By JUSTIN FERGUSON
With one year left on the road to the 2014 World Cup, six representatives from the world’s continental federations, hosts Brazil and defending World Cup champions Spain meet in Brazil for the official prelude to the world’s biggest sporting event.
In Group A, hosts Brazil continue their warm up to next year’s global football party as the competition’s top team historically. Brazil is grouped with Euro 2012 runners-up Italy, early World Cup qualifiers Japan and North American champions Mexico, who are desperate to grab wins in the midst of their disappointing World Cup qualifying campaign.
After winning its last three major tournaments, Spain enters this summer’s clash of the champions on a mission to avenge their only big tournament loss since 2008. Spain will be joined in Group B by attack-minded South American champions Uruguay, recent AFCON winners Nigeria and Tahiti, the Cinderella Story from Oceania.
Here is a closer look at all eight participants in this year’s Confederations Cup, which kicks off on Saturday:
June 15: Brazil vs. Japan (ESPN) 3 p.m.
June 16: Mexico vs. Italy (ESPN) 3 p.m.
June 19: Brazil vs. Mexico (ESPN) 3 p.m.
June 19: Italy vs. Japan (ESPN) 6 p.m.
June 22: Italy vs. Brazil (ESPN News) 3 p.m.
June 22: Japan vs. Mexico (ESPN) 3 p.m.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Neymar, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Hulk
NAME TO LEARN: Bernard. After a tremendous 2012 with Atletico Miniero, the 5’4″ attacking midfielder Bernard will have a chance to up his already-rising transfer stock from off the bench in his first major tournament with Brazil. Last season’s Best Newcomer in the host nation’s top division, the 20-year-old Bernard is the youngest member of this star-studded Selecao, attracting the attention of Tottenham Hotspur and Borussia Dortmund.
Goalkeepers: Diego Cavalieri (Fluminense), Jefferson (Botafogo), Julio Cesar (Queens Park Rangers),
Defenders: Daniel Alves (Barcelona), Thiago Silva (Paris Saint-Germain), David Luiz (Chelsea), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Dante (Bayern Munich), Filipe Luis (Atletico Madrid), Rever (Atletico Miniero)
Midfielders: Fernando (Gremio), Lucas (Paris Saint-Germain), Hernanes (Lazio), Oscar (Chelsea), Jean (Fluminense), Luis Gustavo (Bayern Munich), Paulinho (Corinthians), Bernard (Atletico Miniero), Jadson (Sao Paulo)
Forwards: Fred (Fluminese), Neymar (Barcelona), Hulk (Zenit), Jo (Atletico Miniero)
OUTLOOK: After a stretch of frustrating draws and losses, the hosts will enter the prelude to next summer’s World Cup boosted by their recent 3-0 win over France. Brazil has won the last two installments of the Confederations Cup and have made the semifinals in almost every one of the tournaments. They certainly have the talent and the desire to grab another title, but there is always a chance that Brazil cracks under mounting pressure from their fans.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Mario Balotelli, Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Gianluigi Buffon
NAME TO LEARN: Stephan El Shaarawy. Already a household name for Serie A fans, the 20-year-old Milan forward is breaking into the starting eleven for manager Cesare Prandelli. “Il Pharaoh” did not finish his Milan season as well as he started it, but his 16 goals were enough to put him third in the league’s Golden Boot race. Primarily a wing player, El Shaarawy can also fill in a central forward spot should Mario Balotelli find himself in some trouble.
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Federico Marchetti (Lazio), Salvatore Sirigu (Paris Saint-Germain)
Defenders: Christian Maggio (Napoli), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Davide Astori (Cagliari), Mattia De Sciglio (Milan), Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Ignazio Ibate (Milan)
Midfielders: Antonio Candreva (Lazio), Alberto Aquilani (Fiorentina), Claudio Marchisio (Juventus), Daniele De Rossi (AS Roma), Riccardo Montolivo (Milan), Andrea Pirlo (Juventus), Alessandro Diamanti (Bologna)
Forwards: Mario Balotelli (Milan), Sebastian Giovinco (Juventus), Alberto Gilardino (Bologna), Stephan El Shaarawy (Milan), Alessio Cerci (Torino)
OUTLOOK: Italy, into the tournament as the Euro 2012 runners-up, comes into Brazil having only won one of its last seven matches. That lone win came in a friendly against against FIFA cellar dweller San Marino. You know what you will get with Italy: a veteran defensive and midfield presence that is usually tough to break down. If the young talent at the top can find some more consistency in front of goal, Italy has the potential to bring a title back to Europe.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, Makoto Hasebe, Shinji Okazaki
NAME TO LEARN: Mike Havenaar. After several seasons as a household name in the J-League, this 26-year-old forward went to his father’s homeland, the Netherlands. Havenaar is coming off a double-digit goal season for Vitesse in the Eredivisie and scored the match-winner in a friendly against Canada. While the forward position has been an issue for Alberto Zaccheroni’s squad, Havenaar has been a recent boost for Samurai Blue.
Goalkeepers: Shuichi Gonda (FC Tokyo), Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege), Shusaku Nishikawa (Sanfrecce Hiroshima)
Defenders: Masahiko Inoha (Jubilo Itawa), Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart), Yugo Nagatomo (Inter Milan), Atsuto Uchida (Schalke 04), Yasuyuki Konno (Gamba Osaka), Yuzo Kurihara (Yokohama F. Marinos), Hiroki Sakai (Hannover 96), Maya Yoshida (Southampton)
Midfielders: Keisuke Honda (CSKA Moscow), Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka), Hajime Hosogai (Bayer Leverkusen), Kengo Nakamura (Kawasaki Frontale), Makote Hasebe (Wolfsburg), Hideto Takahashi (FC Tokyo)
Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Stuttgart), Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United), Mike Havenaar (Vitesse), Ryoichi Maeda (Jubilo Itawa), Takashi Inui (Eintracht Frankfurt)
OUTLOOK: Featuring a good mix of veterans and bright young talent, Japan is a true wild card for this tournament. With World Cup qualification already in the bag, the Japanese can go all-out without any reservations. It will be tough to get the semifinals with Brazil and Italy in the same group, but the momentum of recent qualification could spur Japan to make a surprise run.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Javier Hernandez, Giovani Dos Santos, Andres Guardado, Jose de Jesus Corona
NAME TO LEARN: Diego Reyes. After becoming a regular starter as a teenager at Club America, this Mexican center back will join FC Porto when the transfer window opens on July 1. After playing a role in the 2011 Copa America squad and the 2012 U-23 team that won Olympic gold, Reyes has become a starting option for the clean sheet machine that is El Tri’s defense.
Goalkeepers: Guillermo Ochoa (Ajaccio), José de Jesús Corona (Cruz Azul), Alfredo Talavera (Toluca)
Defenders: Francisco Javier Rodríguez (America), Carlos Salcido (UANL), Diego Reyes (America), Severo Meza (Monterrey), Héctor Moreno (Espanyol), Jorge Torres Nilo (UANL), Hiram Mier (Monterrey), Gerardo Flores (Cruz Azul)
Midfielders: Jesús Molina (America), Gerardo Torrado (Cruz Azul), Pablo Barrera (Cruz Azul), Ángel Reyna (Pachuca), Javier Aquino (Villarreal), Héctor Herrera (Pachuca), Jesús Zavala (Monterrey), Andrés Guardado (Valencia)
Forwards: Aldo de Nigris (Monterrey), Giovani Dos Santos (Mallorca), Javier Hernandez (Manchester United), Raúl Jiménez (America)
OUTLOOK: Mexico’s offensive struggles have been well-documented, and the team’s last memory of action ended with boos from the Azteca fans. “Chepo” de la Torre most likely needs a good run in this tournament to save his job after a mediocre start to the HEX. It will be an uphill battle to reach the knockout stage of the tournament, but this squad has the potential to catch fire at any moment. Will it happen in Brazil?
June 16: Spain vs. Uruguay (ESPN) 6 p.m.
June 17: Tahiti vs. Nigeria (ESPN) 3 p.m.
June 20: Spain vs. Tahiti (ESPN) 3 p.m.
June 20: Nigeria vs. Uruguay (ESPN) 6 p.m.
June 23: Nigeria vs. Spain (ESPN) 3 p.m.
June 23: Uruguay vs. Tahiti (ESPN2) 3 p.m.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique
NAME TO LEARN: Jesus Navas. It is hard to find a name on the Spain squad that is not well-known, but fans of the Premier League will be introduced to this 27-year-old winger when he joins Manchester City this season. A longtime fixture at Sevilla, Navas has been a reliable player off the bench during Spain’s 2010 World cup and Euro 2012 victories.
Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Víctor Valdés (Barcelona), Pepe Reina (Liverpool)
Defenders: Raúl Albiol (Real Madrid), Gerard Piqué (Barcelona), César Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Álvaro Arbeloa (Real Madrid), Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Nacho Monreal (Arsenal)
Midfielders: Javi Martínez (Bayern Munich), Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona), Xavi Hernández (Barcelona), Cesc Fàbregas (Barcelona), Juan Mata (Chelsea), Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Santi Cazorla (Arsenal), David Silva (Manchester City), Jesús Navas (Manchester City)
Forwards: David Villa (Barcelona), Fernando Torres (Chelsea), Pedro Rodríguez (Barcelona), Roberto Soldado (Valencia)
OUTLOOK: The undisputed top team on the planet heads to Brazil with one goal in mind: grabbing the one piece of major silverware that it has missed out on in recent years. The 2009 semifinal loss to the United States still burns in the minds of Spain, who has won its last three major tournaments. After a tough club campaign for most of the squad, it will be hard to pick against a determined Spain on the international stage.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Walter Gargano, Diego Forlan
NAME TO LEARN: Gaston Ramirez. After a breakout season at Southampton in the Premier League, the 22-year-old Ramirez has quickly made a name for himself on the senior national team. Ramirez scored twice for the nation’s U-23 squad at the Olympic Games, and he is due for his first goal as a member of the top team.
Goalkeepers: Fernando Muslera (Galatasaray), Juan Castillo (Danubio), Martín Silva (Olimpia)
Defenders: Diego Lugano (Malaga), Diego Godín (Atletico Madrid), Sebastián Coates (Liverpool), Matías Aguirregaray (Penarol), Maxi Pereira (Benfica), Andrés Scotti (Nacional), Martín Cáceres (Juventus)
Midfielders: Walter Gargano (Inter Milan), Álvaro Pereira (Inter Milan), Cristian Rodríguez (Atletico Madrid), Sebastián Eguren (Libertad), Nicolás Lodeiro (Botafogo), Diego Perez (Bologna), Egidio Arévalo Ríos (Palermo), Gastón Ramírez (Southampton), Álvaro González (Lazio)
Forwards: Luis Suárez (Liverpool), Diego Forlán (Internacional), Abel Hernández (Palermo), Edinson Cavani (Napoli)
OUTLOOK: Although there have been some struggles to keep a World Cup spot during this round of qualifying, Uruguay make the short trip to Brazil on the heels of 1-0 wins over France and Venezuela. The attack-minded Uruguay squad is focused on bringing home a Confederations Cup, the only major international trophy the South American nation does not have in its trophy case. Look for this side to get its offensive mojo back and roll into the semifinals.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: John Obi Mikel, Ahmed Musa, Elderson, Joseph Akpala
NAME TO LEARN: Even though he has only scored five international goals, CSKA Moscow forward Ahmed Musa is the second-leading scorer for this young Super Eagles squad. Musa once held the Nigerian league scoring record as a teenager, and he is coming off a 12-goal season in the Russian league with CSKA.
Goalkeepers: Vincent Enyeama (Lille), Austin Ejide (Hapoel Be’er Sheva), Chigozie Agbim (Enugu Rangers)
Defenders: Godfrey Oboabona (Sunshine Stars), Uwa Elderson Echiéjilé (Braga), Efe Ambrose (Celtic), Azubuike Egwuekwe (Warri), Solomon Kwambe (Sunshine), Francis Benjamin (Heartland), Kenneth Omeruo (ADO)
Midfielders: John Ugochukwu (Academica), Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow), Mikel John Obi (Chelsea), Fegor Ogude (Valerenga), Michel Babatunde (Kryvbas), Ogenyi Onazi (Lazio), Emeka Eze (Enugu Rangers), Sunday Mba (Warri), Nnamdi Oduamadi (Varese)
Forwards: Brown Ideye (Dynamo Kyiv), Joseph Akpala (Werder Bremen), Mohammed Gambo (Kano), Anthony Ujah (FC Koln)
OUTLOOK: After a 19-year wait, Nigeria reclaimed the African Cup of Nations a few months ago to book their trip to Brazil. Even with splits between players, management and the Football Association, the Super Eagles have not lost since May 2012. Nigeria is a young squad that plays tough against any opponent—the result of their match with Uruguay will be key.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Marama Vahirua, Xavier Samin, Steevy Chong Hue, Teaonui Tehau
NAME TO LEARN: Marama Vahirua. The only Tahitian player that plays club ball professionally, Vahirua could make his first appearance for Tahiti at the Confederations Cup. The 33-year-old Ligue 1 striker was a recent call-up for Eddie Etatea and once represented France at the youth level. His experience in the professional game could be a benefit for the underdog nation.
Goalkeepers: Mickaël Roche (AS Dragon), Gilbert Meriel (AS Tefana), Xavier Samin (Dragon)
Defenders: Teheivarii Ludivion (Tefana), Tamatoa Wagemann (Dragon), Stephane Faatiarau (Tefana), Nicolas Vallar (Dragon), Edson Lemaire (Dragon), Rainui Aroita (Tamarii), Vincent Simon (Dragon), Yannick Vero (Dragon)
Midfielders: Alvin Tehau (Tefana), Henri Caroine (Dragon), Heimano Bourebare (Tefana), Stanley Atani (Tefana), Lorenzo Tehau (Tefana), Ricky Aitamai (Venus), Jonathan Tehau (Tamarii), Yohann Tihoni (Roniu)
Forwards: Marama Vahirua (Nancy), Teaonui Tehau (Dragon), Steevy Chong Hue (Dragon), Samuel Hnanyine (Dragon)
OUTLOOK: In the first OFC Nations Cup since Australia’s move to the AFC, a Tahiti side made entirely out of amateur players shocked the world by winning the small federation’s title. Their journey to Brazil is an incredible story, but do not expect any miracles in the next couple of weeks.
What do you make of this year’s Confederations Cup? Think Spain takes home the title? See Mexico turning it around in Brazil? After a long stretch of friendlies, how do you see hosts Brazil performing in competitive matches? What are your predictions for the top three places?
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