America's Cup: Toughest race of all - to match Alinghi

<i>To hear Stuart Alexander's podcast from Valencia,</i> <a href=""><b><i>click here</i></b></a>
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The Independent Online

The tears will not just be before bedtime, they will start at breakfast and run all day when the America's Cup regatta, in the form of the Louis Vuitton Cup elimination series, starts here in Valencia tomorrow.

"This is a festival of misery and sado-masochism," says Luca Devoti, the ever-bubbling boss of the cash-strapped and so far luckless ugly duckling of the trio of Italian teams, +39. He makes no bones about the pressure that all of these 11 challenger teams from nine countries will face over the next 21 days, in which they all have to complete 20 races. It is, he says, as intense as the Tour de France.

It is also as nerve-racking as a relegation battle. At the end of two rounds in which they all sail against each other once, only the top four will go through to the challenger semi-finals. Seven, after the sweat of up to three years' work and the expenditure of millions and millions of euros, will suddenly have no reason to be ready for a working day that can run from 6am to 10pm.

As Grant Dalton, chief executive (and a sailing member) of Team New Zealand, says: "You don't want to end up in a string of must-win races. That would be a pretty curly place to be."

Few, if any, teams have consulted the sports psychology department at the university of life. "We are just concentrating on the job in hand," says Paul Standbridge of Shosholoza from South Africa. "In any case, there may be some life after death if a syndicate decide they want to keep going and go to any of the regattas which some are trying to organise for the autumn."

Most people have decided that there are three shoe-ins for the semi-finals: Team New Zealand, BMW Oracle, flying the US flag, and Italy's Luna Rossa, whose skipper, Francesco de Angelis, expects very tricky weather during this first week.

There will be a battle royal for the fourth slot, but the struggle will mainly be for internal consumption; do not expect a dark horse to gallop to victory.

The America's Cup has become one huge corporate hospitality circus and within it the host city, where not all of its citizens are in support of lavishing their hard-earned taxes on what they see as already a rich man's sport, has its own battle for prominence against Barcelona, Madrid and Seville. While the city is rightly proud of the number of people going through the turnstiles into the America's Cup port and village, doing so safely is a real problem.

The city's mayor, Rita Barbera, up for re-election next month and seeking to capitalise on the glow of bringing the event to the city, has had previously only to improve her performance in terms of stinking drains and dirty streets. But those streets are now much more dangerous as gangs of thieves seem to have free rein to attack and rob people - and foreign visitors, members of the 12 competing teams and the overseas media are juicy targets.

What the world should be able to see over the next few weeks is top technology, top skill, top athleticism and some really close racing - as long as the so far disappointing weather co-operates.

The racing between teams like Mascalzone Latino of Italy, Victory Challenge of Sweden and the local Desafio Español should be cut-throat. Standbridge is right to feel that the debutant South Africans are in with a shout on Shosholoza. And there will be upsets.

No one will know if +39, with British Olympic medallists Iain Percy on the helm and Ian Walker calling tactics, will be able to make the start until they are there. Their new mast was broken in a racing collision recently and repairs are time-consuming, difficult and expensive. Everyone expects the Chinese and German teams to bring up the rear. And the bookies have stopped taking bets on who will be the eventual winner of America's Cup 32. The current holders, with an automatic place in the final, Switzerland's Alinghi, are runaway favourites to win the auld mug for a second time.

To hear Stuart Alexander's podcast from Valencia, click here .