argue that they should have spent even more). Whatever the economic theory, unemployment has almost doubled to 12 million in the past two years.

This is all in the shadows of the two ‘mega-events’ (as they’re known in academic circles) which Brazil has held, the World Cup and Olympics. The World Cup cost Brazil around $11bn, and economists have long written about how hosts rarely benefit economically from these tournaments and costs often spiral away from the original estimates.

In relation to the upcoming Russian World Cup, Martin Müller – a scholar from the University of Zurich – has outlined how these mega-events take control and ‘seize’ their hosts. Amongst other things, infrastructure projects – often used as justification for the mega-event, that they will give an excuse to invest in public services for example – are the first thing to be cancelled when costs inevitably spiral. In Russia, 10 of the 12 stadium projects will cost at least 100% more than the initial projections.

All this comes back to Brazil, 2013. A mixture of a rise in bus prices – an economic cost many felt they couldn’t afford, the corruption of officials, and the spectre of an upcoming FIFA event in the Confederations Cup provided the perfect storm for protests which would continue until the present. Of all of the Confederations Cup, Brazil likely provides the strongest case of the Confed Cup weather vane effect.


2017: Russia

And this brings us to Russia, and this year’s tournament.

On the footballing front, the hosts went out in the group stage. It’s been oft-commented on during the competition that performance in the Confederations Cup does not translate to the World Cup, with no winners of the former going on to win the latter the following year. However, we saw earlier how Germany’s success in their edition of the tournament helped to galvanise the nation, and this year’s edition may have confirmed the fears of Russia football fans. They are not a strong team, and if Vladimir Putin hoped to flex some soft power (rather than his current apparent favourite of the electoral variety) with a good showing at the World Cup it seems likely that he will be disappointed.

Even more doping allegations have come to light, this time touching on football rather than the Olympic sports. The international political climate is tenser than it has been in a good few years, though this doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect on the run-up to the World Cup. Some, such as a Crimean football photographer speaking to World Soccer in May, suggest that the World Cup has put Russia on best behaviour. Well, better, at least.

Crimean clubs are in limbo, unable to participate in the Ukrainian or Russian leagues. Some fans and players would like to participate in Russia, just so that they’re able to take part in European competitions again, but ‘nothing will happen with Russia until after 2018, TSK Simferopol club photographer Anton reckons. ‘Russia is already so nervous about losing the World Cup so they will not do anything to upset FIFA or UEFA before that’.

If anything, the Confederation Cup’s weather vane may be blowing in the direction of FIFA itself. Barring blackface at a parade before the tournament (and I acknowledge this is a large incident to push to one side with the word ‘barring’), there has been very little news of racism or hooliganism. Given Russia’s history and reputation, and the events of Euro 2016, this is surprising.

Whether this situation will stay the same during the tournament itself remains to be seen, but FIFA’s handling of the homophobic ‘puto’ chant at goal kicks has shown that the organisation can clean up aspects of the game when it wants to. It seems likely that FIFA has taken care to make sure that the worst incidents of racism and hooliganism don’t occur during this tournament or the one next year. It would not be unfair to suggest that self-interest plays a large role in this.

With the Qatar World Cup coming up, with all of the workers’ rights abuses and corruption allegations that are wrapped up in it, FIFA will need their PR department to be working round the clock. The Confederations Cup is a test-run for the World Cup, and, in some ways, Russia may well be a test-run for Qatar. FIFA also posted a loss of $369m last year, part of which it blames on a loss of sponsor confidence following the ‘FIFA-gate’. For the sake of the organisation, it needs to keep the ship as steady and unshaken as possible.

Throughout its existence as a pre-World Cup competition, the Confederations Cup has had a curious weather vane quality to it. Time will tell what this summer’s tournament taught us, but FIFA’s success at making it apolitical and absent of most social issues – VAR being the main, and benign considering the alternatives, talking point – may be what it is remembered for.


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