While the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ remains fresh in the memory of most football fans, national teams are already getting back down to business. In fact, the international fixture list for 10 and 11 August contains no fewer than 53 friendly matches across the globe, as various nations indulge in some fine-tuning ahead of upcoming continental qualifying campaigns.
As many of the traditional football powers were forced into making radical changes following experiences in South Africa that ranged from disappointing to dreadful, this week heralds the beginning of exciting eras for countries such as Italy, France, Greece, Brazil, and their respective new coaches, Cesare Prandelli, Laurent Blanc, Fernando Santos and Mano Menezes, as well as Argentina, and their caretaker coach Sergio Batista.
Spain’s first outing as world champions will take place in Latin America, in the mythical Estadio Azteca, as part of the celebrations marking the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence. Eighteen of the 23 members of Spain’s FIFA World Cup-winning squad are set to take part, including seven from Barcelona. Andres Iniesta, Raul Albiol, Fernando Torres and Pepe Reina have been granted some much-needed rest, while Javi Martinez’s services have been placed at the disposal of Spain’s U-21 side. As replacements, Vicente del Bosque has brought back winger Santi Cazorla, a member of Spain's UEFA EURO 2008-winning squad, twice-capped Osasuna defender Nacho Monreal and Villarreal midfielder Bruno Soriano, who could well make his international debut.
In the opposing camp, Enrique Meza has taken the reins of El Tri on an interim, one-match basis, replacing Javier Aguirre, who resigned after Mexico’s 3-1 defeat by Argentina at the Round of 16 stage in South Africa. Of the 19 players selected, 12 took part in the ultimately unsuccessful 2010 FIFA World Cup campaign and of those 12, ten play their club football in Europe. Talismanic veteran Cuauhtemoc Blanco will be a notable absentee.
The other games
With ‘their’ FIFA World Cup now four years away, Brazil’s new coaching staff have already begun an overhaul of the national team. In his maiden squad announcement ahead of the midweek clash with United States, Mano Menezes included just four of the players who suffered an early exit in South Africa this summer, namely Robinho, Daniel Alves, Ramires and Thiago Silva. Officially, the remaining members of the pool have been allowed extra time to recover from their efforts, but Menezes has already demonstrated that he will be nothing less than his own man as he prepares for the ultimate triumph in 2014.
Another country in the process of turning the page is Italy, where Cesare Prandelli finds himself charged with restoring some pride to a Squadra Azzurra still to achieve a victory in 2010 and reeling from the worst FIFA World Cup performance in their history. For Tuesday’s friendly match with a Côte d'Ivoire side deprived of Didier Drogba, Italy’s new man at the helm has also been quick to stamp his authority on the team, calling up a host of new faces, the majority of which could be described as defensive-minded. Prandelli has also given some thought to the other end of the pitch, however, bringing the talented Antonio Cassano in from the cold and offering first call-ups to Brazil-born striker Amauri and Inter Milan forward Mario Balotelli.
Another man busy ringing the changes is newly-installed French coach, Laurent Blanc. Having decided to dispense a one-match suspension to the squad members involved in their South Africa 2010 debacle, the first 22-man pool named by Le President contains no fewer than 13 uncapped players and a total of 16 from France’s Ligue 1. In addition, Karim Benzema, Philippe Mexes and Samir Nasri make their grand return for Les Bleus.
Fabio Capello, clearly disappointed by England’s performances at FIFA’s flagship tournament, has also undertaken some rebuilding work in the run-up to the Three Lions’ preparatory game against Hungary. Goalkeepers David James and Robert Green, midfielder Joe Cole and Tottenham front-men Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe are the main casualties of the revamp, with the principal beneficiaries being Arsenal starlets Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs.
Argentina – post-Diego Maradona – will make their way to the Republic of Ireland with U-20 coach Batista in temporary control. Among the 17 players called up for the encounter, not one plies his trade on home soil. Two of Maradona’s favourites, Juan Sebastian Veron, 35, and Martin Palermo, 36, have thus been left out of the squad, while there are recalls for Fernando Gago, Fabricio Coloccini and Pablo Zabaleta.
Germany coach Joachim Low has decided to rest the majority of his starting XI against Denmark, retaining just eight members of the group that attained third place in South Africa. Michael Ballack, back in training after injury, has also been excused from the trip to Scandinavia. Despite these absences, Low’s 18-man squad boasts considerable international experience, with Wolfsburg’s Sascha Riether and Monchengladbach’s Marco Reus the only uncapped players included.
Dutchman Dick Advocaat, newly-appointed coach of Russia, has taken a different approach ahead of welcoming Bulgaria on Wednesday, giving top priority to tried and trusted performers. It is worth noting that Advocaat’s squad includes five players from Zenit St. Petersburg, the club he led to the Russia title in 2007.
In Greece, the task facing Portuguese coach Fernando Santos is a considerable one: replacing the legendary Otto Rehhagel at the helm of To Piratiko. Boosted by Greek football’s 'Coach of the Decade' award at a prestigious ceremony earlier this year, Santos has vowed to instil a more adventurous spirit into the national side's style of play.
Player to watch
20-year old Balotelli, who had never once received a call-up from former coach Marcello Lippi, is set to make a first-ever appearance in coach Prandelli’s new-look Italy team. Hugely talented and capable of breathtaking exploits in front of goal, the young striker has a promising future ahead if he can iron out the disciplinary problems that have previously encroached upon his game.
55,000 - The number of tickets already sold for the glamour friendly between USA and Brazil at New Meadowlands Stadium, the new home of the New York Giants and New York Jets, a level of interest that once again confirms the continuing growth of football in the USA.
What they said
“The top criteria for me will be their frame of mind, their performance level and their love of the jersey. Those that don’t have that, and that don’t want to have it – well, they may as well go home.” Laurent Blanc, France coach