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Mexico won the 1999 Confederations Cup on home soil. ((Allsport UK/Allsport))

It is touted by FIFA as the second-most important soccer tournament on the international match calendar.

Critics call it a superfluous irrelevance, nothing more than a thinly veiled cash grab concocted by soccer's world governing body.

It's a tournament that divides opinion like no other, and the spirited debate is expected to continue later this month when eight national teams gather in South Africa for the latest edition of the FIFA Confederations Cup.

From June 14 to 28, soccer's six continental champions — Spain (Euro 2008 winners), Brazil (2007 Copa America), Iraq (2007 Asian Cup), Egypt (2008 African Cup of Nations), New Zealand (2008 Oceania Nations Cup) and the United States (2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup) — will join reigning World Cup champions Italy and host nation South Africa in the latest edition of the storied, but often maligned, Confederations Cup.

Like past tournaments, this year's Confederations Cup serves as a dress rehearsal, allowing South Africa to work out the kinks ahead of next summer, when it hosts the FIFA World Cup.

"With regards to the teams that come in, it's great that you have the six confederation champions, including the reigning world champions, and the host nation involved. I think it gives some bite to the tournament," Canadian soccer commentator Dick Howard told CBCSports.ca.

Confederations Cup: By the Numbers

  • 1992 — Champion: Argentina. Host: Saudi Arabia. Top scorer: Gabriel Batistuta and Bruce Murray (2 goals). Total matches played: 4. Total goals scored: 18 (4.5 per match). Total attendance 169,500 (42,375 per match).
  • 1995 — Champion: Denmark. Host: Saudi Arabia. Top scorer: Luis Garcia (3 goals). Total matches played: 8. Goals scored: 19 (2.37 per match). Total attendance: 165,000 (20,625 per match).
  • 1997 — Champion: Brazil. Host: Saudi Arabia. Top scorer: Romario (7 goals). Total matches played: 16. Total goals scored: 52 (3.25 per match). Total attendance: 333,500 (20,843 per match). MVP: Denilson.
  • 1999 — Champion: Mexico. Host: Mexico. Top scorer: Ronaldinho and Cuauhtemoc Blanco (6 goals). Total matches played: 16. Total goals scored: 55 (3.43 per match). Total attendance: 970,000 (60,625 per match). MVP: Ronaldinho.
  • 2001 — Champion: France. Host: Japan and South Korea. Top scorer: Robert Pires and 6 other players (2 goals). Total matches played: 16. Total goals scored: 31 (1.93 per match). Total attendance: 557,191 (34,824 per match). MVP: Robert Pires.
  • 2003 — Champion: France. Host: France. Top scorer: Thierry Henry (4 goals). Total matches played: 16. Total goals scored: 37 (2.31 per match). Total attendance: 491,700 (30,373 per match). MVP: Thierry Henry.
  • 2005 — Champion: Brazil. Host: Germany. Top scorer: Adriano (5 goals). Total matches played: 16. Total goals scored: 56 (3.5 per match). Total attendance: 603,106 (37,694 per match). MVP: Adriano.

That being said, it hasn't always been smooth sailing for the Confederations Cup, as the competition has earned a less-than-favourable reputation over the years.

It's a novel idea, bringing the six continental champions and the reigning World Cup champion together for a winner-take-all free for all. The problem is that the round-robin competition is held shortly after the top pro leagues conclude their seasons, denying players a chance to enjoy their summer holidays undisturbed.

As a result, European and South American countries have routinely fielded their "B teams" or not even bothered to show up at all: Euro '96 winner Germany turned down the invitation to play in the 1997 Confederations Cup, while France (1998 World Cup champion) declined to participate in 1999.

World Soccer magazine editor Gavin Hamilton is not a fan.

"The Confederations Cup is an unloved competition whose saving grace is that it acts as a useful warm-up act for the World Cup finals," Hamilton recently wrote.

Exploiting player's death?

A macabre shroud cloaked the 2003 competition in France when Cameroon midfielder Marc-Vivien Foe collapsed on the field during a game against Columbia and died shortly after. He was 28 years old.

That the tournament continued on was controversial enough, but FIFA president Sepp Blatter was accused of exploiting Foe's death to ratchet up global media interest in the Cameroon-France final that unfolded days later.

"Blatter's enthusiastic endorsement of the suggestion to rename the Confederations Cup after Foe smacks of a brazen attempt to curry favour for the competition," wrote British newspaper the Sunday Herald. "Riding the coattails of legitimate grief and respect for the deceased father-of-two is not just crass, it's simply wrong."

Criticisms aside, some of the game's biggest and brightest stars — including France's Thierry Henry, Brazilian maestro Kaka and Argentine ace Gabriel Batistuta — have graced the Confederations Cup with their presence over the years.

The Confederations Cup evolved out of the Artemio Franchi Trophy, a 1985 match staged in Paris pitting France, the defending European champions, versus Uruguay, the South American title holders.

Seven years later, Saudi Arabia organized the King Fahd Cup, a competition that saw the hosts face off against the continental champions of South America (Argentina), Africa (Ivory Coast) and North America (the United States).

With the 1993 Copa America looming, Argentina fielded a full-strength team and ran roughshod over the Saudis in the final, earning a 3-1 victory to win the tournament and extend their unbeaten streak in international play to 20 consecutive games.

Paced by the fabulous Laudrup brothers, Denmark proved its surprising victory at Euro '92 was no fluke by dominating the six-team field at the 1995 King Fahd Cup, also in Saudi Arabia.

Victories over the host nation and Mexico sent Denmark through to the final where the daunting challenge of defending champions Argentina awaited them. Few gave Denmark much of a chance against an Argentine side that boasted Roberto Ayala and Javier Zanetti, but the Danes overwhelmed the South Americans 2-0 in the final.

Six continental confederations

Once again, Saudi Arabia served as host nation in 1997, but the tournament was renamed the Confederations Cup, and was the first to be organized by FIFA.

As a result, it was the first to feature representatives from all six continental confederations, but the class of the tournament was Brazil. Led by the incomparable Romario and the emerging Ronaldo (who combined for 11 goals in five games) the Selecao cruised through the first round before beating the Czech Republic in the semis and thrashing Australia 6-0 in the final.

Mexico struck a blow for CONCACAF, the soccer confederation covering North and Central America, when it won the 1999 competition on home soil.

The three previous tournaments were dominated by South American and European teams, so Mexico's victory proved a real breakthrough for CONCACAF. Led by the attacking duo of Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Luis Hernandez — and spurred on by a crowd of over 100,00 fans at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium — the Mexicans earned a thrilling 4-3 victory over Ronaldinho and Brazil in the final.

Fresh off its victories at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, France confirmed its status as the best team in the world by winning the 2001 Confederations Cup in Asia. Led by the irresistible duo of Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires, France opened the tournament with a 5-0 win over South Korea and thrashed Mexico 4-0 before defeating mighty Brazil in the semifinals. It was smooth sailing after that, as Vieira's first-half goal was all the offence the French needed to brush aside Japan in the final in Yokohama.

The 2001 tournament also marked Canada's lone Confederations Cup appearance to date.

The Canadians didn't get off to a good start dropping a 3-0 decision to Japan in its opening contest. Few gave our boys much of a chance against Brazil in its next game, but thanks to some resolute defending, Canada pulled off the shocker of the tournament, earning a 0-0 draw with the South America powerhouse. Canada lost its next game to Cameroon, and bowed out in the first round, but it gave Canadian soccer fans a memory they will never forget by holding Brazil off the scoreboard for 90 minutes.

"It was a phenomenal experience for us as a country, as a national team, and it's something I'll never forget," former Canadian captain Jason de Vos said of his Confederations Cup experience.

Tragedy struck the 2003 tournament in France when Foe collapsed during the semifinals and later died.

Gigantic photo of Foe

Foe's death sent profound shockwaves throughout the soccer world, as players struggled to come to grips with the tragic turn of events.  Thierry Henry paid tribute to the former Manchester City star, pointing to the sky after he opened the scoring in France's 3-2 semifinal win over Turkey, just hours after Foe passed away.

After France defeated Cameroon in the final, two of Foe's teammates held a gigantic photo of him at the post-match ceremony, and a runner-up medal was hung around it. Foe also finished third in media voting for player of the tournament and was posthumously awarded the Bronze Ball award.

Four years ago in Germany, Brazil slumped through the first round before coming alive in the knockout stage of the tournament, beating the hosts in a thrilling semifinal and embarrassing perennial rival Argentina 4-1 in the final.

Which leads us to today, as eight of the top national teams from around the world prepare to descend on South Africa.

Can the South Africa defy the odds and win the championship before the hometown fans? Can European champion Spain add a Confederations Cup title to its impressive resume? Will Italy break out of its funk and remind everyone exactly why they are the world champions? Can Brazil repeat as champions and win an unprecedented third crown?

Questions that will all be answered very soon.