Confederations Cup a dry run for S. Africa
JOHANNESBURG - With stars such as Brazil's Kaka and Spain's Fernando Torres heading to the Confederations Cup, host South Africa is hoping to put on a show that will prove it was the right choice to stage the 2010 World Cup.
Eight teams are coming to South Africa to play the June 14-28 tournament in four of the stadiums that will also stage World Cup matches next year. The teams are sending most of their best stars, even those who have only just finished a grueling season with their European clubs.
Brazil will send most of the players who are about to take part in World Cup qualifying action in the next few days while Spain, the entertaining winner of last year's Euro 2008 championship, has announced its strongest available squad.
Brazil is in a tough group with World Cup champion Italy, the United States and African champion Egypt. Spain is in a much easier group with Asian champion Iraq, New Zealand, and South Africa.
But much of the focus will be on the organizational capacity of the host nation.
The South Africans, who have been dreaming for decades of the World Cup coming to their continent, have to put on a near-flawless performance to overcome skepticism that their country, plagued by street crime and AIDS, is capable of hosting one of the world's premier sporting events.
Rows of empty seats at the 16 Confederations Cup matches in Johannesburg, Rustenburg, Pretoria, and Bloemfontein won't help, and organizers are scrambling to sell the approximately 30 percent of tickets still available. The problem is that, unlike the World Cup, there won't be the hundreds of thousands of overseas fans for this competition.
"It would be a shame if we don't have full stadiums," FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke said. "It is a unique chance. It is something special."
South Africa appears to have overcome the main criticism that the stadiums needed for the World Cup wouldn't be ready on time.
For many months after South Africa was awarded the World Cup, very little work was done to build and refurbish the grounds or improve transportation. Work is still going on, with long lines of traffic in Johannesburg evidence of last-minute efforts to improve the city's main roads.
With Bloemfontein's first game between Brazil and Egypt coming up June 15, workers are busy renovating and modernizing the quaint little airport. Passengers arriving and departing have to squeeze past each other with half the terminal cordoned off for ongoing construction work.
All this because the biggest stars in the world are due to arrive to show off their skills in a competition that will have soccer's spotlight for two weeks. Organizers say the games will be watched by a cumulative worldwide TV audience of 9 billion people. But the tournament may well have been forgotten by the time the World Cup itself kicks off next year.
Each of the Confederations Cup teams comes to South Africa with its own agenda.
Brazil has been under a cloud, with coach Dunga making unpopular player-selection decisions as he tries to create a team that wins games as well as it entertains. With Kaka, Ronaldinho, Robinho, and Alexandre Pato in his lineup, Dunga has the scoring talent. Brazil is also out to show it has top-quality defenders.
"It's always about results when it comes to the Brazilian national team," Dunga said. "The fans want results, we all know that."
Five of the Barcelona lineup that beat Manchester United, 2-0, in the Champions League final are on Spain's squad. Barcelona also won the Spanish league and cup.
"It's been a great season both personally and professionally," said Barca defender Gerard Pique, who is recovering from a thigh injury. "We are going to South Africa to win the tournament."
Coach Vicente del Bosque has 17 of the 23-strong squad that won the European championship and is on a 31-game unbeaten run. Torres and David Villa will again lead the attack ahead of a rich group of talented midfield stars in Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, and Xabi Alonso.
Italy has spent the last three years failing to live up to its status as World Cup holder, but is sending a strong lineup with goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, defender Fabio Cannavaro, midfielder Andrea Pirlo and lanky striker Luca Toni.
"We're going to try to treat it with respect," coach Marcello Lippi said. "But the team that wins the Confederations Cup never wins the World Cup. So I'm not sure I want to win it."
Improving steadily under coach Bob Bradley, the United States will be sobered by a 3-1 World Cup qualifying loss to Costa Rica last Wednesday, but hopes to rebound on Saturday at home against Honduras. Then the US will head to South Africa with the aim of giving a good showing.
"I think we all recognize that the spotlight will be much brighter next year. But in that regard, maybe it's part of what makes it a great opportunity," Bradley said. "You're playing against top teams, and yet you're doing it at a time when maybe there's a little less focus and it gives you a chance to size up a lot of things."
And that's just what the soccer world will be doing as it assesses South Africa's ability to host the World Cup next year.