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World Cup walkthrough?

The Confederations Cup, an elite event in its own right, also gives South Africa a chance to allay concerns ahead of the World Cup.

Children play soccer on the outskirts of Bloemfontein June 13, 2009. South Africa is hosting the FIFA Confederations Cup 2009 soccer tournament June 14-28. (Paulo Whitaker/Reuters)

Five years ago, when FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, awarded the 2010 World Cup to South Africa, all the nations of the soccer world applauded the historic first for the African continent.

More than a few, though, were skeptical that South Africa could bring it off. They worried that political instability, economic woes, security concerns, rising crime rates, organizational inefficiencies and widespread corruption would lead to reconsideration and, eventually, relocation of the tournament. And several countries — the United States, South Korea and Germany—were poised to step in as host of the World Cup if FIFA felt compelled to make a move.

But there is no turning back now. Beginning Sunday, just one year out from the World Cup, South Africa will stage soccer’s Confederations Cup, a tournament featuring all the winners of soccer’s regional championships — what FIFA is calling a “dress rehearsal for 2010."

It is, of course, not really a dress rehearsal, not even a walkthrough by comparison to the massive demands that come with the World Cup. The Confederations Cup will feature eight teams — the reigning World Cup champion, six confederation titlists and the host nation — in four different venues over two weeks. (Cape Town, where preparations for 2010 have been lagging, is conspicuously not one of the four sites.) By contrast, next year’s World Cup will last an entire month and is a staggering logistics puzzle, with 32 teams playing in 10 different venues around the nation.

Still, South Africa’s performance over the next two weeks — off the field rather than on it — will go a long way to determining the buzz — anxious or upbeat — throughout the run-up year to the big event. With a troubled worldwide economy, even a World Cup needs a lift. A Confederations Cup that proceeds without major incident or glaring inefficiencies could encourage more fans from more places to make the trek to South Africa next June. However, if this tourney is deemed problematic or second-rate, FIFA and South Africa will have, at the very least, a marketing problem on their hands.

The Confederations Cup field is anything but second-rate. It features the last two World Cup champions, Italy and Brazil, as well as European champ Spain, the number one-ranked team in the world. At least five of the eight teams competing for this title are odds-on to be lining up in South Africa again next year for the World Cup.

South Africa, as host nation, gets an automatic berth. Spain, Brazil and Italy are all leading their qualification groups and the United States, the dominant power in a weak region, has reached every Cup final since 1990 and is well positioned to do so again. (Of the other three tournament teams, Oceania winner New Zealand faces a playoff with a yet to be determined Asian team for a World Cup spot, Egypt is in last place in its four-team qualifying group, and Iraq has already been eliminated from contention).