Spotlight on SA for Confed Cup

With stars such as Brazil’s Kaka and Spain’s Fernando Torres heading to the Confederations Cup, the host South Africans are hoping to put on a show that will prove they were the right choice to stage the 2010 World Cup.

Eight teams are coming to South Africa to play the June 14 to 28 tournament in four of the stadiums that will also stage World Cup matches next year. The teams are sending most of their best stars, even those who have only just finished a gruelling season with their European clubs.

Brazil will send most of the players who are about to take part in World Cup qualifying action in the next few days while Spain, the entertaining winner of last year’s Euro 2008 championship, has announced its strongest available squad.

Brazil is in a tough group with World Cup champion Italy, the United States and African champion Egypt. Spain is in a much easier group with Asian champion Iraq, New Zealand and South Africa.

But much of the focus will be on the organisational capacity of the host nation.

The South Africans, who have been dreaming for decades of the World Cup coming to their continent, have to put on a near flawless performance to convince a skeptical world that their country, plagued by street crime and HIV/Aids, is safe and able to hold such a big championship.

Rows of empty seats at the 16 matches in Johannesburg, Rustenburg, Pretoria and Bloemfontein won’t help and, with the opening day looming, organisers are still trying to sell the approximately 30% of unsold tickets. The problem is that, unlike the World Cup, there won’t be the hundreds of thousands of overseas fans for this competition.

”It would be a shame if we don’t have full stadiums,” said Fifa general secretary Jerome Valcke. ”It is a unique chance. It is something special.”

South Africa appears to have overcome the main criticism that the stadiums needed for the World Cup wouldn’t be ready on time.

For many months after South Africa was awarded the World Cup, very little work was done to build and refurbish the grounds or improve transportation. Work is still under way and the sight of long lines of stationary traffic in Johannesburg is down to essential efforts to improve the city’s main roads.

With Bloemfontein’s first game between Brazil and Egypt coming up June 15, workers are busy renovating and modernising the quaint little airport. Passengers arriving and departing have to squeeze
past each other with half the terminal cordoned off to let painters and builders get on with their work.

All this is because the biggest stars in the world are due to arrive to show off their skills in a competition which will have football’s spotlight for two weeks and will be watched, say the organisers, by a cumulative worldwide TV audience of nine billion
people. But the tournament may well have been forgotten by the time the World Cup itself kicks off next year.

Each of the Confederation Cup teams comes to South Africa with its own agenda.

Brazil has been under a cloud, with coach Dunga making unpopular player selection decisions as he tries to create a team which wins games as well as entertains. With Kaka, Robinho and Alexandre Pato
in his squad but with Ronaldinho and Ronaldo left out, Dunga has the scoring talent and, these days, Brazil is out to show it has some top quality defenders too.

”It’s always about results when it comes to the Brazilian national team,” Dunga said. ”The fans want results, we all know that.”

The absence of the injured Andres Iniesta means that four rather than five of the Barcelona lineup that beat Manchester United 2-0 in the Champions League final are in Spain’s squad. Barcelona also
won the Spanish league and cup.

”It’s been a great season both personally and professionally,” said Barca defender Gerard Pique, who is recovering from a thigh injury. ”We are going to South Africa to win the tournament.”

Coach Vicente del Bosque has 16 of the 23-strong squad that won the European championship and is on a 31-game unbeaten run. Torres and David Villa will again lead the attack ahead of a rich group of talented midfield stars in Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Xabi Alonso. Spain will want to underline why it’s the best team in the world.

Italy has spent the last three years failing to live up to its status as World Cup holder but is sending a strong lineup of established stars such as goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, defender Fabio Cannavaro, midfielder Andrea Pirlo and lanky striker Luca Toni. Tough tackling Gennaro Gattuso is also back in the World Cup qualifying squad after a long injury lay-off. He could make it to South Africa, although coach Marcello Lippi isn’t sure whether winning the Confed Cup is such a good thing.

”We’re going to try to treat it with respect,” he said. ”But the team that wins the Confederations Cup never wins the World Cup. So I’m not sure I want to win it.”

Improving steadily under coach Bob Bradley, the United States will be sobered by a 3-1 World Cup qualifying loss to Costa Rica on Wednesday but hopes to rebound on Saturday at home against
Honduras. Then the US goes to the Confed Cup with the aim of giving a good showing.

”I think we all recognise that the spotlight will be much brighter next year. But in that regard, maybe it’s part of what makes it a great opportunity,” Bradley said. ”You’re playing against top teams, and yet you’re doing it at a time when maybe there’s a little less focus and it gives you a chance to size up a lot of things.”

Of the others, Iraq has been in decline since winning the Asia Cup but now has veteran and much travelled coach Bora Milutinovic in charge.

Egypt, winner of a record six African Cup of Nations
titles, aims to become the first from its continent to win the Confed Cup. Although New Zealand plays its third Confed Cup, it is still chasing its first point.

The South Africans have struggled on the field since they knew they would host the World Cup and Joel Santana has cut several European-based players from his squad. The host plays the opening
game against Iraq at Ellis Park. – Sapa-AP

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