BRASILIA, BRAZIL – The ninth edition of the FIFA Confederations Cup kicks off in Brazil's capital Saturday as the hosts take on Japan at the Garrincha. The tournament, essentially a dry run for next year's World Cup , is under heavy scrutiny both home and abroad as stories of financial mismanagement around the World Cup have both roiled and wearied this nation.
''The Confederations Cup is a major tournament and it has really grown into a football spectacle,'' FIFA spokesman Walter De Gregorio said earlier in the week. ''It also represents a great opportunity to fine-tune the preparations for next year, when a global audience will be coming for the World Cup. It's a major operational test for us, we will go through all the operations in a full tournament, which is good for next year.''
Aside from logistics off the pitch, Brazil would normally enter as favorites. They are instead a team under the microscope. There is no doubting their pedigree: this is a side that boasts Neywar, Thiago Silva, Oscar, Hulk and a literal cast of hundreds. Yet since Luiz Felipe Scolari took over as coach last November, Brazil has posted an undistinguished record, with two wins, four draws and a shock loss at Wembley to England.
Age is a factor here: Neymar is just 21. Oscar is the same; Lucas Moura is but 20. There is some experience in the back, but even David Luiz is considered a work in progress - and how seriously can Julio Cesar be taken given his Queen's Park Rangers side was relegated? Many here feel that the team is good but not great, lacking the seasoning needed to win the biggest games on the biggest stages.
But it is unclear exactly who will challenge the hosts. The Confederations Cup is a peculiar beast: a tournament that FIFA would like the world to think is a manor, but in reality is an unwanted bit of clutter on the world calendar. This year's edition has brought that into the light, with Japan and Mexico forced to move World Cup qualification matches. And Mexico, by dint of this tournament and World Cup qualification, have also been forced to field a B-team in their continental championship, next month's Gold Cup .
That means some teams will try to do as little as possible and then, if victory is at hand, seize it. Still, most countries have sent something approaching full-strength sides, and when push comes to shove, the big guns don't like losing games. There are also a couple feel-good stories scattered in the rough, all of which may add up to an intriguing - if not always full-speed - tournament.
Spain will feel they have nothing to prove and everything to lose. The European Champions have brought all the big names, but after taxing domestic seasons that showed just how much their glory on the national level has cost, their players are likely to be more inclined to lie on Rio's beaches than play in its stadiums. The men to keep an eye on are the ones who may have a move in their near future: Chelsea's Fernando Torres is in the shop window and could use a good run-out, Victor Valdes and Cesc Fabregas could also use a pick-up after disappointing seasons. But the man to watch is Juan Mata, who was Chelsea's best player last season and seems poised to cement his name among Spain's greats.
Mexico enter the tournament with jeers still ringing in their heads. Chants against manager Jose Manuel de la Torre came off the walls of the Azteca after yet another insipid goalless draw, this time against Costa Rica. The fact that the team cannot pass and cannot score has some wondering if de la Torre can hang on to his job. El Tri looked as if they might be dark horses coming into this tournament; now one suspects they could slink out early as the goals have simply vanished. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez will be under pressure as well; he's got a lot of competition breathing down his neck in Manchester.
Tahiti and Nigeria are the two oddballs. The former has never been in a tournament at this level; the latter are African powers who have decided to blood a group of youngsters. Neither should be taken for granted.
Nigeria silenced a lot of doubters when they stormed to the African Cup of Nations title this year. Manager Stephen Keshi is without the injured Victor Moses, but he has Efe Ambrose, John Obi Mikel and the emerging Sunday Mba to lead his Super Eagles. Mba is one to keep an eye on - he scored two vital goals in the African Cup of Nations, including the winner in the final.
The Tahitians are a feel-good story in a sport so often dominated by tales of excess and money. They have one - count them, one - fully professional player on their roster, Marama Vahirua, who plays with a middling Greek side. The rest? They are butchers, bakers, grocers and part-timers. They also have the right attitude: they got here a week before everyone else with the express purpose of soaking up the atmosphere. No one expects them to win a game (heck, no one expects them to score a goal, either) but they are either a breath of fresh air -- or evidence that this tournament isn't all it's made out to be.
Cesare Prandelli's Italy squad enters the tournament with just as many questions. The Euro 2012 runners-up struggled in their goalless World Cup qualifying match against the Czech Republic last week and surrendered a two-goal lead in a 2-2 draw with Haiti on Tuesday. Much of that can be blamed on fatigue - Prandelli cancelled Wednesday's morning training session - and many will argue if they're taking this tournament seriously. If the Azzurri survive the group stage with a focused Mario Balotelli in hand, the former World Cup champions will do some serious damage.
One weird note is that three teams - Uruguay, Spain and Italy - have a chance to join an exclusive club. If any from this trio win the Confederations Cup, they will become just the third team in history to win all three major world competitions. Only Argentina and France have won Olympic gold, the World Cup and the Confederations Cup.