Russia readies for Confederations Cup

Ben McKay
Australia stands to benefit most from participation in the Confederations Cup

The sporting halfway house that is the Confederations Cup begins this weekend, prompting the same question for football fans around the world.

What is the point of the tournament?

For FIFA, it's the next best thing to the World Cup - an elite eight-nation tournament laying the groundwork for their showpiece event in 2018.

But the global body has not committed to a tournament in 2021 yet, saying it will not be held by 2022 Cup hosts Qatar due to the heat.

For Russia, it's a chance to fine-tune ahead of hosting sport's biggest show next year.

After a trying decade for Russian football, they might even win a game too. They kick off the tournament against New Zealand on Saturday night (Sunday morning AEST) in Saint Petersburg.

Players called up for the tournament say otherwise but must see the event as a delay to their summer holidays.

And fans with allegiances outside the competing nations are unlikely to be tuning in.

But for Australia, the Confederations Cup is both a means to an end and a worthy competition in its own right.

As Oceania champions, it's at this tournament that the Socceroos have achieved their best results at a global level.

In 1997, Australia were runners up to Brazil in the tournament's first official staging.

And it's in Russia this month that coach Ange Postecoglou has the opportunity to chase high honours.

Once again, the ambitious Postecoglou stated his aim to win the tournament before arriving in Sochi for their opener (on Tuesday morning AEST), against world champions Germany.

And why not?

Australia's group stage opponents - Germany, South American champions Chile and African Cup of Nations winners Cameroon - are intimidating opponents.

But not unbeatable.

The Socceroos have a win and a draw against the Germans in their last two outings, with the World Cup winners resting many of their senior players to keep them fresh for next year's title defence.

A positive result when they meet in Sochi will make qualification for the semi-finals firmly on their radar.

So while this barely glorified tournament may not set the pulses racing, it is a crucial barometer for the health of Australian football, 12 months out from the World Cup.

The other group contains hosts Russia and continental champions Portugal, Mexico and New Zealand.

The tournament isn't without fears.

Like any major tournament, the threat of security breaches and hooliganism are firmly on the radar, though thought to be unlikely.

Russia's dire record on racism in the stands has prompted a new anti-discrimination measure allowing referees to stop matches if needed.

The four stadia involved are all new builds, with questions around the state of the pitches - and more serious accusations about an absence of labour rights during construction.

Rather than these issues in the spotlight, tournament organisers will be hoping that Cristiano Ronaldo - arguably the world's best footballer - seizes the moment.

Real Madrid's super attacker will be looking for a first FIFA tournament win with Portugal, to cap off one of the finest 12 months in world football.

Ronaldo has won the European Championships with Portugal, Spanish league title, Champions League and Club World Cup with Real and lifted his fourth Ballon d'Or in the past year.

Adding a Confederations Cup to that list might just bring a little more glory to the World Cup's little brother.