While scenes of joy were breaking out all over France the last time the Stade de France staged a match in a FIFA competition, one man sat on the Brazilian bench wearing a harrowed look. With the return of an international tournament to Saint-Denis, Zico also features again – this time as coach of Japan. Five years after the FIFA World Cup™ Final nightmare, the Brazilian will be hoping to lay the ghost to rest when Japan and New Zealand kick off the FIFA Confederations Cup France 2003.

Opening the curtain to one of world football’s grandest shows is not a position the Asia and Oceania champions habitually find themselves in. The 18 June encounter, then, looks like being an interesting spectacle with the sides given the opportunity to prove their worth among the planet’s finest.

For Japan, one year after football won the hearts and minds of their public, the tournament represents an opportunity to consolidate on the success of reaching the second round of a FIFA World Cup for the first time. And with Brazilian superstar Zico having taken over from Frenchman Philippe Troussier at the helm, there is great expectation among Japanese fans of further success - this time in foreign fields.

However, results have not exactly gone Zico’s way recently. Playing at home in the Kirin Cup earlier this month, Japan managed a goalless draw against Paraguay and suffered a demoralising 4-1 defeat to Argentina. Before that rivals Korea Republic visited Tokyo and came away with a 1-0 victory. The Brazilian will therefore be doubly determined for a win and a good performance in the opening fixture.

World showcase
“It could turn out to be a key game for us because if we get a good result, it will help us get going in the other two (group) games,” he said. “Our players might be a little nervous or excited as it’s the first match, but I want them to control the mental aspects of the game as well. That will be important to get through the tournament, as we have to play every two days.

“This will be a good opportunity for us to show the world what we can do. Personally, I believe in Japan’s ability, but we have to prove ourselves in a world showcase event like this to convince people around the world.

“We may be the underdogs against France, but I believe we are better than New Zealand and Colombia.”

New Zealand, though, will be no pushovers. After losing all three matches at the FIFA Confederations Cup Mexico 99, they finally have the chance to compete with the best once again. And approaching the competition with everything to gain, they are sure to prove dangerous opposition.

While they may not be able to command the same level of support as Japan in Saint-Denis, thousands are expected to tune in the early hours 12,000 miles away to cheer on the All Whites. The competition is already causing a noise down under with “soccer” features competing for space in Auckland and Christchurch newspapers with match reports of the all-conquering rugby All Blacks. Although Mick Waitt’s side contains few household names, striker Ryan Nelsen has emerged as the man most eyes will be watching. The DC United player believes the All Whites have improved dramatically since their last flirtation with the game’s elite.

“This time around we’ll be out for results,” said the 25-year-old. “Last time (Mexico 99), I think the players might have been a bit daunted, looking for respect. But now with more of our guys playing overseas, we have more experience, and we’ll be ready to go.

“We’re a solid team, I wouldn’t want to play us. When we come up against the big fish, we have everything to win and they have everything to lose.”

If New Zealand can overcome Japan for their first victory in the Confederations Cup, then the Stade de France will be the scene of yet more history making.