On December 1, the draw was held for the 2013 Confederations Cup.
The Confederations Cup was originally known as the King Fahd Cup, and was contested twice in 1992 and '95 between the Saudi Arabian national team and several continental champions. In 1997 FIFA took over the competition and started holding it on a bi-annual basis.
After the 2003 tournament, the decision was made to hold the tournament every four years the year before the World Cup, with the host nation being the one that was due to host the World Cup the next year. It is now regarded—rightly so—as a dress rehearsal for the next year's Cup. It is considered a valuable warm-up—playing more games that actually mean something before the lull between qualifying and the World Cup, often against teams of excellent quality.
The tournament pits eight teams against each other—the six continental champions, the host nation, and the winner of the previous World Cup. It's this crucial point that has allowed Italy to make their second consecutive appearance in the tournament. Because Spain holds both the World Cup and the European Championship at the moment, Italy has qualified for the tournament by virtue of being the Euro 2012 runners-up.
Here is a brief, VERY preliminary look at how the draw shook out, and how Italy will have to navigate the tournament.
Nickname: El Tri
FIFA World Ranking*: 14
Coach*: Jose Manuel de la Torre
Captain*: Rafael Marquez
Last World Cup: Round of 16
Qualifying as: Winner, 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup
Last 5 Matches: LWWWW
Head-to-Head: Italy 6, Mexico 1, 6 draws
*As of time of writing. Ranking, Coach, and Captain of all teams may change between now and the tournament in June.
Mexico is a solid team that, given the recent struggles of the United States, are the undisputed kings of CONCACAF.
They bring to the table an intriguing mix of youth and experience. Four players that played on Mexico's most recent roster are 26 or younger but have 25 caps or more, and three more players—including prolific forward Giovanni dos Santos—meet those specifications and have been called up in the last year. On the other end of the spectrum, El tri have three centurions at their disposal, including captain Rafael Marquez.
Young Manchester United striker Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez leads the forward line, and at age 24 is already more than halfway to Jared Borgetti's Mexican record of 46 international goals. The center of defense is held down by two center-backs—Hector Moreno and Francisco Javier Rodriguez—who play for top-tier European teams (Stuttgart and Espanyol, respectively).
The midfield can be held down by Marquez in front of the back four and have 33-year-old Gerardo Torrado to orchestrate the attack and supply players like Chicharito and dos Santos.
Mexico is a team fully capable of giving any of Europe's best teams a hard run of it on the field. There is, however, an X-factor for this team: the venue.
Mexican soccer is still basking in the glory of their U21 team's 2-1 upset victory over Brazil in the Olympic Gold Medal match at Wembley Stadium this summer. The Mexicans are certain to get a frosty reception from Brazilian fans who were once again denied the only major soccer prize that has ever eluded them, and if Brazilians in the stands are sufficiently hostile it could give extra energy to their opponents.
That Italy's match against El tri comes at the Maracana—one of the largest stadiums in the world—could be an important factor.
Nickname: Samurai Blue
FIFA World Ranking: 24
Coach: Alberto Zaccheroni
Captain: Makoto Hasebe
Last World Cup: Round of 16
Qualifying as: Winner, 2011 AFC Asian Cup
Last 5 Matches: WWWLW
Head-to-Head: Italy 1, Japan 0, 1 draw
Japan is a dark horse in any global competition, and will be difficult to beat for any of the teams in Group A.
The Italians will see a familiar face on the touchline when the two teams meet on June 19: Japan manager Alberto Zaccheroni.
The 59-year-old has managed Serie A powers AC Milan, Inter, and Juventus, and first brought Udinese to prominence in the 1997-98 season, guiding them to a third-place finish and a berth in the UEFA Cup (yeah, the No. 3 team only went to the UEFA Cup back then). He won Serie A the next year with Milan, but has never replicated the same success in subsequent years as he went from club to club in Serie A.
His performance with Japan, however, is off to a promising start. His first game at the helm was a historic 1-0 win against Argentina, and his team went on a nail-biting run to win their record fourth AFC Asian Cup last year, nipping Australia 1-0 in extra time to qualify for the tournament.
Samurai Blue has romped through qualifying for the World Cup, taking four wins and a draw in the first five games of the fourth round of qualifying. A victory on the next AFC matchday, March 26, will see them become the first team to qualify for the World Cup—and their opponents, Jordan, have already endured a 6-0 thrashing at the hands of the Japanese.
Japan has the looks of this group's feast-or-famine team. They have looked very good in games against high-level European sides, like their 1-0 victory over the French as the Stade de France in October. They have also taken on quality teams and been filleted—like the 4-0 thrashing they suffered at the hands of Brazil four days after their triumph in Sant-Denis.
The team is led by Asian Cup MVP Keisuke Honda, whose fantastic play in attacking midfield has greatly increased the team's profile since their surprise run to the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup, where they were eliminated by Uruguay on penalties. His incisive play and good distribution from the front, as well his finishing touch and set-piece wizardry, easily makes him the team's best player.
Shinji Okazaki, the 26-year-old Stuttgart man who has scored 29 times in 58 senior games, is the recipient of Honda's midfield wizardry and at age 26 is already fourth on Japan's all-time scoring list.
FIFA World Ranking: 13
Coach: Luiz Felipe Scolari
Captain: Thiago Silva
Last World Cup: Quarterfinal
Qualifying as: Host
Last 5 Matches: W*WWDL**
Head-to-Head: Italy 5, Brazil 7, 2 draws
*First leg of two-legged tie
**Second leg of two-legged tie, won tie on penalties
Given their reputation as the best soccer nation on the globe, it is intriguing to realize when you look hard at the selecao just how many question marks present themselves.
My main concern with them is defensively. I know that the Olympics are mainly a U21 competition, but Brazil's defense in that tournament was at times atrocious.
The Brazilians opened the tournament by going 3-0 up on Egypt within half an hour, but switched off in the second half and ended up conceding a pair of goals and had to hold on for dear life in the game's final 15 minutes.
Their next game against Belarus was even stranger—they went down 1-0 after eight minutes. Alexandre Pato equalized seven minutes later, and Neymar and Oscar finally put the Belarusians to the sword in the second half.
The knockout rounds were no better. In the quarterfinal against Honduras they were down 1-0 and 2-1 before finally winning the matchup 3-2. Then, of course, was the final, where they conceded in the first minute and couldn't recover to do anything in attack.
Like I said, this was the Olympics, not full internationals, but a lot of the players who were on Brazil's Olympic roster figure to loom large in Brazil's senior team for the foreseeable future. Captain Thiago Silva was one of the three overage players on the roster, as was Marcelo—two very capable defenders who play for some of the very best teams in Europe. Indeed, Silva may be the best defender in the world at present.
Despite the quality of the players on the back line, there was no cohesion, and it led to multiple breakdowns for a team that was, with the shock early elimination of Spain in the tournament, favored to romp to the gold medal.
My other concern is Neymar. Yes, Neymar. The wunderkind of world soccer and owner of last year's world Goal of the Year. The scorer of all those stunning goals for Santos.
And that's just it. He's playing for Santos. I know that many Brazilians are fed up with losing their best players to Europe and so are advocating his staying in Brazil until at least after the World Cup is over, both for patriotic and marketing reasons. But the fact of the matter is that for all his talent Neymar has started to stagnate in the Brazilian league. His performances this season have revealed no evolution, no improvement over the player he was a year ago.
Add to that the fact that he plays in a league of high defensive lines that allow him to run freely through the back and under the watch of referees who will blow for a foul if an attacker gets hit by a breeze coming through the stadium, and it becomes a serious question as to whether or not Neymar can lead a forward line against top European clubs like Italy.
If Neymar is to successfully lead Brazil's forward line in major international tournaments, he needs to leave Brazil and go to Europe. Only then will he be able to make the final improvements that will bring him fully to the level of players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
It's hard to tell how these Brazilians will turn out. They are likely to beat Japan and will be very motivated against Mexico, but this is not the same Italian team that they throttled 3-0 in the group stage finale of the last Confederations Cup, and these Brazilians are not quite the same quality as that squad that was considered such a huge favorite for South Africa 2010. Them going through as group winners would not surprise me, but a crash-out wouldn't either.
Looking at potential semifinal opponents should Italy advance is difficult because the composition of Group B is not yet complete. In fact, the other three teams in the group won't know their fourth member until the Africa Cup of Nations concludes on February 10.
Normally the Confederations Cup is played on an off-year for the ACN, but CAF decided to hold their usually biennial showpiece on back-to-back years to get it off of the same schedule as the European Championships and Summer Olympics.
It's difficult to tell who will be appearing as the representative from CAF. Traditional African powers Senegal and Cameroon have failed to qualify for the tournament, as have seven-time ACN champions Egypt. There are three teams that probably have the best chances of winning: defending champions Zambia, perpetual favorites (and perpetual underachievers) Ivory Coast, and World Cup quarterfinalists Ghana.
Zambia is a difficult team to gauge, as they have never qualified for a major intercontinental tournament and have never played any of the teams that have qualified for the Confederations Cup.
Ivory Coast and Ghana have much larger intercontinental pedigrees. The Ivorians have the highest FIFA ranking of any African team (15th), while the Black Stars have reached the knockout stages of the last two World Cups—even though they are currently in peril of missing out on Brazil 2014, having drawn the Zambians in their group and lost to the defending African Champions in their first meeting.
Either Ivory Coast or Ghana could very much change the complexion of the tournament, while Zambia would be a total wild card.
Group B is the home of the only true minnow of the tournament: Tahiti, the OFC Nations Cup winners who will be participating in their first intercontinental event. Led by defender Albert Tchen, the most-capped player in team history with 32, Team Fenua will likely play hard but will be hard-pressed to garner so much as a point against the opposition that they'll be up against.
The teeth of that opposition will be South American champions and 2010 World Cup upstarts Uruguay and Spain, the World Champions and two-time defending European Champions. The two open the tournament against each other, and will likely end up in the knockout rounds together, meaning that if Italy gains passage to the semifinal for the first time they'll play either one of them, depending on the standings.
Despite Spain's 4-0 victory against the Italians in the Euro 2012 final, which wasn't a score that truly represented how well the Italians played in the game, the Azzurri have given the Spaniards trouble over the last few years, beating them in a friendly 2-1 in 2011 and forcing them to come from behind to garner a 1-1 draw in the opening matchup of group play in the Euros.
The Italians have had some trouble historically with Uruguay, holding a record of 2-3-3 (W-D-L) against them, including a 1-0 loss in Rome friendly in 2011—although the Uruguayans were thoroughly outplayed and were only really saved by the profligacy of the Italian forwards, who did little with the numerous chances that were presented to them.
The Confederations Cup isn't looked on as major, but I feel that it's the most difficult tournament one can enter in FIFA competition. Only eight teams participate, and almost all of them are the best in their respective confederation, not to mention the presence of the defending world champs. Having a team like Brazil as host this year makes it even more difficult.
The run-up to the tournament will be interesting, especially considering that the Italians must play a World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic in Prague only eight days before their opening group match against Mexico. It remains to be seen whether or not that will serve to exhaust the team or serve as a nice tune-up.
Italy's chances in this tournament may also be affected by Cesare Prandelli's attitude towards it. Prandelli is notorious for his attitude towards friendlies. He treats them less like games to win and more as experimental periods where he can shuttle in newer, younger players and tinker with formations and tactics.
If Prandelli doesn't look on the Confederations Cup seriously—and in Italy if it isn't the Serie A, Champions League, or something pertaining to the World Cup or Euros it's normally considered a nuisance—and uses it as an extended series of friendlies with which to tinker, Italy will be ushered out of the tournament quickly by the high-quality opposition they will be facing.
If, however, he approaches these as what they are—competitive matches in a high-profile international tournament—the Italians have as good a chance as anyone.
That said, so many of the teams in this tournament are so evenly matched on paper that anything can really happen. Much depends, of course, on what the rosters will look like come June, but at the moment a group stage crash-out is just as likely for the Azzurri as hoisting the cup.