Mark Gleeson on the hors d’oeuvre to South Africa’s World Cup feast

South Africa’s readiness for the 2010 World Cup comes under a stark spotlight in June’s Confederations Cup. Even though the two-week tournament is being played at just four of the 10 venues being used for next year’s showpiece, it is an opportunity for the country to assuage the fears of the skeptical and reassure visitors they are in for a fiesta with a difference in 12 months.

The tournament also has the potential to boost domestic interest, which is not at the fever pitch initially expected and is flagging on the back of the national side’s feeble performances of late.

For FIFA, evolving the Confederations Cup from a World Cup dress rehearsal into a stand-alone event with its own competitive credibility is its greatest challenge.

A field that includes Brazil, Italy and Spain should provide much lubrication in achieving its goals, but it will also depend on how seriously the three heavyweights decide to take the tournament.

Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque has said he sees the fortnight as an ideal opportunity to initiate his side into South African conditions ahead of a World Cup for which the European champions look almost certain to qualify.

Whether Brazil and Italy are of the same conviction will become evident when they name their squads just ahead of the event but, even if they are at full strength, will their leading players treat the Confederations Cup as a post-season safari or a serious contest?

For the rest of the field, the tournament also provides a forum to achieve vastly different objectives. South Africa needs confidence and a morale booster, plus valuable international competition.

New Zealand play in October and November in World Cup qualifying play-offs, so a minimum of three competitive games in South Africa, plus three friendlies in preparation, is a rare luxury for a side light on regular international fixtures.

The USA can experiment with a few combinations, given they are on course for World Cup qualification, but Egypt urgently need to find some new talent if they are to make the 2010 tournament.

Iraq, already out of the running for the World Cup, qualified for the Confederations Cup after their fairy-tale triumph at the last Asian Cup but have made many changes since in a typical overreaction to disappointing results.The eight competitors make up a disparate field, but the possibility of some ill-matched contests have been limited by a draw that has Iraq and New Zealand paired in the same group.

As World Cup hosts, South Africa has had a tough job in spinning its potential in an attempt to persuade the doubters. After all, this is a country that has had to deal with Afro-pessimism and a perception of incompetence carried by a continent whose coup d’etats, famines and conflicts are often the only news to which the rest of the world is exposed.

Added to this is a high rate of violent crime which creates a perception of anarchy.

Part two tomorrow…

Team-by-team guide to the Confederations Cup