Africa Cup of Nations January 14-February 5 (Gabon)
The biennial jewel in African continental competitions returns with the top squads firmly entrenched. Gabon will host the 60th anniversary cup, Cote d’Ivoire is well positioned to defend their title, and the winner will get an early set of tickets to Russia this summer for the Confederations Cup.
It’s still early days in the final stages of African qualifying. Each squad will play eight more times before November to determine the five qualifiers. The qualifiers are on hiatus until August, then a frantic dash to the finish awaits hopefuls. Already up on the marquee for August is a defacto playoff home-and-away series for DR Congo and Tunisia. Traditional powers (Cote d’Ivoire, South Africa, and Egypt) will try to fend off upstarts (Morocco, Burkina Faso, and Uganda respectively). Nigeria will try to avoid a calamitous collapse. Finally, Ghana — the USA’s great rival — will try to recover their fading form.
The Tunisia Ligue Professionnelle 1, boasts three of the top 10 teams in Africa, and if you add in a fourth (Club Africain), you have the youth factories for the entire Tunisian national team. Youth development, heated competition, rich rivalries: a good recipe for strong competition.
FIFA U-20 World Cup May 20-June 11 (South Korea)
Korea will host the game’s rising young stars in the summer. While the tournament is always intriguing, it has special importance for Asia as the golden generations of Korea and Japan fade, while Iran and Saudi Arabia look to build for a future. Perhaps most intriguing of all is the rising talent in Vietnam, who have only dropped three matches in the past two years.
Four teams will have qualified by early September. At present, the favorites are traditional powerhouses Iran, South Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. The latter two will be challenged by fellow giant Australia and rising threat U.A.E. Iran and South Korea need only keep their pace ahead of Uzbekistan to avoid the purgatory of international playoffs.
While a lot of digital ink has been spilled on the overflowing pocketbooks of the Chinese Super League, the best competition in Asia remains the J1 League in Japan. 2017 will mark the first time the competition is decided in a traditional double-round-robin format (like most European leagues) but it will mark the 30th time that European clubs closely watch the league for the next rising talent. (Keep an eye on Yosuke Ideguchi [pictured here] of Gamba Osaka)
European Women’s Championship July 16-August 6 (Netherlands)
The growth of the woman’s game is great news for people around the world, and in a year without an intercontinental competition, the Euros will feature 15 of the top 25 teams in the world. And if last summer’s uninspiring men’s tournament left you frustrated, remember: the Portuguese women are willing to score in minutes other than the 90th.
Europe will establish nine of their thirteen entries into the World Cup through a round-robin group phase. The bulk of those matches have yet to be played, though Germany already owns a relatively safe lead (5 points over Northern Ireland). Important storylines to watch include: Montenegro’s attempt to qualify for a first time (look for a March match in Poland); lovable underdog Iceland’s efforts to hold momentum against Croatia and Ukraine when they come to Reykjavik (June 11 & September 5); and the dog fight between Spain and Italy to avoid playoff purgatory (September 2 in Spain).
Without qualification to worry about, Russia’s own national team will have little exposure this year (aside from the limp Confederations Cup). But as one of the few teams to feature an all-domestic lineup the Russian Premier League will be your best opportunity to assess their chances. Added bonus: should Vladimir Putin be spying on you when you watch, he’ll think you’re one of the good ones!
Gold Cup July 7-26 (USA)
Another year, another international summer tournament on US soil. At its best, the Gold Cup pushes the developing talents in Central America and the Caribbean onto bigger stages for more rigorous development. This year will be no different as French Guiana and Curacao make their debut and non-FIFA member Martinique returns to the stage.
As most US fans know, the national team has an uphill climb to make it through to their eighth consecutive World Cup. Fortunately they still have the lion’s share of the games to play and a fair amount of confidence against their upcoming opponents. Elsewhere, Panama will be questing for their first Cup qualification and have a road win in Honduras and a home draw against Mexico already in the bag. The March 28th Panama City game between the US and Panama looms large.
Despite their close proximity and the fervent fan base across our own country, far too little attention is paid to Liga MX. They easily hold claim to one of the most intense competitions on the continent. Plus, you never know when the biggest game of the year is going to turn into a full-on donnybrook.
Beach Soccer World Cup April 27-May 7 (Bahamas)
The tournament may not be in Oceania, but it is the tournament Oceania has the best chance of winning this year. Tahiti’s national beach soccer team is coming off a second place finish at the 2015 tournament, dominance within their confederation, and is ready to make the final push for the confederation’s first global trophy.
New Zealand is no longer the all-dominant force it once was in the island region. Less because the rest of the federation has caught up, and more because the All-Whites are aging out of their golden generation. The Kiwis finish their current qualification ties in March and then will wait to see their fate. If a physical Fiji find a bit of luck, it could be all over in Auckland. Even if it isn’t, they’d still have to tip-toe past another rival (likely Tahiti) AND beat the 5th best team in South America (likely better than Tahiti).
The top competition in the confederation is still the New Zealand Football Championship. After all, Auckland City and Wellington United have essentially been trading the top spot back and forth this year. That matchup is basically El Clasico, only thousands of miles away, between less expensive clubs, without any of the historical importance.
Confederations Cup June 17-July 2 (Russia)
The Confederations Cup has about as much meaning as your run-of-the-mill Taco Bell ad. What it lacks in meaning it makes up for in pointless hype. But for all of that, it’s worth considering the opportunity it offers to possible Cup contenders to feel each other out (regardless of whether they win or lose). So that makes it a big tournament for Chile, a suddenly persistent power in South America and back-to-back winner of most irritating team to Lionel Messi. Next on their world beater’s agenda: Germany in Kazan on June 22nd.
Entering the home stretch of CONMEBOL qualifying, reports of Brazil’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. They sit on top of the continent, a comfy eight points clear of a playoff with Oceania. Uruguay, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, and Colombia comprise the chasing pack. They will slug it out with one another for safe passage to Russia. Peru and Paraguay’s hopes depend on two or more of the main contenders collapsing.
The near endless quest for the next great young South American maestro may turn to Colombia’s Liga Aguila. That’s where Atletico Nacional spent last year winning the Copa Libertadores, gracefully conceding the Copa Sudamericana after the Chapecoense tragedy, and performing valiantly at the Club World Cup in Japan. But they finished second in the aggregate table and were knocked out in the playoffs. The competition is fierce and well worth a watch, especially if you are in charge of player personnel for a professional team (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).
What are you looking forward to in 2017?