Dress rehearsal to the real deal kicks off today

Dress rehearsal to the real deal kicks off today

Test of Brazil's ability to host World Cup

Dress rehearsal to the real deal kicks off today

The Confederations Cup is far more than just a straight dress rehearsal for next year's World Cup finals because nothing is straightfoward as far as soccer in Brazil is concerned.

Controversies involving the government, FIFA, local sports bodies, construction companies, politicians and the police have hampered preparations since Brazil, the only candidate, was formally announced as World Cup host in October 2007.

The Confederations Cup, starting a year before the World Cup kicks off, will define, perhaps more off the field than on it, how prepared Brazil really is for the main event.

Jerome Valcke, general secretary of world soccer's governing body FIFA, who 15 months ago said organisers "needed a kick up the backside" because their progress was so sluggish, has been far more upbeat recently.

In his latest column on the FIFA website (www.fifa.com), Valcke praises Brazil's "modern functional football stadiums", but stresses a key change about to be experienced by Brazilians during the Confederations Cup.

"It will provide a completely new stadium experience to Brazilians (where) for many football fans it is uncommon to have a dedicated seat in the stands. "However, that is very important for security reasons but also for the comfort of the spectator."

What those local fans want to see most of all is Brazil winning the warm-up tournament after victory in the last two Confederations Cups in 2005 and 2009.

That would reflect an upturn in the fortunes of the side following the return last year of World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari for a second spell in charge.

Brazil shared the spoils with England in a match that ended 2-2 in the first official game at the reopened Maracana for their fourth draw in six matches under Scolari, although they dominated for long periods especially in the first half.

In the Confederations Cup, Brazil face Japan, the first team to qualify for next year's World Cup finals, Mexico and Italy in their Group A matches while world champions Spain, Uruguay, Nigeria and complete outsiders Tahiti comprise Group B.

The draw in Sao Paulo in December pitted world and European champions Spain against the minnows from Oceania and that almost surreal match-up would produce one of the biggest shocks in international soccer history if Tahiti won. The fact it is taking place at all will secure it a place in soccer folklore.

Tahiti, ranked 138th in the world by FIFA, will face Vicente del Bosque's side at the Maracana in their second group stage match after playing African champions Nigeria in their opener.

Tahiti were surprise winners of the Oceania championship, beating New Caledonia to qualify, but have plenty to do to make any kind of positive impression on the pitch in Brazil.

Last Tuesday, they were thumped 7-0 by Chile's Under-20 side in a Confederations Cup warm-up in Chile.

While Tahiti may, or may not, enjoy their time in the spotlight, for the likes of Spain, Italy, Japan and probably Mexico, Uruguay and Nigeria, the tournament offers players the chance get acquainted with Brazil before next year's finals.

Del Bosque is taking a strong squad to Brazil as his Spain side seekto win the only international trophy that has eluded them following their European championship success in 2008.

Iker Casillas and Fernando Torres are back in the side and Spain are co-favourites to win it along with the hosts.

The tournament, which starts in Brasilia with the match between Brazil and Asian champions Japan on Saturday, will be played in six of the cities being used next year: Brasilia, Rio, Recife, Belo Horizonte, Fortaleza and Salvador.

The final will be staged at the Maracana on June 30 — 347 days before the World Cup starts on June 12 next year.