Confederations Cup a dry run for 2010 World Cup
PRETORIA, South Africa -- Busy. Focused. Nervous.
And we're not talking about the teams at the Confederations Cup.
The first African nation awarded a World Cup is putting itself to the test the next two weeks, with eight teams, including three of the top-ranked international sides in the world -- Spain, Italy and Brazil -- here to compete.
Play opens Sunday with the host team, South Africa, taking on Iraq in Johannesburg, and the Euro 2008 champion Spaniards against New Zealand in Rustenburg. The tournament's group play continues through June 21, with semifinals the 24th and 25th and the final June 28.
The matches are only part of the story. All around Johannesburg, construction cranes and front-end loaders are busy re-shaping roads and bridges. In Pretoria, near Loftus Stadium, site of Monday's U.S.-Italy match, crews peel off old walkways, level the red earth underneath and top it with red brick sidewalks and plazas. That's just a snapshot of the activity that has been underway for six years. Local organizers say all major venues will be complete by year's end, and while skeptics continue to wonder whether the country can pull it off, the work boots on the ground are an encouraging sign.
|Confederations Cup schedule|
South Africa vs. Iraq
Johannesburg, South Africa
9:55 a.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360
New Zealand vs. Spain
U.S. vs. Italy
New Zealand vs. South Africa
Egypt vs. Italy
Spain vs. South Africa
U.S. vs. Egypt
2:25 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360
Finish construction similar to that being done around Loftus, for example, wasn't completed until weeks before the Beijing Olympics, and days before the Atlanta Olympics. The World Cup isn't for another year, and FIFA president Sepp Blatter urged critics around the world to back off. "Why the hell are there question marks?" he asked. "Is it envy? Let us go and trust a little."
U.S. star Landon Donovan, in his third World Cup cycle, said the facilities and organization "have been really good so far." He pointed to the pitch at the U.S. training ground, Pilditch Stadium in Pretoria. "The fields here are fantastic."
That won't calm the nerves of locals, who express worry about how their developing country will be perceived. Visitors to the FIFA information booth at the Johannesburg airport are greeted with material not only from tourist destinations, but with pamphlets on cholera, malaria, typhoid, pneumococcal diseases, meningitis and H1N1 flu. "You've got to be tough in Africa," joked one volunteer. But the mostly young, mostly black workers are also eager, helpful, friendly and excited, as are the fans -- several thousand of whom showed up Friday for Brazil's training session.
The venues aren't the only things under construction at the Confederations Cup. Several of the teams are, too, with the host South Africans under intense scrutiny after weak international showings in recent years. Spain has several stars injured, including Barcelona's Champions League standout Andres Iniesta, and could see a halt to its 13-match victory streak, one short of the international record.
Meanwhile, the U.S., already missing regulars Brian Ching and Frankie Hejduk, may be without Carlos Bocanegra, who took himself out with a hamstring injury just after scoring the winning goal in the Yanks' 2-1 World Cup qualifier victory over Honduras on June 6.
But the Americans say they're ready for Italy, whom they played to an unforgettable 1-1 draw in their last meeting, at the 2006 World Cup. "Honestly, that was one of the most memorable games of my career," Donovan said Saturday. "It was clearly us at our best."
While the U.S. squad is young, with an average age under 25, Italy is the tournament's oldest, dotted with familiar names like Luca Toni, Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo. "It's a team we know well, and they haven't changed much," Donovan said. "It's not like there'll be a lot of surprises." The country of South Africa is hoping it can say the same thing over the next two weeks, and more important, during the next year.
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Mag.