Germany, Chile promises to be superb finale to 2017 Confederations Cup
On Sunday night, we may be crowning the last-ever Confederations Cup champion. Asked directly about it amid rumors that the competition might be replaced by some kind of global Champions League-lite extravaganza reserved for clubs, FIFA President Gianni Infantino was distinctly noncommittal.
"Right now, the future of the Confederations Cup is the final," he said. "What happens after that is something we will analyze like we do with all our competitions. At this stage, there isn't much to say."
On paper, a competition pitting the champions of each confederation against the world champion and the host of the next World Cup ought to have both appeal and raison d'etre. If it is scrapped -- and especially if it's scrapped in favor of a club-driven competition -- it will speak volumes about where international football ranks relative to the club game.
These are considerations which likely will interest neither Chile nor Germany ahead of Sunday's final. Each has the opportunity to make history in its own way. For Chile, it would mean winning their third consecutive international tournament after the two Copa America competitions. Scoff all you like at the notions of three-peat, but the fact is this would be unprecedented. For a country which had won nothing on the big stage until two years ago it would be an extraordinary feat, built on the backs of a golden generation and three special managers: Marcelo Bielsa, who initiated the cycle, Jorge Sampaoli, who delivered the first Copa America, and Juan Antonio Pizzi, who had the humility to know what to change and what to keep.
For Germany, it has a different meaning. This is not the side that won the World Cup or which contested the Euros a year ago. Just three of these players were in the squad that triumphed in Brazil and, of those, only Shkodran Mustafi actually played, and he's likely to be on the bench today. Joachim Low's decision to give a number of his big guns -- from Mesut Ozil to Manuel Neuer, from Toni Kroos to Sami Khedira, from Thomas Muller to Mats Hummels -- the summer off did undeniably take some gloss off this competition.
The Confederations Cup in its current incarnation may be less than two decades old, but nobody had treated it like this before. Yet in many ways, Low is vindicated as the summer of rest may prove crucial when the World Cup rolls around in less than 12 months.
What's more, his combination of understudies and up-and-comers has proven to be up to the challenge. They've rolled through the tournament putting three goals past both Cameroon and Australia and four past Mexico. The likes of Julian Draxler, Leon Goretzka and Timo Werner have looked as proficient as the starters they were replacing. The only side that have slowed them, appropriately enough, are Chile, who held them to a 1-1 draw in their group stage encounter.
It's worth reflecting for a minute on the immensity of riches at Low's disposal. Not only does he coach the world champions, but he reached the Confederations Cup final without eight or nine bona fide regulars. Meanwhile, Germany's U21 side were crowned European champions Friday, upsetting heavily favored Spain, and there are no fewer than eight players -- nine if you count Leroy Sane, who is injured -- in the Confederations Cup squad who would have been eligible to play for the U21 team at the Euros. Evidently, they weren't needed.
The contrast with Chile is striking. Germany's most-capped player is Julian Draxler, with 34. There are no fewer than 11 Chile players with more international appearances. The Germany side who stuffed Mexico in the semifinal had 158 caps at kickoff: the Chile side who dispatched Portugal had 870. Seven likely starters tonight were also starters when Chile played Spain at the 2010 World Cup. By contrast, none of Germany's probable XI had even been capped at that stage, and more than half had yet to make their professional debuts.
It's not just a case of young versus old either. Chile are one of those national teams that play like a club side. There's a chemistry there borne not just out of longevity -- this group have been together for a long, long time (four of the XI were on the under-20 side that fell to Argentina in the semifinal of the 2007 World Cup) -- but out of repetition and tactics as well. The methods of Sampaoli and Bielsa left their mark. The system isn't just intense and balls-to-the-wall, it's also predicated upon carefully synchronized movements of the sort you rarely see at the international level.
Germany, on the other hand, have been largely thrown together, and it's a credit to Low's coaching that in the space of a couple weeks, he has turned them into a coherent team. Even though, most likely, it was less of a priority than evaluating individual talent and winning games in the short term, they look like an accomplished unit.
On paper, the narrative is simple. Can Chile's older legs sustain the demands of the intense high press against a younger, physically stronger (and bigger) side blessed with individual quality and flat-out speed in the form of Werner and Julian Brandt?
Individual matches, however, rarely play out the way you expect them to. So perhaps it's more appropriate to think in terms of a side on the cusp of making history with its golden generation vs. a group who know the best is yet to come, and this could be the beginning of a cycle, rather than the latter stages of it.
Either way, we're in for a doozy. And if this really is the last-ever Confederations Cup match, there's reason to believe it'll go out with a bang.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.