Saturday, July 15, 2017

Surviving a dry summer

THE DRAG OF THE CLOSE-SEASON IN ODD-NUMBERED YEARS

Surviving a dry summer.
Summers in these off-years are hard to get through for football fans like me.

By off-years I mean those ending in odd numbers which have neither the World Cup nor European Championships to get excited about.

July is the dryest of dry seasons in years like this, with the daily mash of transfer gossip a poor substitute for the meat of real football news.

With some reluctance I find myself getting into summer sports here in England like cricket and tennis. When I was a child I looked in the newspapers for the football section and found only the Australian Pools forecasts.

In truth we all need a break of course and a reminder that there are other things in life. But breaking such a deep bond, even for a few weeks, is never easy.

I am already harking back to a less than vintage domestic calendar just passed, wondering if we will ever see the young wonders of Ajax or Monaco shine again, now their assets have inevitably begun to be stripped.

Neither won their respective continental cups of course, a reminder that pragmatism trumps creative genius all too often. Perspiration beat inspiration once more as Real Madrid won another UEFA Champions League without setting the world alight, while Jose Mourinho's tactical masterclass in winning the UEFA Europa League final for Manchester United was more proof the devil has all the best tunes.

England winning the U-20 World Cup was a brief highlight and an exciting final, but we are kidding ourselves if it relates much to the national team's prospects.



I mean no disrespect to fans of the CONCACAF Gold Cup either, but when the finals feature Curacao, French Guyana and Martinique, this competition sits some way behind the Euros and the Copa America, so much so that there has been talk of merging it with its southern neighbour for good, a format experimented with last summer in the Copa America Centenario.

Mexico, the traditional Central American powerhouse, has sent a B team this summer after its first eleven contested the Confederations Cup, a clear vote of demotion, while the USA's squad has a decidedly experimental feel to it with Russia 2018 qualification the clear priority after their poor start.

The Confederations Cup remains an odd tournament, a decidedly lukewarm, pallid and ultimately meaningless impression of the World Cup the following summer. Making a list of World Cup winners is relatively easy for the committed fan, but try to make a list of Confederations Cup winners and you have to stop and think.

Another problem with the cup is that the line-up for the finals always seems a little bizarre. This is for two reasons:

One, because it takes teams who have gone off the boil since winning their regional competitions as opposed to nations freshly qualified for the World Cup who are in good form.

Three of the eight in Russia this summer had won their cups in 2015 and one in 2014.

And secondly because some FIFA regions are much stronger than others, a final eight lineup looks much better in the World Cup than the Confederations Cup, where only half of the finalists could realistically stand a chance of making it to the quarter-finals next summer.

New Zealand relish it for their only chance at crossing swords with the stars but the persistent presence of such a week football nation diminishes the tournament as well.

Many fans seem to forget it is even taking place and as a journalist at the 2005 tournament in Germany I still felt duty bound to ask players how they felt about participating in it after a gruelling season.

Qualifiers France (1999), Germany (1997 and 2003) and Italy (2003) even declined to take part.

What started off as the invitational King Fahd Cup in Saudi Arabia only really justifies its existence now as a dry run for the following summer's World Cup finals host.

We should not worry excessively that Germany's less than best eleven winning the 2017 edition means a certain victory for the Mannschaft in Moscow next summer: No previous Confederations Cup winner has gone on to lift the biggest prize the following year.



Having said that, no European nation had ever won the World Cup outside of Europe until Germany broke that duck in 2014.

Germany's Russian conquest this summer combined with their U21s recapturing their European crown in Poland serves as a piquant reminder to the world which country remains the top dog in soccer.

Any football nation which aspires to greater things surely should be aping the German youth system and the DFB's overall planning instead of dreaming of Barcelona, Brazil and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Studying the German youth sides should be instructive: Their U21s took England apart in the 2009 final 4-0 and then using the same tactics and some of same players did the same to the national team, 4-1, at the 2010 World Cup.

Now both the Confederations Cup and the U21s are over I am scrambling around to feed my lifelong addiction to the Beautiful Game.

I have attended both those competitions as fan as well as journalist and enjoyed the experiences but they can only be hors d'oeuvres to the main courses of the Henri Delaunay or Jules Rimet trophies.

There really is only one remedy:

Bring on 2018 asap.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

No comments: