The Big Test

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Equinox (South Africa) June 2009

From June 14-28, South Africa hosts football’s eight-team Confederation Cup – and the world will be watching to see if we can deliver a successful global tournament a year before the big one in 2010.

When I was about seven my mum asked me if I thought I’d be able to walk home from school on my own one day the following week. It would be my first time. How grown up. Well, in fact, I wouldn’t be walking all the way home but just to the community centre close to my school, where she would be with my little sister at some community centre type event.

“Of courrrrrse!” I exclaimed in that “Awww mum, don’t treat me like a baby” voice.

But she wasn’t sure, so she drove me down to the school there and then, dropped me outside the school gates and told me to start walking as she crawled along the road to see if I could navigate the one corner and the two hundred-metre journey without getting lost.

Well, to use football terminology, which is what this article is about after all, I started strongly, silenced the taunts from the opposition crowd (my sister), employed some clever footwork around the corner and finished the job in style as I entered the community centre grounds. A big hug from my manager (“Aww mum”) and I was duly awarded the You Can Now Do It For Real trophy.

This is what is known as a trial run. A test for the main event. Of course, it didn’t follow that because I had passed the test successfully I would turn the correct corner come the big day but usually if the trial run goes well then the main event runs smoothly too.

And so it is with June’s Confederation Cup. It is a trial run. A test for the biggest single sporting event in the world: the Football World Cup. Okay, okay, the Olympics does attract more viewers but this is only because it includes numerous sports, most of which no-one actually watches in the four years between the Games. And, whisper it, but it makes the world cup of our beloved game of rugby appear like an under 10s tournament in Bethlehem.

A total of 200 countries entered the 2010 World Cup (qualifying started back in August 2007) and, in case the hype has escaped you somehow, we will host the final 32 next year. It’s not something you generally want to cock up to be honest. And to get our very own version You Can Now Do It For Real trophy from FIFA, the sport’s governing body, we need to host the Confederation Cup.

Now no-one has said exactly what will happen if we completely cock-up the trial run because it has never happened before, but it should be said that even the Germans encountered some teething problems at their Confederation Cup trial run in 2005. The Germans, the ever-efficient Germans, yes. Oh dear.

The tournament has, in the past, been held every two years, but FIFA have declared that it will now be every four years, and scheduled a year before the World Cup, which is tantamount to making it the official dress rehearsal for the host nation. No pressure then.

The Confederation Cup is the only FIFA tournament, apart from the World Cup itself, where nations representing every continent come together. So joining the World Cup holders (Italy) and the hosts (that’ll be us) we have Spain (Europe), Brazil (South America), the USA (North and Central America), Iraq (Asia), Egypt (Africa) and New Zealand (Oceania).

If you’re wondering where Australia are, they now play in the Asian qualifiers, clearing the way for New Zealand to be the One-Eyed King in the Land of the Blind, who have had to beat off such sporting giants as Vanuatu and New Caledonia for the right to be here. That’s also the qualifying section that originally included American Samoa, who somehow managed to let in 38 goals in four matches, featuring a 15-0 defeat to the mighty Vanuatu (can anyone pinpoint that on a map?). They did manage a goal against the Solomon Islands though, bless.

The ‘All Whites’, as the national side are known (All Whites for football, All Blacks for rugby, geddit?), will rely heavily on the top-level experience of tough defender Ryan Nelson, who plays for Blackburn Rovers in the English Premier League, Steven Old and Chris Killen who play in Scotland, and Simon Elliot, now in the USA.

The upside of having the one-eyed king in the tournament, however, is that they are in our group (Group A). South Africa has the added burden of not only making sure things run smoothly off the field, but also putting on a good show on it. Whether it’s added pride, the home support, or the familiar weather and food, host nations generally enjoy a turbo boost into their performances in big tournaments (think ‘home country wins more gold medals at Olympics’ type headlines). It’s all rather embarrassing and a real dampener if the host flops. Yes, yes, the worst-case scenario would be if the ticketing systems failed, the traffic snarled up and our boys were beaten in every game.

But fear not, if the real Bafana Bafana turn up there’s no reason to think we won’t enjoy the usual home team turbo boost in the Confederation Cup. The nation will be looking to the flair of Orlando Pirates’ Teko Modise, and, Ryan Nelson’s team-mates from Blackburn – the solidity of skipper Aaron Mokoena and the prolific scoring of Benni McCarthy. We are sure to enjoy more goals from our record international goalscorer if, a) he doesn’t suffer a mystery injury two minutes after finishing a Premier League match and, b) he doesn’t retire from international football for the umpteenth time.

Indeed, Brazilian coach Joel Santana has a wealth of home- and European-based talent to draw on and with the vuvuzela loudly behind him, he will be confident of keeping us all happy in June. Whether he can carry the hoped-for Confederation Cup success into 2010 is unsure though: the South African national body has employed 16 coaches in 17 years while Santana himself has swapped jobs 24 times since 1991. ‘Job’ and ‘sticking at it’ are not words that go together with these two.

Also in Group A is a country that has more American soldiers in it than footballers. Quite how Iraq are thriving on the football field is anyone’s guess, but the team, which includes Kurdish, Shi’ite and Sunni players, are indeed the current Asian champions, beating Australia and South Korea on route to the championship in 2007. Celebratory gunfire rang out as crowds gathered in Baghdad after the final victory over Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that about 50 people had died in terrorist attacks during similar semi-final celebrations only a few days earlier.

After years of little hope, it was a risk they obviously felt worth taking as supporters of a team that are not even able to play their home matches in Iraq – recent world cup qualifiers were played in Dubai and Damascus – because of the war. Despite a strong pedigree – Iraq qualified for the World Cup finals in 1986 – football was not a happy sport under Saddam Huissein. His brother Uday ran the Sports Ministry and had some strange motivational methods.

“I was taken to a camp outside Baghdad,” former captain Habib Jaffar is reported to say after his side had lost an Olympic qualifying match to Oman. “Guards thrashed my feet and made me jump into a vat of raw sewerage when the skin had been flayed off.” He recalls the guards shouting “for the honour of Saddam Hussein” each time they hit him. It was not uncommon, with players, coaches and journalists all targeted.

The squad are home-based or play in neighbouring countries but are coached by the highly experienced Bora Milutinovic who has led Mexico, Costa Rica, the USA, Nigeria and China at the World Cup finals.

“So”, sigh South Africans contentedly, “we have a group that includes New Zealand and Iraq.” Alas, the silver lining comes under a rather big cloud in the shape of Spain, currently the world’s best side. Yes, yes, I know everyone loves Brazil, but Spain are the new Brazil. Just they wear red. Traditionally Spain were the side everyone loved to tip for success only to see them flop, time after time, when it really mattered.

“Oh not again”, football fans would cry.

“They look so good, they play so well, and fail yet again.”

But then in 2008, after a wait of 44 years since their only previous major trophy and numerous false dawns, Spain won Euro 2008. And in a style that was reminiscent of Brazil at their full-flowing beautiful best. Just in red. With players like Liverpool’s Fernando Torres, Valencia’s David Villa and a played six-won six record in the world cup qualifiers to date, this is the test for everyone.

The World Cup will feature 12 stadiums, but because this is a smaller tournament just four will be used for the Confederation Cup. Which is just as well really because most of the others are still being built. The four stadiums to be used are Johannesburg’s Ellis Park, Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld, Bloemfontein’s Free State Stadium and Rustenburg’s Royal Bafokeng Stadium. Yes, yes, I know, three of these are essentially rugby stadiums, but we can’t have the likes of Brazil and Italy coming over here and have them play in half-finished places could we? The construction workers would get in the way.

Group B is altogether more competitive. Brazil: beautiful, sexy, pacy, confident and popular. And that’s just the supporters. This is the side that epitomises the game at its very best, they are the team everyone fears and everyone wants to play at the same time. Names such as Robinho, Maicon, Kaká and Adriano lead to charge to establish yet another legendary Brazilian side.

Although the South Americans have won the World Cup a record five times, the world champions honour currently sits with Italy. If there is one country that can match the passion of Brazil on and off the football field it’s the Azzurri, as Italy are known by their fans. But, and this is the big but, the passion reveals itself in a completely different form. Italy are the antithesis to Brazil. For creativity substitute organisation, for individual flair substitute teamwork, for attack substitute defend. Although the image has been shed to a large degree in recent years, the negative defensive style of catenaccio (meaning ‘door-bolt’) still hangs over Italian football.

The Italians also have a penchant for scandal and corruption. In 1927 Torino were stripped of the title after referee-bribery came to light, in 1980 Milan and Lazio were forcibly relegated after involvement in match-fixing and in 2005 Juventus had two titles taken away for more of the same. The bad news: the Azzurri fed off the scandals of the latter two to bounce back and win the following world titles (1982 and 2006). The good news: there has been no scandal before this Confederation Cup.

Real Madrid’s Fabio Cannavaro captains a side that will be looking to Andrea Pirlo, who plays for Milan, to supply the inspiration from midfield.

Egypt’s swagger in Africa (champions six times and a top-four finish seven other times) has failed to translate into global success. They have qualified just twice and failed to win a game in the World Cup finals.

To the largely home-based squad, European experience from Mido and Amr Zaki (Wigan), Mohamed Shawky (Middlesborough) and Mohamed Zidan (Borussia Dortmund) can be added.

The USA have never been that bad (they finished third in 1930 and beat England in the 1950 World Cup) but since the 1990s, with the added boost of hosting the World Cup in 1994, they have emerged as a genuine and consistent threat as more of their players gain experience in top-level European leagues. Heaven help the rest of us when they decide to really take this sport seriously.

The speed of home-based Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy) and DaMarcus Beasley, who plays for Rangers in Scotland, is enough to upset the best of defenders, while goalkeeper Tim Howard (Everton) and midfielder Clint Dempsey (Fulham) provide English Premier League experience.

So that’s what it boils down to: eight teams, four stadiums and a 15-day football tournament. But behind the scenes there are a million things required to ensure it runs smoothly and good performances needed from a team that has to hold up the pride of the home nation. What awaits is FIFA’s little-known You Can Now Do It For Real trophy.

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