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A miracle; a tragedy; and new hope for a forgotten giant.

Right from the first whistle it was apparent that the Confederations Cup, the curtain raiser to Brazil’s year long football feast, was going to be something special, and just a little bit unique.

It began, appropriately, with Neymar. Three minutes in to the opening match of the tournament against Asian Champions Japan, while carrying the hopes of the whole of Brazil on his shoulders, Barcelona’s new signing hit the sweetest of volleys from over 25 yards out into the top corner of the Japanese goal. It was the start the hosts wanted and they dominated from start to finish, though they were made to wait until three minutes into the second half to double their lead. It was Paulinho with the goal, bringing a low cross from Dani Alves under control before firing past Eiji Kawashima from just inside the area, in injury time Brazil added the much deserved gloss to the scoreline, as Oscar threaded through an inch perfect pass for substitute and last minute call up Jo, to slide a calm finish under Kawashima for 3-0, giving Brazil the start they wanted in Group A.

Neymar: Big Stage? No Problem. Now for Europe

Neymar: Big Stage? No Problem. Now for Europe

Day 2 saw Italy and Mexico enter the fray in Group A, and it was the Italians who took the points in a tight encounter. Andrea Pirlo marked his 100th cap for The Azzurri by opening the scoring with a beautifully curled free kick from 30 yards. But Mexico fought back and equalised before the interval through a Javier Hernandez penalty, Andrea Barzagli was somewhat fortunate to get away with a yellow after bringing down Giovani dos Santos in the area. Both sides went close in the second but with little over ten minutes to go Italy got the win that they just about deserved, Mario Balotelli out muscled Javier Rodriguez in the Mexican defence turning the Mexico captain just outside the area before firing into the roof of the net to secure all three points for Italy.

The second match of the day saw the reigning World and European Champions, Spain, enter the fray against a Uruguay side unexpectedly struggling in World Cup qualification. The Uruguayans currently sit fifth in the South American zone, good enough only for a playoff against the winner of the fifth place playoff in Asia between Uzbekistan and Jordan. It was the Spanish who began much the stronger. Their best chance early on came 10 minutes in Fabregas hit the foot of the post from distance, and 20 minutes in Spain took the lead, Xavi’s corner was only half cleared to Pedro, whose volley was deflected, wrong footing Fernando Muslera in the Uruguayan goal. 12 minutes later Spain doubled their lead when Fabregas’ through ball cut through the Uruguayan defence to find Roberto Soldado fired emphatically past Muslera for 2-0. Spain continued to dominate in the second half, and though they failed to add a third, Luis Suarez’ brilliant three kick 2 minutes from time was only a consolation for Uruguay.

The only game on Day 3 brought together two teams who had arrived in Brazil under incredible circumstances. Nigeria had arrived less 48 hours before their first match having missed their first flight due to a dispute over player bonuses. Tahiti meanwhile had fought against all the odds that come with playing in the Oceania region when you’re not New Zealand, and, ranked 138th in the world by FIFA, would be satisfied simply by finding the back of the net in Brazil. Nigeria took just five minutes before Uwa Echiejile strike took deflections of two Tahiti defenders on its way to the back of the net. Nnamdi Oduamadi then picked up two of his own, the second a gift from Tahiti ‘keeper Xavier Samin, but 3-0 at half time and some impressive attacking football would have been the most Tahiti could have hoped for. In 54th minute the moment that the football world was hoping, and waiting for finally came. A deep corner from Marama Vahirua, the only full time player in the Tahiti side, saw Jonathan Tehau rise higher than Efe Ambrose to head home from a tight angle, sparking delirious celebrations on the pitch, in the stands and in front of TV screens around the world (well, it did with mine). Tehau then became the first player to score at both ends in the Confederations Cup, turning Oduamamdi’s cross into his own net, before the Nigerian completed his hat-trick and Echiejile scored one of his own for a 6-1 scoreline.

Jonathon Tehau heads home for the greatest sporting moment in Tahitian history

Jonathan Tehau heads home for greatest sporting moment in Tahitian history

The second round of group matches began with hosts Brazil facing Mexico, and once again, it was all about Neymar. Nine minutes in and Neymar volleyed in a half cleared Dani Alves cross. It was Neymar who then turned creator for Brazil’s second goal late on, using just one bit of skill to get past two Mexican defenders and centre for Jo to once again get on the scoresheet after coming off the bench. The lack of clear cut chances may however have worried Brazil. Italy and Japan then produced arguably the game of the tournament. The Japanese raced into a 2-0 lead in just 33 minutes, courtesy of a Keisuke Honda penalty and a brilliant three step flick; turn; volley from Shinji Kagawa. Just before half time however Italy gave themselves a lifeline as Daniele de Rossi headed home from a corner.

Five minutes into the second half Italy equalised when Emanuele Giaccherini got the better of Maya Yoshida, before the Italian’s cross was turned into his own goal by Atsuto Uchida. The comeback was complete for Italy when Mario Balotelli put them ahead from the spot after the Japanese captain Makoto Hasebe was harshly judged to have handled deliberately inside the area. Japan fought back however when Yasuhito Endo’s free kick was headed in by Shinji Okazaki for 3-3, before Kagawa headed against the bar from six yards out with the goal gaping. Japan were made to pay for that Kagawa miss when Sebastian Giovinco tapped home de Rossi’s cross from close range with just four minutes remaining. There was yet more drama as a Yoshida equaliser was ruled out for offside, meaning Italy survived to take all three points, while both Japan and Mexico were out.

The next day saw a match that many expected to break records, as World Champions Spain faced off against Oceanian minnows Tahiti. It took just five minutes for Fernando Torres to slot home from a tight angle and put Spain ahead. Surprisingly Spain had to wait until after the half hour mark for their second through David Silva, before Torres quickly added a third and David Villa tapped in for 4-0 at half time. Tahiti once again were winning many fans for their attacking style of play, for the second game in a row Steevy Chong Hue, the man who scored the goal to beat New Caledonia and take Tahiti to Brazil, was impressing with his pace on the wing. Despite that the Tahitians were no match for the quality of Spain, who went 5-0 with Villa’s second not long after the break, and Torres completed his hat-trick for Spain’s sixth before the hour mark. Villa then completed his hat-trick with a simple finish after Tahiti goalkeeper Mickael Roche mistimed his run off the line. Substitute Juan Mata made it eight, before Torres sent the stadium into raptures after hitting the crossbar from the spot. He quickly redeemed himself by rounding Roche for his fourth and Spain’s ninth. Roche was able to somewhat redeem himself with a couple of good saves but he could do nothing to stop David Silva’s turn and strike into the bottom corner to take Spain into double figures. Even so, given that Tahitian coach Eddy Etaeta said pre-match that he would be happy to score 1 if Spain hit 20, he was probably rather relieved to see Spain score only half that.

Given that both were expected to beat Tahiti and loose to Spain, the meeting between Uruguay and Nigeria was always likely to decide who would follow Spain out of the group. It was Uruguay who took first blood when veteran defender Diego Lugano tapped home Diego Forlan’s cross on 19 minutes. Nigeria hit back five minutes before half time when John Obi Mikel skipped past Lugano on the edge of the Uruguayan area before firing a great strike past Muslera to put Nigeria level. Into the second half and Diego Forlan, such a great servant to the Uruguayan cause, answered the call once more on his 100th cap, fed by Cavani he made his in from the left wing before firing exquisitely into the near corner to put Uruguay back in front. Nigeria pushed for an equaliser but it was Edinson Cavani who wasted the two best chances, blazing well over when through on goal and putting a clear header well wide, ensuring a nervy wait for Uruguay, but the South Americans held on for a vital win.

By now however, there was something other than football that was creating the headlines in Brazil. Protests were rapidly spreading and expanding across the country, as many living in poverty took a stand at both the equality gap in what is one of the World’s fastest growing economies, and the public cost of hosting next year’s World Cup and the Olympics in 2016. While FIFA have denied rumours both that the Confederations Cup could be cancelled and the World Cup moved to the USA, there is still more than a tinge of sadness at the fact that football is a cause of such issues in one of the most iconic footballing nations, and the even sadder truth is that if something is not done in the intervening year, these same issues will undoubtedly raise their head once again during next summer’s World Cup.

Back on the pitch the group stages drew to a close in dramatic fashion. Italy and Brazil went head to head for top spot in Group A and as a rather lacklustre first half drew to a close Brazil were awarded a free kick which was delivered by Neymar; headed on by Fred; saved by Gianluigi Buffon and tapped in on the by Dante. Not long into the second half the Italians produced a brilliant equaliser, a long ball from Buffon was flicked on by Balotelli to the ever impressive Giaccherini, who smashed it passed Julio Cesar from a tight angle. Just four minutes later Neymar scored his third stunner is as many games with a free kick from just outside the area to put Brazil back in front. Brazil then extended their lead when a good long ball from Marcelo found Fred, who was able to control, hold off Giorgio Chiellini and finish in style to make it 3-1 to Brazil. Italy once again fought back in what were controversial circumstances, as Brazil failed to clear a scrappy corner, Chiellini put the ball in the net, only to discover the referee had already awarded the Italians a penalty, before changing his mind and giving the goal. There was no fightback reminiscent of the Japan game for Italy however, as in the closing stages Marcelo’s shot was only parried to Fred by Buffon, and the Brazilian finished for 4-2. The result meant Brazil topped the group, Italy settled for second.

In the match between the two eliminated sides two Javier Hernandez headers put Mexico 2-0 up on Japan, who pulled one back in the closing stages through Okazaki. Hernandez then had a penalty saved by Kawashima in stoppage time before the hitting the crossbar from the rebound. Even so the victory will provide Mexico a much needed confidence boost ahead of a return to World Cup qualification, where they are battling to avoid being dragged below Honduras and into a playoff against New Zealand.

In Group B Spain comfortably secured top spot with a 3-0 win over Nigeria. Jordi Alba opened the scoring with a brilliant solo goal, twisting and turning past 3 Nigerian defenders before placing it into the bottom corner. Both sides had good chances, Sunday Mba tested Victor Valdes from distance, before Fabregas saw his strike come off the post. Spain did double their lead when Pedro’s cross was met by a diving Fernando Torres with 62 minutes on the clock. With two minutes to go supposed full back Jordi Alba found himself through in the Nigerian penalty area, and the Barcelona man calmly rounded Vincent Enyeama and rolled it in for his second and Spain’s third to confirm Nigeria’s elimination.

Meanwhile Uruguay faced Tahiti knowing a win would surely see them through to the semis, although mathematically, Tahiti could still qualify, it was a hope that lasted all of 77 seconds until Abel Hernandez headed home from an early corner to put Uruguay ahead with the fastest goal of the tournament. Hernandez doubled his and Uruguay’s tally soon after with some brilliant control to lift the ball over the defender and turn it round Gilbert Meriel in the Tahitian goal. Next on the scoresheet was Diego Perez, who was quickest to react when his own header came off the post, before Hernandez completed his hat-trick in first half stoppage time. Unlike against Nigeria and Spain, Tahiti’s attacking style of play was less prominent, oddly enough for a team who had previously lost 6-1 and 10-0, it seemed as if this was one game too many for the Tahitians. Not that that stopped them producing yet another memorable moment. Tahiti captain Nicolas Vallar conceded a penalty early in the second half, but, on his international debut, Meriel produced a good save from Andres Scotti. Yet again, the stadium celebrated. Scotti and Tahiti’s Teheivarii Ludivion were both sent off after two yellows, Ludivion received a standing ovation as he departed, Scotti didn’t. Nicolas Lodeiro tapped in for Uruguay’s fifth before Hernandez showed Scotti how to take a penalty making it six. Luis Suarez came off the bench to score two late on, in doing so becoming his country’s all time leading goalscorer, as Uruguay advanced comfortably. Tahiti meanwhile departed with some incredible memories, and the knowledge they have done themselves proud. Indeed, with full match fitness and experience, there is massive potential within their squad.

Into the knockout rounds and the first semi-final was a hotly anticipated South American derby between Brazil and Uruguay. After just 14 minutes Uruguay were gifted the chance to open the scoring when David Luiz brought down Lugano during a tussle as Diego Godin sent in a corner and Uruguay were awarded a penalty. Up stepped a confident looking Diego Forlan to take the spotkick, but it was Brazil celebrating seconds later when Cesar dived to his bottom right hand corner to deny Forlan. Brazil then capitalised on their second chance late on in the first half, as Paulinho’s lobbed forward was brilliantly controlled and volleyed by Neymar, Muslera could only parry to Fred who tapped in for 1-0. In the second half Brazil once again gifted Uruguay a chance at goal, as they failed to clear despite having several chances to do so, Edinson Cavani nicked the ball from Marcelo and unlike Forlan from the spot, was able to finish the job and equalise for Uruguay. For much of the second half it appeared as though the game was heading to extra time, Paulinho however, had other ideas. The midfielder rose highest to meet a Neymar corner at the far post and head the Selecao into a late lead and send Brazil mad. Coming into the Confederations Cup the final would have been a minimum target for Brazil, they had made it, just.

You don’t celebrate like that for a glorified friendly, this tournament means something

The second semi-final was a repeat of the Euro 2012 final between Spain and Italy. Last year Spain had charged to the continental title with a 4-0 win, and with Italy’s talisman Mario Balotelli out with injury, many expected another simple win for Spain. It was far from that.

Italy were much the better side from the start and Spain had Iker Casillas to thank after Christian Maggio outpaced Jordi Alba to get his head to a long ball only for Casillas to produce a good save. De Rossi then headed wide from a well placed Pirlo free kick, before Giaccherini, impressive once again, crossed deep for Maggio to head back across goal only for Claudio Marchisio, in for Balotelli, to head wide.

The Azzurri were unable to take their chances and the two sides would have to go for another 30 minutes. Almost from the start Italy squandered yet another chance as Giaccherini thundered against the post from close range. At that moment the momentum swung in favour of Spain, and Italy had Buffon to thank for staying on level terms. First the veteran keeper tipped a long range Xavi cross on to the woodwork, before getting a vital hand to a Jesus Navas cross. It would take penalties to separate the two sides, who had arguably produced the game of the tournament. If there were any nerves, Antonio Candreva did not show it, imitating compatriot Andrea Pirlo’s infamous Panenka penalty from last year’s Euros, to score the first penalty and send the Twitter world into overdrive. It set the tone as the next 11 penalties found the net without fail, before Leonardo Bonucci fired over to give Jesus Navas the chance to take Spain into the final, and Manchester City’s new winger calmly finish to take La Roja through 7-6 on penalties.

Spain celebrate the chance of an historic international treble

Spain celebrate the chance of an historic international treble

Italy gained some consolation with a penalty shoot out victory over Uruguay in the match for third place after a 2-2 draw. Davide Astori had tapped home Italy’s first after Alessandro Diamanti’s hit the post and then Fernando Muslera before landing at the feet of Astori. Edinson Cavani equalised for Uruguay after being played through Walter Gargano on 58 minutes. Diamanti then put Italy back in front with a stunning free kick curled over the wall from 20 yards out. Cavani then equalised once again for Uruguay with an even better free kick placed into the top corner with 78 minutes on the clock.

Riccardo Montolivo was sent off for Italy but neither side could be separated and for the second match in succession The Azzuri were going to penalties. Just three days earlier Gianluigi Buffon had conceded 7 out of 7 penalties, this time round however the veteran came back with a vengeance, saving from Forlan; Martín Caceres and Gargano to ensure Italy took home the medal they deserved over the course of the tournament.

The final brought together the two teams everyone expected, as hosts Brazil faced a Spanish side looking to complete a major international treble. Right from the start it was Brazil, whose fans once again raised the roof during the national anthem, who took an early, unexpected lead, as Fred scrambled home a blocked Neymar header. From then on in Brazil barely looked back, Oscar could have scored five minutes later but shaved the post from just inside the area, before a Paulinho lob almost left Casillas stranded. Casillas again came to Spain’s rescue on 32 minutes when Neymar brilliantly played Fred through. Spain then had their best chance of the first half when Mata played through Pedro, who thought he had equalised when he turned the ball past an onrushing Cesar, only for David Luiz to appear from nowhere to clear off the line.

Spain were made to rue that missed chance when just four minutes Neymar, Brazil’s hero of the tournament, played a one-two with Oscar to break in behind the Spain defence and smash past Iker Casillas, if Brazil were answering questions of themselves as a team, then Neymar was passing his individual test with flying colours. There was no let up for Spain after half time as Fred scored yet another at the start of the half, this one smashed home from a tight angle. Spain were then awarded a lifeline when Marcelo brought down substitute Jesus Navas in the area, Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers pointed to the spot. Sergio Ramos, who had scored during the semi-final shoot out with Italy, fluffed his lines in incredible fashion, sending his strike well wide.

By now Brazil were calm, confident and comfortable on the ball, providing an exhibition that many are more used to seeing be produced by their Spanish opponents, who were soon down to ten when Gerard Pique, who had produced a vital block from Gillardino against Italy in the semi, brought down Neymar as the Brazilian bore down on goal. With ten minutes to go Julio Cesar contributed his bit to the Brazilian cause with a superb save with outstretched hands to deny Pedro a consolation for Spain. Towards the end of the match Spain began to produce the type of football we are more used to seeing them produce, but even when the two substitutes Navas and Villa combined for the latter to curl a beautifully hit strike, Cesar was on hand to produce a brilliant acrobatic save and keep his clean sheet intact. It was simple in the end for Brazil, who fought fire with fire and provided an exhibition of passing football against the chief exhibitionists.

The Confederations Cup was an incredible tournament with massive positives for every team. Up until the final Spain showed their dominance in every sector; the Italians found a new lease of life; Uruguay showed much fighting spirit; Mexico’s win over Japan will give them massive confidence while the Asians can return home safe in the knowledge they will be back in Brazil next summer; Nigeria showed they have the quality to join them while Tahiti can return home with their heads held high and many incredible memories they will never forget.

The last word however can only go to Brazil, who celebrate even as I type this, safe in the knowledge they have united a nation and given an expectant population a new hope for when ‘The greatest show on Earth’ comes to their shores in 12 months time. Good night.

Post written by Toby Wilding
Twitter: @1tobywilding

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