Let the showcase begin

2009-06-12 00:00

THREE-hundred-and-sixty-three days to go until the 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup kickoff at Soccer City. And two days to the kickoff of the 2009 Confederations Cup with the opener between South Africa and Iraq at Ellis Park on Sunday.

Officially the Confederations Cup, according to a Fifa release, “aims to give the top teams from all the continents a chance to represent their region in a world playoff”. The participants are the champions of Fifa’s six continental confederations — Europe, South America, Africa, Asia, Oceania and Concacaf (the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football), the World Cup champions and the hosts. In this case, respectively, Spain, Brazil, Egypt, Iraq, New Zealand, U.S., Italy and South Africa.

More recently, since 2001, the tournament has also taken on the form of a useful dry run for a World Cup host nation to test all the systems a year before the main event. With eight teams participating as opposed to 32, press accreditation, media centres and stadium press areas, ticketing, stadium security, telecommunications, IT, television and radio broadcasting and allocation of visas to press, travelling fans, participating associations and tour operators can all be run as a smaller-scale facsimile of how they will be in the World Cup, and glitches ironed out.

To be honest, though, even Fifa seems to have struggled to define the exact purpose of the Confederations Cup. In its release soccer’s global controlling body rather vaguely states: “The Fifa Confederations Cup has always been a showcase for matches between teams who would otherwise only ever meet in the Fifa World Cup, if at all. Japan vs Colombia (2003), Mexico vs Australia (2001), Germany vs New Zealand (1999), Bolivia vs Egypt (1999), UAE vs Uruguay (1997), U.S. vs Cote d’Ivoire (1992), Argentina vs Tunisia, Brazil vs Greece and Germany vs Argentina (all 2005) are just some examples.”

Largely, and certainly compared with the huge viewership figures for the World Cup, the Confed has only registered passing interest with global audiences, and struggled to capture the imagination of the public in its host nation.

The exception was in football-mad Mexico, home of the world’s greatest World Cup in 1986, when the central American country hosted the Confed to average audiences of 60 000 in 1999, and 11 000 people packed the Azteca in Mexico City to watch the hosts beat Brazil 4-3 in a thrilling final.

In Germany in 2005, where Brazil thrashed Argentina 4-1 in the final, 83% of tickets were sold. In South Africa so far, according to Fifa, 70% have been sold. With the excitement that could be generated once the tournament starts, and South Africans catch wind to watching Kaka, Fernando Torres and Andrea Pirlo on their own fields, that figure could be inflated to somewhere close to Germany.

Witness columnist and respected sports administrator and author Edward Griffiths has commented that the unique nature of South African crowds, who have not been exposed to world-class football on their own shores as much as supporters in Europe and South America, and a fascination with the first World Cup to be hosted in Africa, could see global interest rise in the Confed, and see a revolution in the way the tournament is viewed globally.

Equally, for Bafana Bafana, playing hosts to a world-class tournament in front of big home crowds has been described as an opportunity for the underachieving national team to “emerge from under a ton of bricks” a year ahead of the World Cup.

The Confederations Cup originated in Saudia Arabia in 1992 and 1995 as the King Fahd Cup, or Intercontinental Championship, involving the hosts and three invited teams. It came under the auspices of Fifa in 1997, the only occasion South Africa took part in the event ahead of the current tournament. Clive Barker’s African champions drew 2-2 against Czech Republic, and lost 1-0 to United Arab Emirates and 4-3 to Uruguay. Brazil beat Australia 6-0 in the final, after the same teams had drawn 0-0 earlier in the group stages.

The 2003 event, hosted by defending and European champions France, was marked by the tragic death of Cameroon midfielder Marc-Vivien Foe after collapsing from a heart-related condition in the semi-final against Columbia. In an emotionally charged final, France beat Cameroon by an extra-time golden goal.

For South Africans the current tournament serves as a tasty appetiser for next year’s World Cup, and certainly never before has such an array of soccer stars been seen on these shores.

In group A, Bafana Bafana face New Zealand, Iraq and world number-one ranked Spain. The Spanish include seven players from the Barcelona side who completely outplayed Manchester United in a sublime performance in the Champions League final in Rome and 16 of their Euro 2008 heroes, although rising star Andres Iniesta is out with an injury.

In group B, the “group of death”, Brazil, who rival Spain on form for the claim to being the best team in the world, are up against world champions Italy, highly competitive Egypt and ambitious U.S.. In this group, Brazil’s Kaka and Robinho, Italy’s Pirlo, Fabio Cannavaro, Gennaro Gattuso and Gianluigi Buffon, Egypt’s Mohamed Aboutrika, Amr Zaki and Mohamed Zidan, and U.S.’s Landon Donovan and Jozy Altidore make up some of the household names and rising stars of world football.

The winners and runners-up from the two groups progress to the semi-finals.

Matches will be played at four venues — Ellis Park, Loftus Versfeld, the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein and Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace in Rustenburg — all World Cup venues. With the international press out in full force, the world’s eyes will be on the host country of the 2010 Soccer World Cup until the final at Ellis Park on June 28.

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