Spain dominant, South Africa ascendant
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Group A at the FIFA Confederations Cup 2009 was characterised by intense excitement and tumbling records. Spain cruised to victory in all three of their matches, topping the group in effortless fashion and rewriting the history books along the way. A footballing masterclass was arguably to be expected of the current top dogs in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, but hosts South Africa earned their place alongside the Spanish in the last four with courage, passion and a deeply-felt sense of pride. In stark contrast, vanquished Iraq and New Zealand failed to muster a single goal between them, which goes a long way to explaining why both have already packed for home.

Final standings
1. Spain (9 points)
2. South Africa (4 points)
3. Iraq (2 points)
4. New Zealand (1 point)

Spain-USA, 24 June, 20.30, Mangaung/Bloemfontein
Brazil-South Africa, 25 June, 20.30, Johannesburg

Spain: Vicente del Bosque’s star ensemble deployed their attractive and  effective short-passing game to devastating effect. La Roja scored eight goals and conceded none in winning their three group fixtures, whilst giving the impression of playing within themselves. Fernando Torres and David Villa underscored their status as the world’s best strike pairing with three goals apiece, while ever-present playmaker Xavi was more than ably assisted by squad players such as Albert Riera and Santi Cazorla. As proved by their displays to date at the FIFA World Cup™ dress rehearsal, the European champions are unquestionably the team of the moment when it comes to combining entertainment with winning play.

South Africa: The 2010 FIFA World Cup hosts achieved what they set out to achieve. Joel Santana’s men clocked up four points, including their maiden FIFA Confederations Cup victory in beating New Zealand 2-0, and supplied enough evidence to suggest that, on a good day, they are not far off touching distance to the global footballing elite. That realisation has had a tangible effect away from the field of play too, as the boisterous South African fans sense their heroes could yet exceed expectations next year. The potential is there for Bafana Bafana, best epitomised by striker Bernard Parker and keeper Itumeleng Khune, talented young players capable of moments of sheer class.

Iraq: The reigning Asian champions lost only one of their three group fixtures, conceding their solitary goal of the tournament in a tight 1-0 defeat to Spain. However, wily boss Bora Milutinovic’s side proved all but toothless in attack, as evidenced by dour goalless stalemates against South Africa and New Zealand. Perhaps the attacking resources simply are not there: the Iraqis raised eyebrows by lining up for their first two matches with a five-man back line. Iraq are already out of the running for a place at next year’s FIFA World Cup finals, so the experience gained in South Africa could feasibly provide the foundation for a new, longer-term development plan with a focus on upping the level of creativity in the side.

New Zealand: The All Whites’ trip to South Africa began with a demoralising 5-0 hiding at Spanish hands and continued in sobering fashion with a 2-0 defeat to South Africa. However, the Oceania champions dug commendably deep, playing the better football in the scoreless draw with Iraq, and earning their first-ever point at a senior FIFA tournament. "We’ve never dictated the play in a match between senior teams at a FIFA competition like we did today. We’ve silenced a few critics by doing so," remarked coach Ricki Herbert. On the field, 27-year-old marksman Shane Smeltz confirmed his status as the star of the team, and the probable lynchpin of a line-up that harbours legitimate hopes of a making the 2010 finals.

Unforgettable moments
El Niño’s 660 sensational seconds: In Spain’s opening match against New Zealand, star striker Torres struck a glorious hat-trick between the sixth and 17th minutes. As the crowd at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg saluted the Spaniard, the watching world was left in no doubt as to which team was destined to let off the fireworks at the tournament.

Blaring vuvuzelas and the ecstatic South African crowds: Bernard Parker started it all. The 23-year-old striker, on the books at Serbian outfit Crvena Zvezda (Red Star Belgrade), netted both goals as the hosts ran up a historic victory over the Kiwis, raising the local footballing temperature to hitherto uncharted highs. A new national hero emerged that night, and Rustenburg again provided the stage.

Ruthless David Villa: In the final group fixture at Mangaung/Bloemfontein, and just a few minutes after seeing South Africa keeper Khune parry his penalty, Villa showed the unshakeable belief that is the hallmark of a great goal-getter. The striker controlled a precise Albert Riera feed on his chest before smashing a left-foot volley into the far corner. In a group phase packed with inspired attacking play, the goal rated as the crowning glory.

The stats
Group A yielded a total of ten goals, all scored by Spain and South Africa. 80 per cent of the goals were scored by just three men: Parker, Torres and Villa. Following the three group matches, Villa moved second in the all-time scoring chart for Spain on 31 goals, behind only 44-goal front-runner Raul. La Roja set a new world record with 15 victories on the spin, and are now level with Brazil on 35 consecutive games without defeat.

The expert view
"Overall, I think Spain were outstanding. They played very good attacking football, so much that its probably hard to find weaknesses in their team. I do not think the South African team played to their potential, they looked as if they were too scared to make mistakes and you can understand that from a team that is playing at home in a major tournament. There was a lot of pressure on them. But I think they learned a lot to help them help with the pressure in 2010."
Doctor Khumalo, former South African midfielder

Fan's view on the group stage
Spain came across as the most complete team and look unbeatable. They’ve always been among the favourites in the past, but have gone on to disappoint. But this was a different Spain. The new Spain are justifiably regarded as favourites."
User levijanos from Bosnia-Herzegovina on the reigning European champions’ status in the world game

Have your say
What do you think of the passion and courage shown by hosts South Africa? Can Bafana Bafana upset the favourites at next year’s FIFA World Cup finals? And do you think there’s any team currently capable of matching Spain? Click 'Add your comment' to make your opinion known, remembering to keep your posts clean, respectful, on-topic and in English.