PARIS, June 16 (AFP) - The 2003 Confederations Cup represents the first real test for hosts France to prove to the world that they have recovered from their pitiful showing at last year's World Cup.
A first round exit in Asia without a single goal scored was nothing short of a humiliating disaster for the 1998 champions, resulting in a considered clear out of the old guard by new coach Jacques Santini on the return home.
Under Santini's guidance France has put together a string of decent results in their qualifying group for Euro 2004 yet admittedly against low key opponents. Coming up against the likes of World Cup winners Brazil, Turkey and the United States will be a different ball game altogether, a task made even more difficult without their midfield general Zinedine Zidane.
Arsenal midfielder Robert Pires, speaking from France's base camp at Clairefontaine, stressed: "We've got a title to defend - the image of France is at stake."
Pires, missing from the World Cup debacle with a knee injury, added: "This isn't really a dress rehearsal for the European Championship, but it will give us a chance to get to know each other well and cement as a group."
Santini for his part reflected: "With 'Zizou' (Zidane) missing it'll give others the chance of a game - it's up to them to seize the opportunity."
"This Cup is being held between two stages of qualification (for Euro 2004), but it's an important objective for 'Les Bleus'," added the former Lyon coach. "Because of the overloaded fixture list there are no more tournaments - as a result it's going to be useful for us."
France, who beat South Korea in the 2001 final, are drawn in Group A against Japan, Colombia their first opponents and outsiders New Zealand.
Group B is headed by a Brazil squad virtually unrecognisable from the one that triumphed over Germany in the World Cup last year.
Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira has called up seven new caps as he makes do without World Footballer of the Year Ronaldo, who like teammate Roberto Carlos is being held on to by his club Real Madrid.
AC Milan midfielder Rivaldo is also an absentee but one major force he can rely on is Ronaldinho who will surely be as busy off the pitch as on as the Paris Saint Germain striker seeks to find a new home for next season. But the sought-after star refuses to be distracted by all the transfer speculation.
He said: "I'm not thinking about an eventual transfer, I'm here to help my team."
"The 2001 Confederations Cup (in which Brazil finished only fourth) wasn't a great memory."
Parreira added: "We are world champions, everyone expects Brazil to win, but we've got a new team with seven new caps."
Parreira said he was looking forward to their first game against Cameroon on Thursday.
"The first match of a competition is always widely anticipated. It's like giving birth. You never know whether the baby will be beautiful or not. The first game is the same, you don't know if you're going to give birth to a decent team or not."
As well as Cameroon Brazil have as company in Group B Turkey, whom they beat in the World Cup semi-finals, and the United States, one of the surprise packages in Asia making it through to the quarter-finals. US coach Bruce Arena believes his team's World Cup showing has left an important legacy.
"For sure we've grown in confidence, we've got a more positive approach." he said."
Japan's Brazilian coach Zico, who took over from Philippe Troussier last July, has seen four recent friendlies called off because of either SARS or the war in Iraq.
The Brazilian legend's problems were compounded with the defection through injury of Feyenoord midfielder Shinji Ono and Masashi Nakayama but he is hoping his new secret weapon will cause trouble - Brazilian-born star Alex Santos who plays at left wing-back. Zico's record since taking over reads one win against South Korea, two defeats and two draws.
For Cameroon, the event, which is being staged at the Stade de France in Paris, Lyon and St Etienne delivers up a chance to shrug off a poor World Cup campaign while New Zealand will be hoping to improve on their last appearance in the competition in 1999 when they lost all their three matches.