World Cup walkthrough?

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).

No team’s performance will be more scrutinized than the home side, which is anxious to demonstrate to its fans that, despite not having to qualify, it belongs among the world elite. But for no country is the Confederations Cup is a more critical and timely test than the United States. Following a pair of lackluster performances in World Cup qualifying — a 3-1 whipping in Costa Rica and a 2-1 squeaker at home over Honduras — it looms as something of a gut check for the American squad.

In recent games, key injuries have revealed a troubling lack of depth on the U.S. team. It has looked disorganized on the back line, particularly on the flank. And its attack appears toothless, unable to score other than on set plays. Worst of all, the team’s passive play suggests a critical deficiency; even the pro-American broadcast team was using that dreaded word “soft.”

All are part of a familiar pattern for U.S. soccer fans. The American team seems at its best after the World Cup rather than before it. For three years now, since its quick exit from Germany 2006 with just a draw in three games, the U.S. team has feasted on weak neighbors and other second-rank opposition. As a result, it has climbed up the FIFA world rankings to number 14. But internationally the team doesn’t garner respect commensurate with the ranking — and rightfully so. With the World Cup in sight, the U.S. team seems to be shrinking in stature.

Springtime qualifying games have always been problematic for the U.S. team. Its Major League Soccer players are barely into their season and, thus, not yet performing at peak, while too many U.S. players from abroad — including promising youngsters like Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu alike — have been sitting on the bench for most of the past year and aren’t remotely in game shape.

The result is too often a dispiriting muddle. After the team’s recent performances, American fans, who work so hard to sustain optimism about the country’s soccer future, have been heard muttering “three and out” in stark appraisal of the team’s prospects for South Africa 2010.

The Confederations Cup is the perfect opportunity for the U.S. team to make its case that it is something more than just World Cup fodder. It drew a particularly challenging four-team group, tougher than any it could encounter next June. The team opens play Monday with Italy, then faces Brazil three days later, before what everybody expects to be a meaningless final contest with Egypt.

If the U.S. team isn’t competitive against the superpowers, it will confirm suspicions that it’s strictly a pretender — a team that attained its lofty ranking by dominating a weak region. But if the Yanks can hold their own against Italy and Brazil, the emotional boost could help propel the team to greater heights next year. And its fans might find reason to believe that World Cup 2010 will yield something more than the familiar resignation of “wait till four years.” 

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