The Contenders - part II
The FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009 will bring together regional champions from all corners of the globe. The visiting nations may all carry prestigious trophies, but when the tournament kicks off at the Southern tip of Africa, all bets are off, and anyone could take home the spoils. Here's a look at four of the competing teams.
Spain (Champions of Europe)
The UEFA EURO 2008 champions have yet to win a FIFA competition at senior level and their recent victory on the old continent was their first major tournament title in 44 years. History aside, with their current form, the highly technical Spaniards will fancy themselves among the favourites in South Africa in 2009.
New coach Vincente Del Bosque succeeds a legend in Luis Aragonés - the phenomenal coach that led La Furia Roja to their EURO 2008 title and the man largely responsible for their lengthy undefeated streak.
Not one to fear superstar shadows, Del Bosque comes with impeccable credentials, having coached Real Madrid from 1999-2003 in one of their most successful periods ever. Under Del Bosque, the team has continued winning and they remain undefeated since losing 0-1 at home to Romania in a friendly back in November of 2006.
With a calm, unshakable demeanour, Del Bosque is well-equipped to deal with the squad of Spanish superstars who play for some of the biggest clubs in some of the world's top leagues.
As of their last international friendly against Chile in November 2008, the current 20-man Spanish squad boasts 13 footballers who play in La Liga, a testament to both Spain's ability to nurture and hold onto its talent and to the high standard of its national league.
FIFA World Ranking as of November 2008: 1
Coach: Vicente Del Bosque
Stars: Iker Casillas, David Villa, Xavi, Fernando Torres
USA (Champions of North, Central America and Caribbean)
By winning the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup in a dramatic final against Mexico, the USA became the first team to qualify for the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup (discounting the automatically qualified hosts and reigning FIFA World Cup Champions Italy).
With three appearances, the USA has had a respectable showing in FIFA Confederations Cups past, finishing third on two occasions. USA fans will expect a solid performance at their nation's fourth appearance.
Initially an interim coach, Bob Bradley has managed to sculpt a young, successful team from the nation's exhaustive pool of talent. Although some sceptics point to Bradley's lack of International credentials, his time spent at a domestic youth level, under former US coach Bruce Arena, and coaching in Major League Soccer has empowered him with a profound knowledge of American football at both youth and senior levels. Bradley has employed this wisdom to full effect so far in his role as head coach.
Despite some heavy defeats in Copa America and international friendlies against Sweden, England and Brazil, the USA have the depth of talent and ability to be very formidable opponents in South Africa.
In one of football's father-son acts, Bradley's son, Michael plays a prominent role in the US team. The talented midfielder plays his club football in Germany (previously to good effect in the Netherlands) and is currently the record holder for most goals scored in a season by an American playing in a European top flight.
FIFA World Ranking as of November 2008: 24
Coach: Bob Bradley
Stars: Landon Donovan, Carlos Bocanegra, DaMarcus Beasley
Italy (2006 FIFA World Cup champions)
The Italians will have to come ready for full-throttle football as all teams will want to take down the reigning FIFA World Cup™ champions. The Azzurri are once again steered by Marcello Lippi, the man that led them to a 2006 finals crown in Germany. After a weak performance at the UEFA EURO 2008 under Roberto Donadoni, Lippi has been called back to reinstate the side's dominance on the world stage.
Since their defeat to Spain in the quarter-finals of last year's EURO, Italy have made steady progress with a seven game undefeated streak, albeit against low ranking opposition.
Lippi's influence is not to scoffed at, under his two management stints the Azzurri are undefeated in 31 games, earning their coach the record of longest undefeated streak with a national team (he shares the record with Javier Clemente of Spain and Alfio Basile of Argentina).
With their incredibly tight defensive style, opponents are in for a tough time against the Italians who hold the lowest average of goals conceded in FIFA World Cup preliminary matches, an astounding .58 goals a game.
With a few key players reaching the latter stages of their careers, the football maestro will have to set his strategy firmly in the future. Although old warriors of international football, this will be Italy's first FIFA Confederations Cup. Along with Brazil, the Italians hold the most FIFA World Cup titles of any nation.
FIFA World Ranking as of November 2008: 3
Coach: Marcello Lippi
Stars: Luca Toni, Fabio Cannavaro, Gennaro Gattuso
New Zealand (Champions of Oceania)
New Zealand will make their third FIFA Confederations Cup appearance in 2009 and the All Whites will be again searching for their first ever points at a Confederations Cup.
The 2009 instalment may very well be the time for this small football nation to create some rather large waves. The tournament will be their first competitive venture onto African soil.
Of the seven other teams participating in, New Zealand have met five in previous encounters. Only Italy and European champions Spain have never faced the four time Oceania Nations Cup Winners.
And the FIFA Confederations Cup may not be the last we see of Ricki Herbert's men; the side has a solid chance of qualifying for finals in 2010. Herbert holds positions as both the New Zealand coach and the Wellington Phoenix Coach. The majority of his squad members play football in Australia's Hyundai A-League, with more than half the current squad playing for Rikki's Wellington side.
Critics may argue that New Zealand's failure to make headway in major competitions is largely due to the lack of players in high-quality domestic leagues. The counter-argument is that, with a predominantly Wellington based squad, the boss has access to the majority of his national team all year round.
FIFA World Ranking as of November 2008: 60
Coach: Ricki Herbert
Stars: Ryan Nelsen, Chris Killen