Differing approaches inspired German, Chilean resurgences in the last decade
International football has, unfortunately, not been in a particularly good state over recent years. Once considered the peak of the game, it's impossible to claim now that it remotely rivals the standard of the Champions League.
The abolition of the three-foreigner rule, combined with increasing inequality both within leagues and between them, means top club sides are able to assemble players an international team cannot imagine.
The increased tactical emphasis in modern football, meanwhile, means clubs depend upon complex attacking approaches, stemming from weeks working on the same moves in training. Countries simply don't have long enough to develop this understanding.
The consequence has been a lack of outstanding international sides in recent years, with the obvious exception being Spain; their historic Euro-World Cup-Euro triple success between 2008-12 means they must be considered amongst the greatest teams of all-time.
Beyond that, there's been little to shout about and it's become entirely possible for scrappy, defensive sides to win major tournaments: Uruguay's 2011 Copa America success and Portugal's European Championship victory last year might be remembered fondly because of Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo's respective presences, but neither was a truly great side.
Sunday's Confederations Cup final, however, is a contest between two teams that have been a joy to watch over the past decade: World champions Germany and Chile, the two-time Copa America winners. That excitement hasn't come from just watching their matches, but also from observing their incredible progress during recent years.
Ten years ago, Germany were midway through Euro 2008 qualifying and, while they sealed qualification early from a weak group, they finished behind Czech Republic following a shock 3-0 defeat in Munich and a goalless draw against then-hopeless Wales in Frankfurt. They were finalists the following summer, but with an aging, immobile backline, as well as a functional attack overly reliant upon Michael Ballack's midfield bursts.
Chile were in an even worse position. They scraped through their 2007 Copa America qualifying group but then, the day after some of their players had been caught at a nightclub, were thrashed 6-1 by Brazil in the quarterfinal. The loss wasn't a great surprise, given Chile had been thrashed 5-0 away at the same opposition in 2006 World Cup qualifying. That was, put simply, their natural level.
Both countries have since undergone a quite dramatic revolution, based around producing and developing better players and combined with a proper identity for the international side.
Germany's about-turn has been about producing an excellent generation of top-class players. After a calamitous performance at Euro 2000, combined with serious financial problems that meant clubs were forced to concentrate on producing talent rather than importing it, Germany pumped significant sums of money into its grassroots game.
Between 2000 and their World Cup win in 2014, 53 centres of excellence were built and those, combined with 366 regional coaching bases, were designed to ensure Germany didn't miss out on their most talented players, wherever they emerged.
At the same time, a rigorous coaching education system sees coaches trained in a serious, studious, academic manner. The likes of Jurgen Klopp, Ralf Rangnick, Thomas Tuchel and Joachim Low have emerged from this system to create forward-thinking tactical schemes and further develop players.
The squad that triumphed in Brazil was an excellent group of players rather than a great team in the truest sense: Low wasn't certain of his best formation coming into the tournament and a couple of significant decisions once it had begun -- reintroducing Miroslav Klose up front and switching Philipp Lahm from midfield to right-back -- underline the fact that things rather fell into place.
That they did was due in no small part to the fact that, suddenly, Germany could count upon a string of outstanding footballers. None of Manuel Neuer, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos, Jerome Boateng or Holger Badstuber were in the Euro 2008 squad, but all played a part in the 2010 World Cup.
Two years later, Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gundogan, Andre Schurrle, Mario Gotze and Marco Reus were involved at Euro 2012, all of which means the best part of an entirely new starting XI was brought through in the space of four years, and that owes much to the grass roots revolution.
By contrast, Chile's resurgence occurred primarily because of the appointment as coach, 10 years this month, of Marcelo Bielsa. Known for his high-energy, all-out-attack brand of football from his days as Argentina manager, his impact upon the Chilean national team was also about overseeing every level of the setup; he took the job having been convinced he'd be allowed time to introduce a long-term plan.
Bielsa essentially created Chile's new national training complex -- he lived in the building himself, away from his family -- to oversee the development. His attention-to-detail was remarkable and he also took the unusual step of coaching some of the country's youth teams, implementing his philosophy and developing personal relationships with the next generation, before introducing them into the full side as quickly as possible.
More than anything else, however, Bielsa's tactics created a new identity. Chile retained their physicality but, having traditionally been defensive, now they were the most attack-minded team in the world. Bielsa preferred a 3-3-1-3 formation that kept a high defensive line, moved the ball forward quickly and pressed relentlessly up-front.
Moreover, he fielded mobile midfielders in defence, because their game was about covering space in behind rather than heading crosses away. He based his side around the classic South American No. 10 -- often the incredible Jorge Valdivia -- and ordered his front three to keep width at all times, stretching play and creating gaps for others.
Chile's football was as vertical as the shape of the country itself and the number of players, who found themselves in goalscoring positions, was remarkable. The likes of Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez first seriously impressed for their national side, rather than at club level in Europe.
The Confederations Cup is peculiar, in that it is often treated as a semi-competitive, friendly competition rather than a genuine tournament. And this year's finalists are treating it in different ways: Germany have essentially sent a youth side, whereas Chile's first-choice stars are seeking silverware for a third consecutive summer.
Regardless of who wins in St Petersburg, however, Germany vs. Chile is a meeting of two sides that have kept the spirit and excitement of international football alive over recent years. Other countries could learn lessons.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.