It may be a dry run, a dress rehearsal, a chance to test out logistics, but the Confederations Cup will be taken seriously by those teams who are competing. The eight participant nations get a special chance to acclimatise to Brazilian conditions a year ahead of the World Cup.
The curtain comes up on Saturday in Brasilia, Brazil's very modern capital, in the Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha, a stadium named after the player many believe is Brazil's greatest, rather than Pele.
What's on the line?
If Sepp Blatter's wishes are to be followed, this can be considered Brazil's first competitive match under Luiz Felipe Scolari's second reign. Two wins in nine is the Selecao's rather tawdry recent record. Public trust has been waning to the point of rebellion, such that Pele has asked publicly that fans do not boo the national team if their teething troubles continue. Brazil are perhaps the first team since France in 1998 who will go into the World Cup finals expecting total victory. The road to Rio begins here, and a considerable curve of improvement is required for the hosts to be credible contenders.
Japan are an apt opening opponent since they are the only other team guaranteed to be at next year's World Cup, having qualified on June 2, after a breeze through Asian qualifying. And they return to a competition they co-hosted with South Korea 12 years ago, losing in the final to France back then, but are now much more hopeful of doing better in the World Cup itself. Their aim is to build towards going beyond the last 16 for the first time in their history. Confidence is high for the Asian champions. It is hoped that the Confederations Cup does not dim those high hopes.
Style and tactics
The host nation's football thinkers wanted to win the World Cup the Brazilian way, and not via the European-influenced hybrid that Scolari and Carlos Alberto Parreira won their last two World Cups with. Dunga's team in 2010 was very European in outlook, and its failure was put down to that. However, the disappointing performance of Mano Menezes' team at the Olympics, blown away in the final by Mexico, caused a reversion to the pragmatism of Scolari, with two deep-lying midfielders in situ in a 4-2-2-2/4-2-3-1. A formula is yet to be struck, and defence is still perhaps the team's strongest facet. The flowing moves of yore are not yet visible but they are the expected aim.
Alberto Zaccheroni is the coach who shifted AC Milan from the 4-4-2 that swept Europe to 3-4-3 and won the Scudetto in 1998-99, but he is less revolutionary with his Japan team, which plays 4-2-3-1, the most in-vogue formation in modern football. His experiment with 3-4-3 is at an end, it seems. Attack has been his most successful weapon, and though defence has been decent, that unit may have to perform above itself against a higher class of opposition. Back in October, they were destroyed 4-0 in a friendly by Brazil in Wroclaw, Poland.
Players to watch
He was already Brazil's kingpin, but his signing for Barcelona makes Neymar a player in ever sharper focus. Oscar, reportedly preferred by Jose Mourinho to Juan Mata, is growing into the playmaker a classic Brazil team needs; Scolari was barracked for subbing him against England. A final 30 minutes in the Chelsea man's favoured role blew away France last weekend. Striking remains the department of most concern, despite Fred's fine scoring record, and Manchester City fans might be horrified to learn that Jo is in the squad, by virtue of an injury to Leandro Damiao, whom Spurs continue to chase.
The biggest name for Japan is undoubtedly Shinji Kagawa, despite his largely backseat role in his first season at Manchester United. The aim is to get him into the positions he can be so deadly from. Keisuke Honda was Japan's star in 2010 and continues to be the creative fulcrum. He and Kagawa can work as twin pincers behind a striker. Captain Makoto Hasebe will be sweeping up behind them as anchorman in front of the defence.
What can we expect?
The win against France last weekend, eventually secured after 60 minutes of the same confused football that Scolari's team has usually played since his return, may signal that the shackles are finally off. The French were blown away in the end. Scolari may try to replicate that, but ought to beware a Japan team that offers plenty of threat in attack. Opening matches being what they are, the tournament is hardly likely to begin like a train, but Brazil's aim will be to quell the barracking that any ponderous football might receive.
A draw will not be unsurprising, and from there, neither will the volley that Scolari and his team receive. A Japan victory would still be a huge shock, however.