The start of the Confederations Cup is essentially the first day of Advent before the Christmas that is the World Cup. Played in the World Cup’s host country the year before and consisting of 8 teams—the champion of each continent, the host, and the defending World Cup champs—this tournament is unimportant in the grand scheme of world soccer. However, it’s also a perfect early summer offering for fans already suffering from withdrawal without the constant stream of games from the top European leagues. It’s the chance to see a miniaturized version of what could happen next year in Russia, and that should both excite and freak you out.
Half of these eight participating teams can lay some claim to relevance on the world scale—those being Mexico, Portugal, Chile and Germany. El Tri has made it out of every World Cup group stage since 1994, Portugal is fresh off a Euro 2016 victory, Chile is arguably the best squad in South America, and Germany is Germany, the most consistently great international team of the post-Spain 2008-12 generation. Each of these countries will be fine-tuning their final rosters as they prep for a deep run next year.
Lumped in with those four squads are Russia, Australia, Cameroon, and New Zealand. They mainly exist to pad the schedule, produce some lopsided scores, and allow for some buildup before the marquee games. Unfortunately, New Zealand and Australia are in different groups, so we won’t get what would surely be the most intense rivalry match of the summer. If we’re lucky, though, maybe one of these less heralded teams can get its shit together and put together some fun performances. (The best candidate for that would probably be Cameroon, fresh off an Africa Cup of Nations trophy.)
Still, there are some intriguing match ups, even on the opening weekend. Most notably, we have Mexico-Portugal. There, the best team in CONCACAF will try to show it’s on a level beyond merely “pretty good,” as Cristiano Ronaldo’s squad attempts to silence the critics who hated its unimpressive, boring victory in the Euros last summer. Even better, Germany and Chile face off later in the first week in what could realistically be a deep World Cup knockout round preview.
Regardless of the legitimate if tempered excitement for these matchups themselves, the reason for this tournament’s existence isn’t actually to see which of these teams is best. The real purpose of the Confederations Cup is for the host country to work out any bugs before the meaningful games start in the following year’s World Cup. And while every World Cup host nation comes with baggage, Russia’s version of the tournament has the potential to be particularly disastrous.
Russian hooliganism might be the worst of any country; the presence of Russian goon squads at Euro 2016 almost got the national side kicked out of the tournament. Russian politicians weren’t exactly quick to condemn the incidents, and some even believe that the violence was ordered by Vladimir Putin.
Then there’s the tendency for Russian soccer fans to be extremely racist. FIFA has given the referees the ability to stop matches in the event of racist incidents, but these problems aren’t just limited to the 90 minutes of play. There will need to be effective safety measures taken outside the stadiums as well.
These potential soccer-related dangers, combined with the fact that LGBT people should not be visiting Russia under any circumstances, give this year’s Confederations Cup a terrifying potential for an international incident, one that wouldn’t just cast a shadow over this tournament, but raise even more questions about next year’s World Cup. While the countries involved are focused on their squads’ performances and what they mean for 2018, FIFA officials better be doing everything they can to protect supporters and players. Blind optimism and a weak-ass anti-discrimination protocol won’t be enough.