Octet's fluctuating fortunes
The Festival of Champions, the popular sobriquet given to the FIFA Confederations Cup, encapsulates the quality of the teams who have assembled in South Africa for the two-week tournament, which starts on Sunday. All of them, with the exception of the hosts, have earned the right to contest the coveted trophy by winning a major competition in the last three years.
Things change quickly in the world of football, however, and as FIFA.com discovers, the seven cup winners lining up alongside South Africa have experienced plenty of ups and downs since winning their respective crowns.
Italy owe their place in the competition to their 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ triumph. Although well placed to earn the right to defend their title next year, I Azzurri have undergone something of a transition since that unforgettable night in Berlin three years ago. Yet with the return of Marcello Lippi following their quarter-final exit at UEFA EURO 2008, the Italians will be confident of doing justice to their status as world champions.
Expectations to live up to
Iraq and Egypt have similar tales to tell. The Iraqis were surprise winners of the AFC Asian Cup 2007 but found the mantle of favourites a heavy burden to bear in the qualifying competition for South Africa 2010. Knocked out in the third round of the qualifiers, the reigning Asian champions have turned to renowned miracle-worker Bora Milutinovic in a bid to revive their fortunes. The vastly experienced Serbian certainly knows what is required at this level, having taken four different teams to the FIFA World Cup finals during his lengthy career.
Egypt have opted for continuity since retaining their African title in February 2008, with Hassan Shehata still in charge. In the 16 months that have elapsed since then, however, the Pharoahs have been stumbling and currently lie bottom of their South Africa 2010 qualification group. Deprived of the injured Amr Zaki and with strike partner Mido still on the sidelines, the Egyptians go into the tournament with morale low, especially after a recent defeat to long-time rivals Algeria undermined confidence yet further.
Two teams who do have reasons to be cheerful are USA and New Zealand. Having qualified for the tournament by winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup 2007 and the OFC Nations Cup 2007/08 respectively, the English-speaking duo have opted for stability, a policy that has proved fruitful. Still led by Bob Bradley, the Americans look to be well on the way to qualifying for South Africa 2010, while Kiwi counterpart Ricki Herbert remains in charge of the All Whites, who topped the Oceania qualifying group and are waiting to find out the identity of their FIFA World Cup play-off rivals from Asia.
And as New Zealand striker Chris Killen told FIFA.com earlier this week, the chance to pit their wits against the world's best sides could not have come at a better time. "We can't just be happy to be the best in Oceania and expect to make any inroads in terms of recognition. We need to be proving ourselves on stages like this."
Brazilian record in Spain's sights
Facing the Kiwis in their opening game are Spain, who have made more progress than anyone else in international football over recent years. Crowned European champions last year, the Spaniards have gone from strength to strength since then, cementing their position at the top of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and stretching their unbeaten run to 32 matches. To cap it all, Spanish club football is also on a high, with Barcelona having just completed an historic treble thanks in no small part to the quartet of Xavi, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Sergi Busquets, all of whom are on duty in South Africa.
Despite that impressive unbeaten sequence, Vicente del Bosque's side still have a little way to go to equal the world record of 35 matches without defeat, currently held by Brazil. The 2007 Copa America champions complete the line-up in Group B and go into the competition on a high, having just ascended to the top of the South American 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa qualifying section. Dunga's men have endured plenty of criticism since becoming continental kings, however, disappointing fans and football writers alike at times with some sluggish performances. Now that the goals have started to flow again, however, the Brazilians are oozing confidence.
And finally a word on tournament hosts South Africa, the only one of the eight sides not able to present a recent trophy as their calling card. Despite that, the Bafana Bafana have a whole nation to urge them on over the next few days, a nation that has deservedly earned the right to stage the event thanks to its organisational skills and passion. Those attributes have only been enhanced since the award of the FIFA World Cup finals and the sole cause for concern for the Rainbow Nation is the form of its heroes out on the pitch. Eliminated from the qualifying competition for the 2010 African Cup of Nations, Joel Santana's charges have been reduced to a diet of friendlies in recent times and are understandably anxious for a taste of competitive action.
Regardless of their pre-tournament form and fortunes, the eight cup contenders will all be doing their level best to prove that the tournament deserves its billing as the Festival of Champions.