The FIFA 2017 Confederations Cup concluded in St. Petersburg on Sunday, with Germany claiming their first-ever title at the tournament thanks to a 1-0 win over Chile.
Here’s our pick of the standout moments from the past two weeks in Russia.
Opening game joy
The tournament’s opening ceremony and first game were the perfect way to get things started.
More than 2,000 performers put on a spectacular show before hosts Russia defeated New Zealand 2-0 in front of assembled dignitaries – including President Vladimir Putin, FIFA chief Gianni Infantino and Brazilian legend Pele – to give the home fans the start they craved.
While things went downhill for the Russian team after that, it was at least a moment of joy for the home supporters.
Young German stars
German boss Joachim Low selected the youngest squad at the tournament, with an average age of just 24 years and four months (compare that with fellow finalists Chile, at 29 years and one month).
Opting to leave the majority of his more established stars at home, Low came in for criticism for fielding what many derided as a ‘B’ team.
However, Germany’s young stars proceeded to set the tournament alight with some wonderful attacking displays, particularly in the games against Cameroon and Mexico, making a mockery of their relative inexperience.
The next generation of Germans stars has emerged, with Leon Goretzka and Timo Werner especially impressive.
Low was vindicated as the team beat Chile in the final, and he now has the (not entirely unpleasant) headache of figuring out who he’ll pick to return to Russia for the World Cup in 12 months’ time.
Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo arrived in Russia amid the backdrop of a swirling tax scandal and questions over his future at Real Madrid.
Any notion that this would distract him from the task at hand in Russia were dismissed a little over half an hour into Portugal’s opening game against Mexico. That’s when Ronaldo brought the ball down effortlessly before racing through and playing a lovely pass to set up teammate Ricardo Quaresma to score.
Ronaldo scored the winner against hosts Russia in the following game and was on target against New Zealand in the final group game. While he didn’t manage to lead his team to the final, the Portugal No. 7 drew the crowds in Russia and gave enough glimpses of magic to justify his star billing.
There was also a touching moment when the Portugal star led young wheelchair user Polina Haeredinova out onto the pitch for the game against Russia in Moscow, also giving the 10-year-old a peck on the forehead.
There was a liberal dose of excitement across many of the games at the tournament.
Portugal and Mexico played out an entertaining 2-2 draw in their opener, with the Europeans looking certain to claim the win when Cedric gave them the lead with less than five minutes left, only for Hector Moreno to nod home in injury time.
Mexico also played their part in a crazy finale to the semifinal against Germany. With the game appearing to be done and dusted at 3-0 to Germany with just minutes left, Marco Fabian pulled one back with a thunderous strike from all of 35 yards out, as Mexico again piled forward, only for Amin Younes to score with a German breakaway.
Mexico were also on the end of late third-place playoff drama, when Portugal’s Pepe scored an acrobatic equalizer in injury time when it seemed El Tri would claim third spot thanks to Luis Neto’s own goal.
The Portuguese went on to win thanks to Adrien Silva’s extra-time winner, as tempers flared and two players, as well as Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio, were dismissed.
The Chile-Portugal semifinal also saw a frantic final period when Chile hit the woodwork twice in the last minute of extra time, before ‘keeper Claudio Bravo produced an inspired penalty shootout performance to send his team into the final.
There was plenty of upset to go around as well. Hosts Russia started brightly in the opening game, but went down 1-0 to Portugal and lost a crucial group stage decider 2-1 against Mexico, despite a thrilling game and gutsy performance when they went down to 10 men following Yury Zhirkov’s red card.
New Zealand, Cameroon and Australia all played their part in the tournament despite their tags as underdogs, with the Kiwis coming close to a major upset when they led Mexico at half-time in their group game before going down to a 2-1 defeat, and Australia giving Chile a huge scare in their 1-1 final group game.
Russia 2017 saw landmark occasions for players across several of the competing teams.
Alexis Sanchez became Chile’s all-time top scorer on 38 goals in the 1-1 group stage draw against Germany – a strike that was also the 400th in Confed Cup history.
Russia’s Igor Akinfeev, Australia’s Tim Cahill and Portugal’s Joao Moutinho all reached a century of appearances for their respective nations.
At 38 years and four months, Mexico’s Rafael Marquez became the second-oldest player in Confed Cup history when he came on in the 2-1 win against New Zealand, while the Kiwis’ Dane Ingham, who also featured in that game, became the tournament’s second-youngest player ever, at 18 years and one month old.
The VAR debate
Russia 2017 saw the first use of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology at a men’s senior tournament, as FIFA continues to trial the system ahead of the World Cup next year.
The use of the system was at the center of much of the controversy at the tournament, and threw up some major talking points, not least in the Chile-Cameroon, Germany-Cameroon, Russia-Mexico and Chile-Germany games.
While clearly a benefit in cases where it can remedy incorrect decisions relatively quickly – such as when Pepe’s goal for Portugal against Mexico was correctly given offside after a review – it has yet to convince many critics.
It’s problems were evident when confusion reigned in the Germany-Cameroon game after referee Wilmar Roldan dismissed the wrong player, and when Russia felt more than hard done-by after being denied two penalty appeals by the VAR in their must-win game against Mexico, despite replays appearing to show clear contact.
Likewise in the final, when Chile player Gonzalo Jara escaped with a yellow card after elbowing Timo Werner, despite the referee viewing the VAR and many expecting the outcome to be a dismissal.
In short, the system is still prone to human error, and cannot eradicate situations that, even when viewed multiple times, such as the Jara elbow, will always be open to interpretation.
Many issues will be ironed out as referees get to grips with its use, but the debate will rage on as to whether the interruptions to the game outweigh its benefits.
Stadiums and organization
The tournament has showcased some of Russia’s newest stadiums, including the futuristic-looking St. Petersburg Stadium – aka Krestovsky Stadium – which was the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies and matches.
While there were concerns over the state of the pitch in St. Petersburg, and complaints from Ronaldo that the grass was too long, it generally appeared to hold up well and was not a factor in any of the games played there.
Perhaps the best atmosphere was found in Kazan and Moscow, particularly when the hosts played there, as would be expected. Sochi seemed to have a more laid-back feel to games, with many fans being local holidaymakers.
Attendances were more than respectable, with more than half a million fans watching the 16 games throughout the tournament. More than 50,000 even turned out in St. Petersburg for the New Zealand-Portugal group stage game (Ronaldo no doubt being a big draw factor).
While the organizers will be hoping Russia can have a decent run at next year’s World Cup, which would certainly help the overall atmosphere, there’s been more than sufficient evidence of the locals’ appetite for international football, with or without their team.
In terms of organization, there has been praise for the security side of things, where controls have been extremely stringent.
That led to some long queues getting into the grounds, and there were also some comments on volunteers needing to brush up on their language skills a little more, but these are things that the Confed Cup aims to expose and remedy before the main event next summer.
The FAN ID system also appears to have functioned well, and fans have been provided free travel between and around the host cities. Plus it added extra security, not allowing those blacklisted to purchase tickets to the games.
The tournament has even drawn praise from foreign sources often critical of Russia, with the BBC and Guardian both giving positive appraisals of the atmosphere.
Numerous incidents at the tournament set social media tongues wagging. RT Sport’s very own Danny Armstrong garnered attention with his (tongue-in-cheek) caption of when Russian boss Stanislav Cherchesov met Ronaldo after the match in Kazan.
When (Brazilian) Ronaldo sat next to Argentina legend Maradona during the final it also provoked plenty of comment.
Last, but certainly not least – the fans.
Supporters of all eight nations provided a wonderfully colorful backdrop to proceedings across the four hosts cities.
Perhaps no fans were quite as vibrant as the Mexico supporters, who backed their team with all their usual vigor.
The Russian fans also took the Chile team to their hearts, with a noticeable bias towards La Roja among those at St. Petersburg Stadium for the final.
The atmosphere was praised by FIFA chief Infantino at his closing press conference, while German skipper Julian Draxler also penned a warm letter of thanks to the fans and organizers for his team’s time in Russia.
Overall, the organizers will be delighted with how things have gone. There will be lessons learned, of course, but it all bodes well for next year’s World Cup. That’s good news for football fans the world over.