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International football

Confederations Cup provides plenty of highlights ahead of World Cup

The 2013 Confederations Cup was marked by mass protests across Brazil. From a sporting perspective, however, there were many memorable moments that gave fans good reason to look forward to the World Cup.

The Confederations Cup had plenty to enjoy as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup. The hosts dazzled on the pitch, led by football's biggest young star Neymar. The heavyweights of Europe clashed in a dramatic, down-to-the-wire penalty shootout. A team of amateurs from a tiny island nation captured the neutrals as the ultimate underdogs.

Despite the fun on the field, though, the tournament was overshadowed by nationwide protests. In every city where matches were being played and outside every stadium, people demonstrated. Many people are, understandably, upset at the costs the Brazilian government is bearing by hosting the Confederations Cup, next summer's World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Billions of public dollars are being spent on stadiums that could otherwise be directed toward improving things like education and infrastructure.

But looking at the Confederations Cup from a sporting perspective, football fans have a lot to be excited about as the World Cup draws near.

Neymar shines

When thinking of the on-field highlights there is no better team to start with than the hosts. Brazil had the opportunity to showcase their young talent on the world stage. The likes of Neymar, Paulinho and Bernard did not disappoint.

epa03746411 Brazilian National soccer team striker Neymar celebrates scoring the opening goal against Japan during their FIFA Confederations Cup 2013 match between Brazil and Japan at the National Stadium of Brasilia, Brazil on 15 June 2013. EPA/FERNANDO BIZERRA JR +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

There is little doubt left about Neymar's ability

Neymar in particular stood out. The 21-year-old attacker attracted world attention while playing for Santos, but continued to remain in Brazil until he signed a contract with Barcelona this summer. Outside of South America, fans have had little opportunity to see Neymar except for the odd Brazil friendly match and his disappointing exploits at the Club World Cup.

Brazil have had a dearth of competitive fixtures because they haven't had to go through the gauntlet that is South American World Cup Qualifying - they're already in the tournament as hosts. His lack of playing experience at the top level of football left many wondering if he was more hype than talent.

But boy has the young man impressed. He scored inside of ten minutes in Brazil's first two matches, then set up both goals in the semifinal win against Uruguay. With his impressive talent comes his on-field play antics - the diving, the faked injuries - but no doubt fans are excited to see him in the Champions League and La Liga come autumn.

Another young Brazilian, Paulinho, ran his country's midfield like a seasoned pro, not the 24-year-old journeyman who has played for six teams in seven years, including clubs in Lithuania and Poland. And who could forget Bernard, the speedy 20-year-old winger who came off the bench to massive applause during the semifinal in his home city of Belo Horizonte?

European showdown

Reigning European and world champions, Spain, met Italy in the tournament's semifinal - a rematch of the Euro 2012 final. When the two sides played under similar circumstances last July, it wasn't so much of a game as it was a display of Spanish dominance. Spain won 4-0 in what was the most lopsided European Championship final in history.

epa03763587 Daniele De Rossi (L) of Italy vies for the ball with Alvaro Arbeloa of Spain during the Confederations Cup semi final match between Spain and Italy at the Castelao stadium in Fortaleza, Brazil, 27 June 2013. EPA/OLIVER WEIKEN

The Spain v Italy drama went down to the wire

This time things were different. It was a tactical showdown on the highest level. Italy spread play wide with their defensive back three and pair of wingbacks. Spain Spanish Coach Vicente Del Bosque countered by bringing on winger Jesus Navas.

The two sides traded periods of control - first Italy pressured Spain, then the two sides balanced out, then it was the Italians who had to survive the Spanish attacking onslaught as the minutes ticked away. In an uncommon but entertaining move Javi Martinez, the defensive midfielder from Bayern Munich, was brought on to play as a striker in extra time.

Finally it came down to penalties. Spain prevailed 7-6 and it was the key man Navas who scored the winner.

Ultimate underdogs

The team that might stand out more than any other at the tournament also happened to be its worst. Tahiti won the hearts of all the neutrals at the Confederations Cup. Made up almost entirely of amateurs (there is one pro who plays in Greece), they never stood a chance against the likes of Spain, Uruguay and Nigeria. But that didn't stop them from being fun.

(130617) -- BELO HORIZONTE, June 17, 2013 () -- Tahiti's players celebrate after scoring during the FIFA's Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 match against Nigeria, held at Mineirao Stadium, in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, on June 17, 2013. (/David de la Paz) (itm)

Steevy Chung Hue makes history for Tahiti

Steevy Chong Hue will go down in his country's history books for scoring that wonderful leaping header against Nigeria - Tahiti's only goal of the Confederations Cup. They celebrated as if they'd won the tournament, not like a team down 3-1.

Tahiti allowed 24 goals in total during their three games, including 10 against Spain, but there is no doubt their presence made the competition better.

Looking ahead

So with plenty of highlights during the warm-up tournament, how will the World Cup play out on the field in a year's time?

Brazil did not win the last time they hosted the tournament in 1950 (Uruguay beat them 2-1 in the final), so the pressure is on the five-time champions.

It is difficult to see Neymar, Paulinho and Bernard not being better players by next summer. Add to that players like Leandro Damiao and Ramires, who missed the Confederations Cup with injuries, you have to consider the Brazilians to be true favorites.

The Spanish, meanwhile, are at their peak. The semifinal match against Italy proved that they once again are the top dogs of Europe. The masterful Xavi may be getting old (he turns 34 next January) but the rest of Spain's outfield lineup that night was under 30.

Spain already won this summer's Under-21 European Championship and their squad at the Under-20 World Cup in Turkey contains an incredible amount of promise. Like Brazil, they have a wealth of emerging talent and it is difficult to imagine them not being the favorites to knock off hosts Brazil.

In fact, if the two sides were to meet in the final next year, it would be a fitting match of football's true world powers. In that sense, the Confederations Cup has already given us the perfect preview of the World Cup.

DW.DE