With less than a year to go before the World Cup kicks off in South Africa, seven nations are joining the hosts for a sneak preview tournament, the FIFA Confederations Cup. The roster is highlighted by reigning World Champions Italy, top-ranked and European champs Spain and perennial power Brazil. In addition to watching how those powers stack up, the event will be a test for the well-scrutinized South African organizing committee. With the U.S., Egypt, Iraq and New Zealand joining the mix, the tournament should answer a number of questions.
How will Spain handle the role of favorites?: Having shed the label of a team that can't win the big game, Spain come into the Confederations Cup as the popular pick. While the group stage should be a breeze, winning the event will likely require topping Italy and Brazil. Victory in the final will install Spain as the top choice for next year.
What can we expect from South Africa?: This is a two-part question posed on and off the field. The expectation is that World Cup hosts should, at a minimum, advance past the group stage. That may be a tall order for the lightly-regarded South African side. They'll need to show progress here to make the knockout stages a realistic goal for 2010. Then there are the issues of tournament organization. Talk of a "Plan B" has cooled in recent months; a well-run tournament will silence some critics who feel the hosts aren't up to the task.
Are Italy and Brazil back?: Italy have hardly sparkled since celebrating a title in Berlin three years ago, but with several World Cup veterans in place, the Azzurri are still among the best in the world. After a disappointing World Cup in '06, Brazil are regaining their old form under manager and former captain Dunga. The meeting between these sides will be the highlight of the group stages.
Are the United States ready for the world?: Advancing from a group that includes Italy and Brazil is a tall order for any nation. Even a draw against either foe would show that the U.S. and their CONCACAF brethren are ready to contend next year. The U.S. needs to defeat Egypt in their final match, a decent opponent, but one that the States should be topping on a consistent basis.