Confederations Cup ends with a bang
There's nothing like a memorable final to paper over the cracks of a tournament. In many ways, the 2009 Confederations Cup provided more questions than answers ahead of next summer's World Cup. With security breakdowns, sparse crowds and those excruciating horns, South Africa still has plenty of work to do before the big event.
But the important thing is that the soccer prevailed. Beginning with the final day of Group B play, when the United States earned an improbable berth into the semifinals, through to the final, when it built a two-goal halftime advantage only for Brazil to come roaring back to win 3-2, the competition featured enough drama and unpredictability to make everyone forget about the off-field problems.
Even the hosts, so uninspiring during their first three games, finished strong by putting a major scare into Brazil during the semifinal and later Spain in a thrilling third-place match (a 3-2 win for Spain), thanks in large part to talented playmaker Steven Pienaar. But it was no doubt the emergence of the Americans that lit up the tournament.
It seemed so unlikely after the first two games -- emphatic defeats at the hands of group favorites Italy and Brazil -- that manager Bob Bradley's side would be remembered as a revelation, but a comprehensive victory over early sensation Egypt proved the catalyst for a remarkable turnaround.
Consequently, several members of the squad, such as striker Jozy Altidore, central defender Oguchi Onyewu and midfield dynamo Michael Bradley, firmly established themselves as players on the world stage. (Bradley was cruelly forced to miss the final because of a questionable sending-off in the semifinal upset of Spain, however.)
In the end, the American dream ran up against a Brazil side unlike any other in recent memory. Dunga might never win over his critics, and some of his tactical moves boggle the mind, but the young manager has instilled in Brazil a certain degree of toughness the South American giants have lacked often in the past.
Dunga's team is epitomized not by Kaka's elegant strides nor the trickery of Robinho but by the grit of players such as Felipe Melo and captain Lucio. The Brazilians' style may be unconventional, but it has proved effective enough. After winning the Confederations Cup for a record third time, Brazil ought to be regarded as the favorite to win the 2010 World Cup.
Such a tag previously belonged to Spain, but this competition might well be remembered as the time and place when and where doubt began to creep back into the minds of the Spanish players. The European champions perhaps paid the price for an exceedingly easy first-round group. New Zealand, Iraq and South Africa offered little resistance as Spain waltzed into the semifinals with a perfect record having not surrendered a goal.
After putting four goals past New Zealand in the first 20 minutes of the opener, with Fernando Torres bagging a hat trick, Spain spent the remainder of its time in the competition stuck in second gear, unable to conjure up its best form when the level of opposition finally demanded it.
Injured midfielders Marcos Senna and Andres Iniesta were both sorely missed, as Cesc Fabregas did little to stake his claim for a starting position in Vicente del Bosque's lineup. Even Torres, after his incredible start to the tournament, surprisingly lacked a cutting edge when it was desperately needed against the United States.
Italy, meanwhile, appears ill-equipped to launch a credible defense of its World Cup crown. Marcello Lippi promised a new-look side in the lead-up to the tournament but backed down somewhat when it came time to pick a squad, and he retreated even further in his lineup choices during the competition.
Unless names such as Davide Santon and Giuseppe Rossi begin to appear on the lineup sheet more frequently than those of Fabio Cannavaro and Vincenzo Iaquinta, the Azzurri's stay in South Africa might be just as short-lived next summer.
About the only consolation for the Italians is the fact that no Confederations Cup winner has gone on to lift the World Cup. Brazil romped to the title of this event four years ago, thrashing archrival Argentina in the final, yet failed miserably to produce the goods the following year in Germany. Indeed, if history is any indication, Brazil might well have been advised not to walk away with this trophy. But the Brazilians just couldn't help themselves, for as they proved once more on Sunday in scoring three unanswered goals in the second half, winning is in their blood.
Team of the tournament
GK: Tim Howard, USA: Surrendered nine goals in four starts yet came away from this competition with his reputation enhanced. A heroic performance against Brazil in the final actually delayed the inevitable. He also played a starring role in snapping Spain's 35-match unbeaten streak in the semifinals.
RB: Maicon, Brazil: Narrowly edges South Africa's Siboniso Gaxa, who was among the revelations of the tournament. The Brazilian actually began the competition as a reserve, as Dunga opted for Daniel Alves in Brazil's opener against Egypt, but later emerged as his side's best and oftentimes only attacking option.
CB: Oguchi Onyewu, USA: Imposing central defender likely made himself a great deal of money this summer on the strength of his performances in this tournament. The former Newcastle reject was an intimidating presence throughout, most notably in the win over Spain.
CB: Lucio, Brazil: Always commanding at the back despite having to adjust to three different partners during the course of the competition. Amazingly enough, he also provided an extra dimension to Brazil's attack with his dashing runs forward. He supplied the dramatic winner in the final.
LB: Basem Abbas, Iraq: The man known as the "Iraqi Roberto Carlos" was perhaps the only bright spot for Bora Milutinovic's side, which failed to find the back of the net in three group matches and showed virtually nothing going forward. Abbas was particularly impressive in an otherwise drab scoreless draw against South Africa in the very first match of the tournament.
M: Andrea Pirlo, Italy: Perhaps the only Italian player other than Giuseppe Rossi to come away with his reputation intact. Highly influential in the victory over the United States in the opening match for both sides, Pirlo also was Italy's only threatening player in a humbling defeat to Brazil later on in the group stage.
M: Xavi, Spain: Outstanding in the group stage as Spain notched three wins to set an international record for consecutive victories. The top assist man in the competition further cemented his status as his country's most important player. He was let down by his teammates somewhat in the semifinal defeat to the United States.
M: Kaka, Brazil: Awarded the Golden Ball as the tournament's most outstanding player. Truth be told, Real Madrid's newest galactico was not at his best, save for a match-winning performance in the first game against Egypt, but he still was behind all of Brazil's best moves and set up the tying goal in the final with a trademark run into the box.
M: Landon Donovan, USA: A remarkable couple of weeks for a player who has not always produced his best on the big stage. Even in the early defeats, Donovan was the one shining light for the U.S., and when the rest of the team came around, he grew in stature even more, including scoring a brilliant goal against Brazil in the final.
F: Luis Fabiano, Brazil: Finished as the competition's top scorer with five goals. The swashbuckling striker has improbably emerged as the successor to Ronaldo with the national team. In a tournament perhaps lacking a dazzling performer from start to finish, he probably deserved the Golden Ball more than Kaka.
F: Mohamed Zidan, Egypt: Began the tournament with an impressive two-goal effort against Brazil. Sadly, he limped off in the second half of the next match against Italy with a hamstring injury and was forced to miss the group decider against the United States, as a depleted and exhausted Egyptian side crashed out of the competition.
David Mosse is a soccer researcher for ESPN International, contributing to shows such as "Press Pass" and "Fuera de Juego." He also blogs for ESPNsoccernet.