WHAT IS THE CONFEDERATIONS CUP?
For those whose football addiction is not fixed by the European Under-21 Championship, there is another competition beginning on Saturday. The Confederations Cup is both an all-star tournament for the continental champions but also a dress-rehearsal for the following year’s World Cup.
With just eight teams and 16 matches over the course of a fortnight – like the European U21s – it is light and brisk enough to entertain anyone who has been watching football solidly through the 2011-12 season, Euro 2012, the Olympic games and the season just gone, and does not want the show to end. Enjoy this, and then see out the last painful few weeks before the pre-season friendlies start.
SO WHO IS GOING TO BE THERE?
Seven of the eight teams have qualified as champions of something, and the one that has not is Brazil, so the quality should be high. Four of the eight teams are in the top 20 of the Fifa rankings.
Group A is probably the stronger. Brazil qualify as hosts, and thought they are lingering at 22 in the rankings, with their talent and on home soil they are obviously going to be useful. Italy lost the Euro 2012 final but Spain had already qualified. Mexico, the sleeping giant of world football, won the 2011 Gold Cup while Japan won that year’s Asian Cup.
Group B might not be quite as tight. Spain, obviously, qualify as World Cup winners and are joined by Uruguay – 2011 Copa America winners, Nigeria – who won this year’s Africa Cup of Nations and surprise package Tahiti, 2012 OFC Nations Cup champions.
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IS BRAZIL READY TO HOST IT?
This is an important test of the 2014 World Cup infrastructure. Brazil should be most of the way to full World Cup-readiness but it is not and the costs of building the stadiums for that tournament have risen from $2.5billion to $3.3b, amid a public outcry against Fifa regulations and disruption to Brazilian lives.
To ensure that everything goes to plan, the authorities have deployed thousands of troops to guard the six stadiums across Brazil that will be used this month. Drones and thermal cameras will also be used, such are the concerns over security, even if the 25,000 foreign spectators expected this month represents just five per cent of those expected at next year’s World Cup.
WILL ALL THE TEAMS BE THERE?
This, unfortunately, is not certain yet for Nigeria, after a dispute over bonuses. Their flight from Namibia to Brazil was scheduled for Thursday afternoon but the players refused to take it. The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) has tried to halve the team’s bonuses, and the players are not impressed. Winning the African Cup of Nations was quite expensive for the NFF and so backroom staff have also been reduced from 17 to nine – including the departure of popular coach Silvanus Okpala - amid fierce austerity measures.
But, after negotiations, they will apparently make the 7,000 kilometre journey on Saturday, allowing for just 48 hours of preparation before they face Tahiti in Belo Horizonte on Monday.
ARE BRAZIL CONFIDENT OF A REPEAT OF THEIR 2009 SUCCESS?
The mood in Brazil is not good. Last November Luiz Felipe Scolari was brought back as manager following Mano Menezes’ failures at the 2011 Copa America and the 2012 Olympics. But even Scolari, who turned around the side to win the 2002 World Cup, is not convincing in the role yet.
In the recent friendly draw with England, his withdrawal of Oscar – probably Brazil’s most consistent, dedicated player – was scorned by the Maracana crowd. Pele has this week had to weigh in on behalf of Scolari. “Let’s not boo the national team,” Pele implored. “We are still starting. We still have one year to go. This is just the kick-off.”
But, after the traumatic Olympic final defeat, success – or, at the very least, improvement – is required.
HOW WILL NEYMAR HANDLE THE PRESSURE?
Scolari may have to carry the criticism but the real pressure, this summer and next, is on Neymar. The 21-year-old is the vessel for the hopes of nearly 200 million football fans, and this will be his emotional good-bye to his homeland before he goes to play for Barcelona next season.
Even with Luis Suarez, Mario Balotelli and the rest there, Neymar is the banner man of the Confederations Cup. This is his chance to deliver the perfect parting gift to his homeland, and the fans are certainly expecting it. Neymarmania is a phenomenon itself, with the Santos forward plastered over adverts and posters nationwide. “The Seleção is too big for Neymar to carry alone, we have to help him,” Dani Alves said recently, but doing so will not be easy.
BUT ARE BRAZIL THE ONLY TEAM WHO WANT IT?
As greedy as it might sound, Spain are desperate to win this too. Having won the last two European Championships and, of course, the last World Cup, they need to complete the set. Vicente Del Bosque’s side went to the last tournament in 2009, but they lost their semi-final 2-0 to the United States. This year, the relentless trophy-machine wants more. So Del Bosque has taken his strongest possible squad with even players who have looked drained by their impossible schedules in the last year or so.
So the core of the treble-champion team is there – Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Silva and so on. But, in case they get tired, the brilliant Juan Mata and Javi Martinez can freshen up the side too.
ARE THOSE THE ONLY CHALLENGERS?
Not quite. No European side has ever won a World Cup in the Americas, and so the challenge of Urugauy – 2010 World Cup semi-finalists and 2011 Copa America winners – should be serious. But they have had a terrible time of it since, despite their obscene firepower of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Diego Forlan, though, is not quite the player that he once was, at 34 years old.
Uruguay’s battling 1-0 away win over Venezuela on Tuesday kept them in the hunt for World Cup 2014 qualification, but they will need a big improvement if they want automatic qualification rather than via play-off. They certainly have the talent to win an eight-team tournament, but whether they have the form and the confidence is less clear.
CAN ITALY GET THE BEST OUT OF MARIO BALOTELLI?
There is one man who would take issue with this being dubbed Neymar’s tournament. Mario Balotelli, the one player here who can come close to Neymar for talent, fame and thrilling unpredictability.
Balotelli is the focal point of Cesare Prandelli’s team. His famous double against Germany last summer fired Italy in the Euro 2012 final and they will need his best in Brazil – this summer and next – to be successful. He has been playing some of the best football of his career recently, with 13 goals in 14 games at Milan, but his childish reaction to dismissal in last week’s qualifier against Czech Republic shows he is not fully there yet.
“If there is a problem he has to remember that it has to be resolved by the group,” Prandelli said, reminding him of his obligations, and that his behaviour is indulged more than others.
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