Lock and load, sportsmen – the stars are leaving their constellations and descending into the football pitches. The Confederations Cup is a delightful opportunity to see some of the world’s best teams clash in something other than a friendly atmosphere. Italy walk into the tournament as one of the favourites, but they will have to keep their eyes open against some pretty interesting competitors. Let us take a closer look at the Azzurri’s challengers for this summer’s cup, and let us begin, as one might as well, from the nations in Italy’s own group.
Goalkeepers: Marco Amelia (Palermo), Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Morgan De Sanctis (Galatasaray)
Defenders: Fabio Cannavaro (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Nicola Legrottaglie (Juventus), Andrea Dossena (Liverpool), Alessandro Gamberini (Fiorentina), Fabio Grosso (Lyon), Davide Santon (Inter), Gianluca Zambrotta (Milan)
Midfielders: Mauro Camoranesi (Juventus), Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Gennaro Gattuso (Milan), Andrea Pirlo (Milan), Riccardo Montolivo (Fiorentina), Angelo Palombo (Sampdoria)
Strikers: Alberto Gilardino (Fiorentina), Vincenzo Iaquinta (Juventus), Simone Pepe (Udinese), Fabio Quagliarella (Napoli), Giuseppe Rossi (Villarreal), Luca Toni (Bayern Munich)
Brazil, the eternal favourites, are a far more solid team than they were three years ago. This sounds like a facile statement in retrospect, but the Verdeoro entered the 2006 World Cup with a team studded with stars and the appearance of a group ready to walk over everyone. Unfortunately, lack of discipline and mentality as well as Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira’s tendency to favour stardom over form in the drawing out of the squads resulted in one of the most mollified Brazil teams in years. Understanding the achievement of their current Coach, Dunga, means primarily understanding how he has changed their mentality – not their tactics.
The South American side are currently a very solid group with a true will to win as their impressive 4-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Uruguay – their first in Montevideo for 33 years – emphasises. Their backline is, by general agreement, surprisingly tight, though its progress has been overstated. It makes for a difficult block to break through, but it is also composed of players who can be erratic or very sensitive to injury. And since their keeper, Julio Cesar, is not the first to give signs of great promise, it remains to be seen whether he will fulfil anticipations or flop like Dida and Alexandre Doni before him. However, Cesar’s club form over the past two seasons bodes well and alongside players of the calibre of Daniel Alves, Maicon, Lucio and Juan in defence, Brazil can no longer be readily looked upon as the hard nut with a soft centre.
Dunga, himself a ‘water-carrier’ during his playing career with the national team, usually employs two holding midfielders – Gilberto Silva and one of Josué and Felipe Melo – to add further protection to the defence while the full-backs thrust forward in true Brazilian style to add typical potency in the attacking third. Meanwhile, the team’s offence as ever, brims with talent, even accounting for the omission of Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. The absence of the latter especially may be a blessing in disguise since he has encountered difficulty fitting in tactically with the other players at Dunga’s disposal, a problem he has also run into since his arrival in Milan. Kaka, Robinho and Alexandre Pato are on their own more than enough to hurt any team and they are backed by Dunga’s efficient midfield. If they can retain their discipline, Brazil can easily find the better of any team placed before them. That may be a banal statement, but in truth, when Brazil are on form there are very few teams who can live with them.
Goalkeepers: Julio Cesar (Inter Milan), Gomes (Tottenham), Vitor (Gremio)
Defenders: Maicon (Inter Milan), Daniel Alves (Barcelona), Andre Santos (Corinthians), Kleber (Internacional), Lucio (Bayern Munich), Alex (Chelsea), Juan (AS Roma), Luisao (Benfica)
Midfielders: Elano (Manchester City), Julio Baptista (AS Roma), Kaka (AC Milan), Gilberto Silva (Panathinaikos), Josue (Wolfsburg), Felipe Melo (Fiorentina), Anderson (Manchester United), Ramires (Cruzeiro)
Strikers: Luis Fabiano (Sevilla), Alexandre Pato (AC Milan), Robinho (Manchester City), Nilmar (Internacional)
The USA has been lauded for years as a team on the rise. But despite qualifying for every World Cup since 1990, the most success they can boast (other than their pre-war third-placed finish in 1930), is reaching the second round in 1994 and again in 2002. They have also claimed third position twice in previous editions of the Confederations Cup, although their last participation in 2003 saw them depart disappointingly at the first round stage.
The USA play very physical football, relying on a great deal of aerial game and often looking for the set piece. When they cannot score from outside the box, they try to penetrate by sheer force or speed. Their defensive game is a mess, not in the sense that it is inefficient, rather in that they seem to have misunderstood the role of central defenders and they usually field four of them – two in front of the keeper, and two in the middle of the pitch. Landon Donovan looks like a midfielder in the offensive phase, but he becomes a pit-bull as soon as the adversaries have the ball and several of his colleagues follow suit. They do possess more quality in the attacking third of the pitch with players such as Fulham’s Clint Dempsey, DaMarcus Beasley of Glasgow Rangers and the forward triumvirate of Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore and the wonderkid Freddy Adu in their ranks. The physicality of their set-up coupled with the potential of their front line gives them a very peculiar honour – they are the team normally most unlikely to win, yet the last that anyone would want to face, for the simple reason that they’ll fight you to rags.
The United States is probably the nation with the richest and most variegated sports culture in the world, but undoubtedly the biggest challenge facing the nation is to make their ‘soccer’ team a competitive outfit on the world stage. The African nations also sport a very physical game, but in their case it is part of their stylistic identity, much like choreographic dribbling is a trait of the Brazilians or team-play is a major facet of the German national team. Americans play physical because they have no style. Still in the act of discovering it, they spend the meantime filling that blank space with raw muscle. For this tournament, expect Bob Bradley’s team to ruffle a few feathers.
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Luis Robles (Kaiserslautern)
Defenders: Carlos Bocanegra (Rennes), Jonathan Bornstein (Chivas USA), Danny Califf (Midtjylland ), Jay DeMerit (Watford), Oguchi Onyewu (Standard de Liege), Heath Pearce (Hansa Rostock), Jonathan Spector (West Ham United), Marvell Wynne (Toronto FC)
Midfielders: Freddy Adu (AS Monaco), DaMarcus Beasley (Rangers), Michael Bradley (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Ricardo Clark (Houston Dynamo), Benny Feilhaber (Aarhus), Sacha Kljestan (Chivas USA), José Francisco Torres (Pachuca)
Strikers: Jozy Altidore (Xerez), Conor Casey (Colorado Rapids), Charlie Davies (Hammarby), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy)
Egypt walks into the tournament with a rather silent demeanour, entering as reigning African Nations champions. As it stands, with world champion’s Italy and Copa America holders Brazil standing in their way, they will still need to play well above their on-paper potential to qualify for the semi-finals.
The Egyptians possess a very insular national team system – there are several youngsters in the squad to provide evidence of how efficiently their system cultivates youth. Their current Coach, Hassan Shehata, attained his position after serving his apprenticeship with the junior team and took over from former Azzurri assistant Coach Marco Tardelli midway through the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign. Their profile on the official Confederations Cup site would have us believe that ‘the harmony between coaches and players’ resulting from this ‘has forged a terrific team spirit.’ We suspect the truth to be that the Egyptians simply have nothing better to choose from (although they deserve respect for sticking with their national coaches), and the result may be a provincial mentality more than a ‘terrific team spirit.’ Hence the stark contrast between their solid domestic success in the African Cups and their underwhelming performances on the stage of the World Cup, where teams like the Ivory Coast, Ghana and even Nigeria have better records and traditionally provide greater threats.
Egypt boast a decent squad for the most part, but the recent exclusion of Mido – their troublesome star striker – from the squad will limit their attacking options. The responsibility for goals will fall therefore on the shoulders of Amr Zaki, who spent last season on loan at Wigan, and Borussia Dortmund star Mohamed Zidan. The latter will need to do justice to his famous surname if Egypt are to cause any surprises this summer.
Goalkeepers: Essam El-Hadary (Sion), Abdul-Wahed Al-Sayed (Zamalek), Mohamed Sobhi (Ismaily), Al-Hani Soliman (Ittihad)
Defenders: Hani Saied and Mahmoud Fathalla (Zamalek), Wael Gomaa and Sayed Moawad (Ahly), Ahmed Saied (Harras Hodoud), Sherif Abdul-Fadil (Ismaily), Ahmed Al-Muhammadi (ENPPI)
Midfielders: Ahmed Samir Farag (Ismaily), Mohamed Aboutrika, Ahmed Fathi and Ahmed Hassan (Ahly), Hazem Emam (Zamalek), Mohamed Shawki (Middlesbrough), Hosni Abd-Rabou (Ahli Dubai), Ahmed Khairi and Mohamed Hommos (Ismaily), Abdul-Aziz Tawfik (ENPPI), Ahmed Eid (Harras Hodoud)
Strikers: Mohamed Zidan (Borussia Dortmund), Mohamed Mohsen Abou-Greisha (Ismaily), Ahmed Raouf (ENPPI), Ahmed Abdul-Ghani (Harras Hodoud), Ihab Al-Masri (Arab Contractors), Amr Zaki (Zamalek)
The teams composing the second group see Spain heading the troupe as the best team by a distance. It is a reputation they deserve, and considering how they have a very accessible group, it seems quite likely that we will see them in the final.
Spain is in its ascendancy at the moment, seemingly the present and future of football. Their midfield is arguably the best in the world, offering a tremendous array of talent and energy – the names of Xavi, Cesc Fabregas and Andrès Iniesta are synonymous with speed, youth and class. Most of the players from the Iberian peninsula are in their prime, too. Their offence may lack some depth compared to those of other nations, but the starters – David Villa and Fernando Torres – are phenomenal.
The Spanish team has a very low average age, which is of course a double-edged sword and youth may prove a particularly marked weakness in the context of a team the psychological cohesion of which has always been notoriously frail. The success in Vienna last summer will have gone some way to exorcising lingering doubts, but the Spaniards will have to confront far more serious ghosts at the World Cup than at either the Euros or the Confederations Cup (nerves are placed under lesser pressure here), but it will still be interesting to see how they fare if they go a goal down against a major team. This is not an impossibility because their defence, whilst good, is overestimated (just like that of Brazil). Goalkeeper Iker Casillas is a capable last line but if someone can take the lead before the Spanish do, we may witness surprises in the Spanish campaign.
Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Jose Reina (Liverpool), Diego Lopez (Villarreal)
Defenders: Raul Albiol (Valencia), Alvaro Arbeloa (Liverpool ), Joan Capdevila (Villarreal), Carlos Marchena (Valencia), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Carles Puyol (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid)
Midfielders: Xabi Alonso, (Liverpool), Sergi Busquets (Barcelona), Santi Cazorla (Villarreal), Cesc Fabregas (Arsenal), Xavi (Barcelona), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), David Silva (Valencia), Juan Manuel Mata (Valencia), Albert Riera (Liverpool)
Strikers: Daniel Guiza (Fenerbahce), Fernando Llorente (Athletic Bilbao), Fernando Torres (Liverpool), David Villa (Valencia)
New Zealand are easily the most obscure of the teams in the tournament, and for obvious reasons. The Kiwis qualified for the tournament by winning the OFC Nations Cup and the squad is composed of players from the Australian A-League, a competition which is almost as hard to follow as it is distant from anyone’s interest. The league is still in its infancy following its inception in 2005. Word goes that their striker Shane Smeltz is doing very well, although most likely – and judging by what little we have seen – their strength will lie in the midfield. The average age of the squad suggests a group of players with the right dose of experience (albeit not on this stage), so they should at least be ordered and capable of taking advantage of obvious weaknesses in their adversaries. Smeltz and Celtic’s Chris Killen will carry the nation’s hopes as captain Ryan Nelsen misses the tournament through injury.
Interestingly, the Coach for the New Zealand national team – Ricki Herbert – also manages one of the teams in the Australian A-League, and half of his nationals come from his own club, Wellington Phoenix. If this is the degree of selection that the country has at its disposal, in terms of both coaches and players, then it probably explains why New Zealand have never earned a single point in two previous appearances in the Confederations Cup. It is true that Guus Hiddink managed to beat sufficient quality into Australia in 2006 to suggest that players from down under can provide a threat, but it will take a small miracle for this team to improve on their record so far – much less to qualify for the semi-finals.
New Zealand squad
Goalkeepers: Mark Paston (Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand), Glen Moss (Melbourne Victory, Australia), James Bannatyne (Petone, New Zealand)
Defenders: Aaron Scott (Waitakere Utd., New Zealand), Tony Lochhead (Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand), Ben Sigmund (Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand), Ivan Vicelich (Auckland City, New Zealand),Andy Boyens (New York Red Bulls, US), Steven Old (Kilmarnock, Scotland), Dave Mulligan (Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand)
Midfielders: Duncan Oughton – (Columbus Crew, US), Simon Elliott (San Jose Earthquakes, US), Tim Brown (Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand), Leo Bertos (Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand), Andy Barron (Petone, New Zealand), Jeremy Christie (Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand), Chris James (Tampere Utd., Finland)
Strikers: Shane Smeltz (Gold Coast United, Australia), Chris Killen (Celtic, Scotland), Jeremy Brockie (North Queensland Fury, Australia), Chris Wood (West Bromwich Albion, England), Kris Bright (Panserraikos, Greece), Jarrod Smith (Seattle Sounders, US)
The representative of the Asian continent is Iraq. Their presence in South Africa is something of a surprise when one considers their success at the Asian finals – at only their sixth attempt – came at the expense of more established teams such as Saudi Arabia and Japan. The Iraqis, having failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, or the final group stage of qualifying for that matter, will undoubtedly look upon the Confederations Cup as their opportunity to impress on a global stage. And with it being the only major tournament they will take part in until the next Asian Cup in 2011, their motivation should be as high as any of their opponents to make a good impression on the tournament.
Asian teams often specialise in offensive football and the Iraqis are no exception. Their offence is spearheaded by experienced captain Younis Mahmoud, and given the modest defences of their competitors, the unknown element possessed by Iraq could quite conceivably be enough to see them qualify for the semi-finals. In fact, of all the teams capable of generating surprises or at least causing unexpected difficulties, the Iraqis are probably the most prominent, above even Egypt. They will need a very strong performance by Bassim Abbas and his colleagues in defence if they are to take advantage of any lead their forwards may conquer, but even nations like Spain or Brazil may prove vulnerable to Iraq’s characteristics. It all depends on how tactically intelligent their Coach Bora Milutinovic will prove, and that will be seen on the day.
Goalkeepers: Mohammed Kasid (Al-Zawraa), Nour Sabri (Talaba), Uday Talib (Duhok)
Defenders: Basim Abbas (Talaba), Muayad Khalid (Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya), Isam Yaseen (Duhok), Samir Saeed (Arbil), Farid Majeed (Talaba), Salam Shaker (Al-Khor, Qatar), Ali Hussein Rahema (Al-Wakra, Qatar), Mohammed Ali Karim (Al-Jazeera, UAE);Dara Mohammed Habeeb (Arbil)
Midfielders: Halgurd Mulla Mohammed (Sulaymaniya), Mahdi Karim (Al-Khor, Qatar), Nashat Akram (FC Twente, Holland), Hawar Mulla Mohammed (Anorthosis Famagusta, Cyprus), Abdul-Wahab Abu Al-Hail (Sepahan Isfahan, Iran), Salih Sadir (Al-Ahed, Lebanon)
Strikers: Karrar Jassim (Al-Wakra, Qatar), Emad Mohammed (Sepahan Isfahan, Iran), Alaa Abdul-Zahra (Al-Khor, Qatar), Younis Mahmoud (Al-Gharafa, Qatar), Luai Salah (Al-Wahda, UAE)
South Africa will be driven purely by motivation, with one of the weakest teams on paper in the tournament. The fact that they failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup and the 2010 African Cup of Nations, and never went beyond the group stage in the last three editions of that same tournament, illustrates how out of place they seem in the current group and how slim their chances of winning the Confederations trophy actually are.
Still, South Africa are the host nation for the next World Cup and without doubt they will be looking to impress. South Korea, as co-hosts in 2002, and with the support of millions performed miracles to reach the World Cup semi-finals under Hiddink’s stewardship. South Africa will look to use their Asian counterparts’ enthusiasm as a model to follow. The Confederations Cup is an excellent chance for them to show what they can do, and their Coach Joel Santana will be aware that a good showing will lay the foundations for optimism throughout the country ahead of next year’s World Cup finals.
Furthermore, South Africa stand in contrast to their African counterparts Egypt in that they have what looks on paper the easier group. They should register a win over New Zealand with Spain on the other hand proving a more difficult proposition, meaning a result against Iraq could be enough for them to achieve qualification for the semi-finals. Progression beyond that would appear unlikely, but a semi-final and the prospect of a third/fourth place play-off would represent success and a strong beginning for the nation. South Africa will undoubtedly miss the predatory instincts of record-goalscorer Benni McCarthy, left out of the squad by Santana without explanation, meaning the weight of expectation will fall on the shoulders of experienced duo, Steven Pienaar and Aaron Mokoena. No team will be as determined as Bafana Bafana to do well and this could give them a slight edge over their rivals, as could the unpredictable quality of the pitches in their homeland. We do not know if South Africa will bite, but it is sure like daylight they will fight.
Goalkeepers: Brian Baloyi (Mamelodi Sundowns), Rowen Fernandez (Arminia Bielefeld, Germany) Itumeleng Khune (Kaizer Chiefs)
Defenders: Siboniso Gaxa, Matthew Booth (both Sundowns), Morgan Gould, Bongani Khumalo (both SuperSport United), Aaron Mokoena (Portsmouth, United Kingdom), Bryce Moon (Panathinaikos, Greece), Innocent Mdledle (Orlando Pirates), Tsepo Masilela (Maccabi Haifa, Israel)
Midfielders: Steven Pienaar (Everton, United Kingdom), Siphiwe Tshabalala (Chiefs), Elrio van Heerden (Blackburn Rovers, United Kingdom), Teko Modise, Benson Mhlongo (both Pirates), Macbeth Sibaya (Rubin Kazan, Russia), Lance Davids (SuperSport United), Kagisho Dikgacoi (Golden Arrows)
Strikers: Terror Fanteni (Maccabi Haifa, Israel), Katlego Mashego (Pirates), Bernard Parker (Red Star Belgrade, Serbia) and Katlego Mphela (Sundowns)
Italy at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup
June 6, 2009 – 19:50 – Arena Garibaldi, Pisa
Italy 3-0 Northern Ireland – Rossi 19, Foggia 52, Pellissier 73
June 10, 2009 – 19:50 – Super Stadium, Pretoria
Italy 4-3 New Zealand – Gilardino 33, 48, Iaquinta 68, 73; Smeltz 13, Killen 42, pen 57
June 15, 2009 – 20:30 – Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
Italy vs. USA
June 18, 2009 – 20:30 – Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
Italy vs. Egypt
June 21, 2009 – 20:30 – Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
Italy vs. Brazil
June 24-25, 2009 – both 20:30 – Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein & Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
June 28, 2009 – 15:00 – Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg
Third place play-off
June 28, 2009 – 20:30 – Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg