The Confederations Cup is often overlooked by fans who believe the season comes to an end when the final whistle blows on the Champions League, and when the Championship playoffs reach their dramatic conclusion.
However, as recent editions have shown, the concentrated collection of excellence that often exists among participants, and the intense nature of competition of the tournament can often afford fans both a fascinating look at some of the world's finest national sides and the chance to see some unlikely matchups and experimental outlooks.
Group A features traditional heavyweights Brazil--the hosts, and Italy, the European Championship’s runners-up. They will both be competing against Asian cup winners Japan and CONCACAF Gold Cup winners Mexico.
Group B will see Spain-the world and European champions, take on the emerging force of Nigeria, fresh from their recent Cup of Nations victory, and Uruguay, who upset the odds to seal the 2011 Copa America.
The three continental forces will be joined by Tahiti, an unlikely addition perhaps, but they earned their place at the high table by winning last year’s OFC Nations Cup.
The event will also offer a chance for the world to get a glimpse of the progress of Brazil's stadia and infrastructure ahead of next summer's World Cup, and perhaps more pertinently, the deadlines of the new year.
Read on to discover my picks for the four semifinal berths, and my prediction for the tournament’s outright winner.
Mexico may have enjoyed some shabby form of late, with five draws in all five games in 2013, but I believe that the Central Americans are poised to impress this summer.
Despite currently sitting in an unenviable position in their World Cup qualifying group, the Mexican squad is laced with talented young players keen to make an impact on the international scene.
The likes of Giovani Dos Santos, Javier Hernandez and Andres Guardado may be young, but they already have enormous international experience and have proven their composure and maturity in the famous green of Mexico.
Last year’s Olympic victory over Brazil will provide the team with confidence and will imbue them with the belief that a similar upset is possible this summer. An important and impressive performance in their opening game against Italy is imperative.
Despite their recent toils, La Verde have a tight-knit squad and strength across the team. I can see them having a big impact on the grandest stage next summer.
Could the Confederations Cup be a portent for the promise of Brazil 2014?
It is true that the early months of Felipe Scolari’s return to the national team set up have been less than impressive. It is also true that the crushing pressure that is sure to envelop the squad next summer will be present, at least partially, during the Confederations Cup. However, I am confident that Brazil have what it takes to advance from a potentially perilous group.
An early victory against Japan is a must, but with a good start, and buoyed by the optimism of home support, I believe Brazil could well be primed to advance all the way to the final.
I am confident that one cannot underestimate the importance of motivation; and what greater incentive than the prospect of playing a World Cup on home soil in 2014?
Be under no illusion, those chosen to represent the Selecao this summer will be acutely aware that they have a priceless opportunity to impress, and to cement their place in the side ahead of next summer’s spectacle.
The absence of Spurs anchorman Sandro may be felt keenly in these competitive fixtures, but Brazil will have enough talent beyond him to take some early, confident steps towards a successful adventure in 2014.
While Uruguay may be the favourites in the eyes of many to advance from Group B behind Spain, I am confident that Nigeria can pull off what may be considered an upset and escape the group along with the Iberians.
Having kept a close eye on the team’s development over the last 18 months, it is clear that there is something very special going on in West Africa.
National team coach, and former defender Stephen Keshi has built an exciting young squad, molding together a talented group of players at the expense of some perceived ‘big names.’
The likes of Obafemi Martins and Peter Odemwingie have been jettisoned in favour of younger, hungrier talent. After winning the recent Cup of Nations in South Africa, the Super Eagles will be confident of advancing from what appears to be a very tricky group.
The absence of Victor Moses is a major blow, however, Nigeria has enough solidarity in defence and enough attacking options up top to compensate for the loss of their star player.
Emmanuel Emenike’s recent operation and his subsequent non-participation will give the likes of Ideye Brown and Ahmed Musa the chance to show what they can do, perhaps emulating the Afcon’s top scorer.
Nigeria began with a reassuring tie against Tahiti and should they, as predicted, beat the Pacific islanders they will be in a strong position to build on that success.
While they may have endured criticism during the tournament, Euro 2012 gave the Spanish national team a chance to reaffirm their place at the top of the tree and to break a record by winning three major international tournaments in a row. This summer’s Confederations Cup provides an opportunity to continue that dominance, and perhaps to trial a few new options ahead of their World Cup defence next summer.
Carles Puyol is the only notable absentee from a very strong squad which has class and quality throughout, often with superlative options unable to force their way into the first team.
Up front, Fernando Torres and David Villa both have their own individual points to prove, while the likes of Santi Cazorla and Betis midfielder Benat will be keen to demonstrate that they belong among this elite collection of players.
Look for Chelsea's right back Cesar Azpilicueta to put pressure on Alvaro Arbeloa for a starting place at next year’s World Cup, and the tournament may well see an interesting tussle between the three goalkeepers-bearing in mind Iker Casillas’s rocky campaign at Real Madrid.
I fully expect Spain to qualify from their group, and they, with their myriad of options in midfield and defence, and the hungry presence of Torres and Villa, are my pick to claim the championship outright.