Precisely 359 days ahead of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, the eagerly-awaited prelude to next summer's showcase event gets under way on Wednesday with the first two matches at the FIFA Confederations Cup Germany 2005.

A top-notch starting field comprising hosts Germany, FIFA World Cup holders Brazil, 2004 Olympic gold medallists and South American runners-up Argentina and five continental champions begin fine-tuning for the 2006 finals at an event barely recognisable from its original incarnation in 1992 as the King Fahd Cup.

"This tournament is much more than a dress rehearsal for next year's World Cup," FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter declared at the official launch news conference in Frankfurt. "It's a prestigious international tournament in its own right, and the only chance for national teams to meet in intercontinental competition outside the World Cup."

For FIFA and the Organising Committee, the FIFA Confederations Cup is also "an important check on how our partnership is working," Blatter continued. LOC President Franz Beckenbauer is determined to track down any weak links in the organisation and said: "I hope we make mistakes. If we make them now, we can eliminate them before the World Cup."

The eight-nation tournament from 15-29 June represents a critical road test for world football's governing body and the Local Organising Committee. The microchip technology controlling access to all FIFA World Cup stadiums, traffic management systems, telecommunications, accommodation services and security measures all come under equally close scrutiny.

Some 3,200 media representatives have been accredited for the matches in Frankfurt, Hanover, Cologne, Nuremberg and Leipzig, and the 16 games will be broadcast to 173 countries. That figure was 145 for France 2003, and just 90 two years earlier when the event took place in Korea/Japan. The Brazilian media contingent alone numbers four TV and six radio stations.

Ultimately, the organisers are seeking to inspire German fans and their counterparts around the globe, boosting the sense of anticipation ahead of the main event one year from now. Of the 660,000 available tickets, 530,000 have already been sold - an average of 33,731 per match, comparing favourably to the figure two years ago when an average of 30,731 fans attended the fixtures in France.

The strong demand is partly attributable to a €535million stadium investment programme, resulting in new arenas in Frankfurt and Leipzig, and top-to-bottom modernisation in Cologne, Hanover and Nuremberg. Dedicated, football-only arenas have arisen in place of multi-purpose stadiums, an initiative acknowledged as a winner with the fans and a catalyst for passion and atmosphere. The Nuremberg Frankenstadion alone retains its running track between the playing field and the stands.

Hosts Germany and world champions Brazil top the bill at the 'Festival of Champions'. No less than 12,000 spectators turned out for the South Americans' first public training session at the BayArena in Leverkusen. Brazil and Germany's group matches are already as good as sold out.

The stage appears set for a thrilling and successful festival of football. "They're already in shape for the World Cup here," praised Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira shortly after arriving in Germany, offering only one minor complaint: "The weather - it's a bit cool." Unfortunately, controlling the climate lies beyond even FIFA and the Organising Committee's considerable administrative powers.