The lowdown on the 2009 Confederations Cup

With seemingly no end to the long summer nights as the off-season lowly ticks by day by day, starved football fans can start salivating at the thought of live football again next week as the 2009 Confederations Cup kicks-off in South Africa.

So what is the point of this tournament, and why should you tune in?

Much like the World Cup, many in England pooh-pooh the Confederations Cup as some namby-pamby souped-up games which offers a prize that no-one really cares about in a format that makes little sense. Yet, arguably such attitudes are borne out of sour grapes from England’s non-participation. It is easier to bash something that you are not a member of than accepting the tournament’s place in the overall football calendar.

Without doubt, the Confederations Cup has a practical, trial-and-error slant to its existence. The simplistic view of the competition is to see it as a dry-run for the 2010 World Cup, a chance for South Africa to test out four of their new stadiums, as well as new transport links and infrastructure ahead of the biggest sporting event on the planet in 12 months time.

But the games also acts as a fact-finding trip for those teams involved, offering to participants a unique opportunity to come together a year in advance of the main event to acclimatise and to be accustomed to playing football in Africa.

Who is involved?

The field is made up of the champions of the six continental confederations plus the last World Cup winners and the 2010 host nation, in which the eight nations are split into two round-robin groups of four, from which the top two advance to the semi-finals and then the final.

Accordingly, European champions Spain, Brazil and world champions Italy are earmarked as the favourites for the title. But the Americans and the Egyptians also habour justified outside hopes of pulling an upset, the Iraqis are the unknown quality, while the South Africans and New Zealanders will aim to prove that that are not simply making up the numbers.

Group A is comprised of Spain, hosts South Africa, New Zealand and Iraq. Group B sees powerhouse Italy and Brazil meet alongside Egypt and the United States.

Spain – 11/8 favourites

“It is a great chance to have all the players together in unusual conditions and as European champions we have a reputation to defend. None of my players have played in Africa before and we go to a country where it is cool, a change from the hot summer of Spain. It will be a good test of character.” – Spain coach Vicente del Bosque.

And Del Bosque has plenty to be optimistic about. Since claiming the European Championship, Spain have recorded a 100% record in World Cup qualifying (6 for 6), while after thumping Azerbaijan for six midweek, Spain’s overall unbeaten streak now stands at thirty-two games.

With an A-list squad packed full of stars – Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Alonso, Fabregas, Xavi, Torres, Guiza and Villa to name but a few – Spain, with their ticki-tacki football are the team to beat.

Brazil – 13/8 second favourites

The reigning champions.

Brazil are the most successful team in Confederations Cup history, with two title triumphs and one runners-up medal, and the Samba Boys have also enlisted a galaxy of superstars in their effort to retain their crown.

Whether in defence or attack, Brazil are loaded with quality. Up top, Kaka, Luis Fabiano and Robinho lead the line, while upstarts Alexandre Pato and Nilmar could well use the games as a launchpad to propel themselves at the international level. But Brazil are not all about their attack, boasting a water-tight defence to boot. Masrhalled by the increasingly impressive Julio Cesar between the sticks, Maicon, Marcelo, Juan and Lucio combine to form a rock-solid defence.

Italy – 3/1 third favourites

Qualifying as the World Champions, Marcello Lippi leads the Azzurri into their first Confederations Cup, however a black cloud hangs over the Italians ability to walk away with the trophy.

Writing off the Italians is a dangerous game. Nevertheless, with common consensus viewing Serie A as falling behind the Premier League or La Liga, and with the Italian squad almost exclusively home-based, it is understandable why the bookies are pricing the Italians as only third favourites.

The Italians appear to be suffering from a lack of fresh talent, with Buffon, Cannavaro, Zambrotta, Pirlo, Gattuso, Camoranesi and Toni all approaching their twilight footballing years. Coming through the ranks are the likes of Giuseppe Rossi and Riccardo Montolivo, yet question-marks remain whether such fresh blood can lead the Italians to trophies.

South Africa – 22/1

The hosts head into the tournament fending off tough questions from locals as to why coach Joel Santana left out European stars Benni McCarthy and Nasief Morris, as well as the top goal scorer of the local league, Richard Henyekane.

Bafana Bafana’s strength lies in the midfield. The likes of Kagisho Dikgacoi, Benson Mhlongo and MacBeth Sibaya are all fine players in the center of the park. Steven Piennar is the man responsible for most of the creative passes in the danger zone together with wonderful prospect Teko Modise, and the combination of these players gives South Africa its share of chances in every game.

But the truth is that little is expected of South Africa in the Confederations Cup. The team has the talent to play good football but they lack consistency. Yet, don’t be surprised if the hosts spring at least one surprise in the games.

Egypt – 25/1

Egypt comes to this tournament battered and in bad shape, with a very big chance that the Pharoahs will miss out of qualification for the 2010 World Cup.

Egypt’s strength lies in its midfield and attack. With leading strikers Amr Zaki and Emad Metab injured, Mohamed Zidan becomes even more important. Mohamed Abu Treika is the team’s playmaker and talisman, while the responsibility in the center of field will fall on Hosny Abd Rabou.

Egypt’s problems lie with their shaky defence. Veteran Wael Gomaa is in bad shape, as well as Hani Saied. Perhaps if coach Hassan Shehata gives playing time to promising youngsters Ahmed Al Muhammadi and Ahmed Khairy we can see future stars in action, and also probably a better defensive game for the team.

Now is the time for Egypt’s youngsters to take the control in the defence. That will be the key for the success of the team in South Africa.

United States – 25/1

The United States enter the tournament in a state of flux with coach Bob Bradley seemingly selecting an ever-changing lineup. As such, many except the US to use the tournament as a chance to experiment, and for Bradley to home in on his best XI.

The Americans main strengths are at opposite ends of the pitch, with goalie Tim Howard offering a safe sturdy pair of hands in goal while striker Landon Donovan is always a threat up-top. Elsewhere, time is rapidly approaching for upstarts Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore to make their name on the world stage, while Freddy Adu (remember him!) also has the potential to cement his name in lights. Premier League scouts will also be keen to check out Oguchi Onyewu with the Standard Liege centre-half reportedly linked with several English clubs.

Due to the group in which they find themselves though, the United States may struggle to pull it together before next week’s tournament and it would be no surprise if they end up bottom of their group.

Iraq – 80/1

With memories of their fairytale 2007 Asian Cup triumph still fresh in the memory, the Iraqi national team is heading to Africa in high spirits. Yet two years in a long time in Iraq’s recent history, and the current Iraq squad is already licking their wounds after exiting the World Cup qualification process.

Iraq’s success relies on their forwards. Much depends on the ability of influential playmaker Nashat Akram, an extremely talented player who recently signed for Dutch side Twente. Alongside, target man Younis Mahmoud’s form has been hit-and-miss of late, but when he is in shape, he is one of the best strikers in Asia. Together with the talented Emad Mohamed, Iraq has some fine attacking talent.

In the midfield we also find left winger Hawar Mulla Muhamed, a star player and Karrar Jasim, one of the most talented players in Asia who is still very young and plays in the Qatari league. Iraq’s weaknesses are its defence and lack of consistency. If Milutinovic can combine all the team’s aspects together, Iraq may well put out a few surprises.

New Zealand – 250/1

Buoyed by their narrow 4-3 defeat to Italy in a warm-up match last week, a well-rounded New Zealand team will try and gather their first ever points in the Confederations Cup.

Shane Smeltz, 27, is the most dangerous player in the squad. He couldn’t impress during his time in England, but found his form in Australia. Smeltz is a reliable target man with good heading ability and positional sense. He is in magnificent form now after clinching the A-League’s Player of the Year award.

Overall, New Zealand are the most underrated team in the tournament and probably the weakest side. But with their determination and progress over the last years, they may well be the dark horse for the tournament. And perhaps we will also see them in South Africa in 2010.