JOHANNESBURG -- Howzit?
I've learned a lot of the local lingo while living in South Africa for the past six months (look for a column on what all you World Cup travelers can expect in 2010), and I'm looking forward to spending the next two weeks with you on my daily Confederations Cup blog. It'll be a lot like my Euro 2008 blog, only there's one big change: I actually have boots on the ground this time, allowing me to do things like, say, having dinner on Thursday night with the Iraqi national team and its legendary vagabond coach, Bora Milutinovic (blog post to follow).
As we get ready for host South Africa to meet Iraq in the Confed Cup opener on Sunday (and the U.S. to meet Italy on Monday), here are six pertinent questions:
- Why should we care about the Confederations Cup? Simple: It's a mini-World Cup, the best stand-alone tournament among the world's national teams in 2009. World Cup holder Italy is in the eight-team field, as are the six reigning continental champions (Spain, Brazil, the United States, Iraq, Egypt, New Zealand) and the host (South Africa). There's plenty of star power on hand: Brazil's Kaká and Robinho, Spain's Fernando Torres, Xavi and David Villa, and Italy's Andrea Pirlo, Gigi Buffon and Fabio Cannavaro. If the last Confed Cup in 2005 was any indication, we should be in for some entertaining soccer. Even better for U.S. fans, all the games will be broadcast live (and in HD) on the ESPN family of channels.
- Can the United States handle Hell Week? Now that the U.S. has reached five straight World Cups, everyone expects the Yanks to make it through qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. The more pertinent question now is: Can Bob Bradley's boys compete (and win) against the world's best teams on the big stages? This week we'll start to find out. The U.S. meets Italy on Monday (2:25 p.m. ET, ESPN) and Brazil on Thursday (9:55 a.m., ESPN2), followed by Egypt on June 21 (2:25 p.m. ET, ESPN2). One of the frustrating things about analyzing the U.S. team is how rarely it plays competitive games (not friendlies) against world powers. Now we'll get to see what the Americans are made of. Judging by the U.S.'s recent form in World Cup qualifying, it'll be a tall order for the Yanks to beat out Italy or Brazil to advance from the group stage -- to do so, the U.S. will likely need at least four points (from a win and a tie) in the first three games.
- Will New Jersey-bred Italian striker Giuseppe Rossi zap his home country? Rossi, a 22-year-old Clifton, N.J., native who plays for Spain's Villarreal, chose to represent Italy instead of the United States. It was a bold move, one that's paying off for Rossi now that he's likely to start for Italy on Monday against the Americans. Rossi, the leading scorer in the 2008 Olympics, recently scored for the first time at the senior level for Italy, and his emotions will be running high on Monday. If he finds the net against the U.S., fans of the red, white and blue will be even more bitter about the one that got away.
- Can South Africa give its fans reason for hope? While living here for half a year, I've learned that South Africans are hopelessly pessimistic about their own team. Indeed, Bafana Bafana has regressed in recent years. After reaching the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, South Africa failed to qualify for Germany 2006. Even worse, it didn't qualify for last year's African Cup of Nations (yikes). The team's most dangerous scorer, Benni McCarthy, didn't even get called in to the team for Confed Cup, and the nation fears that in 2010 it will be the first host country not to survive the group stage at the World Cup. That said, there's still plenty of reason for optimism, not least because Bafana Bafana is the answer to my next question.
- Which team could post the biggest surprise? South Africa actually has a lot going for it in Confed Cup. It's the host country, and fan support helps a ton, especially if Bafana gets off on the right foot. It has a sweetheart draw, facing Iraq and New Zealand in the first two games. (If SA wins both, it'll reach the semifinals no matter what happens in its final group game against Spain.) And the South Africans played better last week in a 1-0 friendly win against Poland. If they can get their confidence up with two wins to start off the tournament, the fans here will feel a whole lot better. (Do keep an eye on New Zealand, though: the Kiwis looked good on set pieces in a 4-3 friendly loss against Italy's B team this week.)
- Are Spain and Brazil the best national teams in the world right now? Short answer: Yes. If the year was 2008, the world's dream matchup would have been Spain-Argentina. But the Argentines are struggling mightily under coach Diego Maradona these days -- El Diego doesn't seem to do so well when he's high (I'm talking about playing at altitude here)-- and now it's Brazil that is thumping everybody in South American World Cup qualifying. Meanwhile, Spain is a perfect 6-0 in its own UEFA qualifying group. If you're a neutral, it's hard not to get fired up for a potential Spain-Brazil final here on June 28, with new Real Madrid signing Kaká wanting to show everyone in Spain that he's in top form for his country as well.
I'm no fan of predictions, but what the heck:
Semifinals: Spain beats Italy, Brazil beats South Africa.
Final: Brazil beats Spain (upset city!). Dunga and I might have to kiss and make up.
What are you most excited to see in the Confederations Cup? Who do you like? And what else is on your mind for the tournament? Post your thoughts below, and check back in the coming days for updates and reactions to the games! I'm also on Twitter, now, too.
Grant Wahl's new book, The Beckham Experiment, comes out July 14. You can pre-order it here.