Heavyweight trio hunt glory
Brazil, Italy and Spain headline the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa with some of the biggest names in the game looking to claim bragging rights ahead of next year's 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
The tournament of continental champions, the traditional dress rehearsal for the FIFA World Cup, gets underway next Sunday when hosts South Africa take on AFC Asian Cup winners Iraq. New Zealand, Egypt and USA are also playing in the 14-28 June spectacle but it is the presence of the big three that has whetted appetites.
The trio are bringing mostly full-strength squads to South Africa, and that means the likes of Kaka, Robinho, Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas, Fabio Cannavaro and Daniele De Rossi strutting their stuff. Brazil go into the tournament as defending champions, having beaten Argentina 4-1 in the final four years ago in Germany, and coach Dunga has high expectations of his glamorous stars.
The South American giant's are drawn in Group B alongside world champions Italy and the United States with their first taste of action on Monday in Bloemfontein against Egypt. Italy play USA on the same day in Pretoria. The top two from each of the two groups will qualify for the semi-finals, ahead of the final on 28 June.
"I think that we are on the right track and if we can win the Confederations Cup it will set us up well for next year's World Cup," said Brazil coach Dunga who has dropped the out-of-touch Ronaldinho from his squad. He is also missing Chelsea centre-half Alex and Manchester United midfielder Anderson, who are both injured, but still has a formidable roll-call of quality players at his disposal.
Italy play Brazil in the tournament glamour clash on 21 June and coach Marcello Lippi heads to South Africa with a tried and tested team, spearheaded by Andrea Pirlo, De Rossi, and Cannavaro. But he is not looking beyond their opening game.
"The most important match is the first (against the USA)," he said. "If the first goes well then logically the others will follow suit. If it goes badly, it will be more difficult."
Spain, drawn alongside Iraq, New Zealand and South Africa, come into the tournament with virtually the same team that won the European championships last year, and with high expectations. Coach Vicente Del Bosque, the ex-Real Madrid boss, said they were here to win.
"We have to enhance this competition which has been won by big teams," he said. "All the teams taking part will be here with their best players so we will also go with our best team. We want to win."
The Kiwis will face a tough battle to earn points, while Iraq's form has dropped alarmingly since unexpectedly winning the Asian Cup in 2007. But with the hugely experienced Bora Milutinovic - the only man to have coached five different teams at the FIFA World Cup - now at the helm, they could spring a surprise.
Domestic expectations for hosts South Africa are high with most football followers wanting at least a semi-final berth, but Egypt are not expected to go that far with Brazil and Italy in their group. The same applies for the United States, who will be looking to players like Rangers winger DaMarcus Beasley and Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard to keep them in contention.