Brazil, Spain lead World Cup appetizer tournament Confederations Cup
It doesn't bear the high stakes or the sheer size of the World Cup, but when the Confederations Cup kicks off this weekend in Brazil, it will carry plenty of intrigue for soccer fans both around the world and in the U.S.
By moving the tournament to a four-year cycle (beginning in 2009), FIFA has positioned the cup as an appetizer for its biggest event -- a role it performed capably the last time around.
U.S. fans will have no trouble recalling the 2009 edition in South Africa, which generated buzz when the Americans secured a miraculous advancement from the group stage on goals scored, then shocked Spain 2-0 and nearly upset Brazil in the final before falling 3-2.
ESPN's coverage also introduced viewers to the vuvuzela, preparing American ears for the incessant humming sound that would permeate the World Cup and was henceforth banned from many venues in other countries.
This year, there will be no U.S. squad -- and hopefully no vuvuzelas -- but even without Tim Howard & Co. leading an improbable roller-coaster ride, there is plenty to watch at the Confederations Cup, which kicks off Saturday when Brazil faces Japan (ESPN, 2:30 p.m. ET) in Brasilia.
Here's a quick look at the eight teams that will compete, hoping to finish in the top two of their group and advance to the semifinals.
Brazil (FIFA World Ranking: No. 22)
There's no question that the two-time defending champions have the most at stake here, both on and off the field.
With next summer's World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on tap, the Confederations Cup will provide an early look at everything from stadium readiness to hospitality and security.
That third area is the biggest concern -- especially after the attempted mugging of a British journalist at knifepoint after England's 2-2 draw with Brazil this month -- and police plan to use unmanned aircraft as surveillance drones to keep an eye on crowds.
But there's plenty of pressure from within as well. Luiz Felipe Scolari's team will be expected to win a third straight title, but a record of 2-1-4 in 2013 hasn't been the brightest run of form, save for a 3-0 win over France last week.
All eyes will be on 21-year-old striker Neymar, who became a star at Santos but has yet to produce for the senior national team. FC Barcelona snatched him up in a high-profile transfer this summer, hoping to buy before his value shot up even further. His play at the Confederations Cup will be an early signal of whether the Catalan club invested wisely.
Italy (No. 8)
Italy qualified by virtue of Spain's recent dominance, as the Euro 2012 champion was already headed to Brazil thanks to its 2010 World Cup title. That meant the Azzurri's runner-up finish at Euro 2012 was enough to secure the UEFA slot, and they'll come in as the host's biggest obstacle in Group A.
Sitting on a comfortable four-point lead in its World Cup qualifying group, Italy arrives looking for a better ending than a 1-0-2 showing at its first Confederations Cup in 2009.
If that is to happen, it will likely involve a big tournament from Mario Balotelli. The AC Milan striker made headlines last week when he was sent off during a qualifier against the Czech Republic, then caught by cameras taking out his frustration by attacking the walls of the tunnel on his way off the field.
But alongside his volatility is undeniable talent, which he flashed prominently with two goals over Germany in the Euro 2012 semifinals.
AC Milan teammate Stephan El Shaarawy will be another player to watch up top, although the hot transfer target was held out of training on Thursday. Balotelli's transfer to Milan marked a drop in form for Shaarawy, who had led Serie A with 14 goals in the first half of the season, but if they can hit their stride together in Brazil, Italy will be hard to stop.
Japan (No. 32)
It's easy to overlook this squad amid the giants in its bracket, but Japan is no pushover.
The Japanese already punched their ticket to the World Cup and sport a 23-5-9 record in three years under Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni -- whose long career in Serie A will no doubt be of use in Brazil.
The Japanese will be looking for their best finish since a runner-up at the 2001 Confederations Cup, and there's no doubt whom they'll lean on to take them there.
Midfielder Shinji Kagawa didn't meet expectations during his first season at Manchester United, but the former Borussia Dortmund man will have plenty of opportunities to seize the reins for the national team.
It's difficult to imagine Japan making it far without an exceptional showing from the 24-year-old Kagawa, and others will have to step up as well if they are to advance out of a talent-rich group.
Mexico (No. 17)
There are only two groups at the Confederations Cup, making Group A an easy choice for the "Group of Death."
Italy has the pedigree, Brazil has the home-field advantage and Japan makes for an interesting underdog. So where does that leave Mexico?
El Tri undoubtedly has the talent to make some noise in Brazil -- this year and next -- but results haven't been as expected lately, with one win and five draws in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
Overall, Mexico has eight draws in nine matches this year, including five scoreless outings against Jamaica, the U.S., Peru, Panama and Costa Rica, the last two of which came in the past week.
That's a befuddling predicament for a squad that boasts the likes of Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Giovani Dos Santos, and most of the blame is falling on coach Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre.
With the way things have gone lately, Mexico could certainly find itself last in the group, and that could spell the end of the road for Chepo. His top achievement is the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup title that qualified El Tri for the Confederations Cup, but a stumble now might make this his only trip to Brazil.
Nigeria (No. 31)
The Confederations Cup is icing on the cake for the Super Eagles, which qualified by winning their first Africa Cup of Nations title in 19 years.
There's a lot to like about this team, chiefly an unbeaten record of 5-0-6 in 2013, and it wouldn't be a total shock to see Nigeria advance out of the group. Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel leads the way, and his presence will be counted on after an already rocky start to the competition.
The Super Eagles didn't travel to Brazil as scheduled on Thursday, as players reportedly refused to board a plane after the Nigerian Football Federation decided to reduce their promised bonuses.
Resolution of the dispute came at the cost of a troublesome travel delay, as Nigeria is set to arrive on Saturday with just one day to train before its opener against Tahiti.
If there's a match to play on short rest, it's that one, but three points are a must before Nigeria takes on the task of swiping points from Spain or Uruguay.
Spain (No. 1)
The ramifications of Germany's dominance in the Champions League are still being felt, as the swift dismissals of Barcelona and Real Madrid made for a black eye for Spanish soccer.
But Spain is still the ruler of the international game, and the Germans won't be in Brazil, meaning La Furia Roja are the favorites.
Their only previous trip to the Confederations Cup in 2009 resulted in a third-place finish but produced memorable moments like Fernando Torres' 17-minute hat trick, and a star-studded roster will be back for more.
The 23-player squad counts nine from Barcelona, but look for others to have a major impact as well -- most notably Juan Mata, who is coming off another sterling season with Chelsea.
Spain will get its toughest test right off the bat with Sunday's match against Uruguay, but the world champions should light up Tahiti and get past Nigeria for a chance to add to a growing trophy collection.
Tahiti (No. 138)
The winners of the 2012 OFC Nations Cup, Tahiti is like a recreational basketball team sneaking into March Madness as a No. 16 seed.
The island in French Polynesia comes in behind the likes of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the FIFA World Rankings, just one spot ahead of Afghanistan. Their last two results of 2012 were losses of 2-0 and 3-0 to lowly New Zealand, and their most recent match yielded a 1-0 loss to New Caledonia.
What's more, the population of Tahiti (178,000) could fit 13 times inside the city of Belo Horizonte, the site of its first match in Brazil.
Little is known of the roster, which features only one player who plies his trade off the island. That honor belongs to 33-year-old forward Marama Vahirua of Panthrakikos in Greece, although he previously enjoyed a long career in France, even scoring 10 goals in Ligue 1 with Nice in 2004-05.
Ultimately, Tahiti is little more than a bye for the others in its group, who will no doubt use that matchup as a glorified scrimmage and a chance to rest up.
Uruguay (No. 19)
Perhaps the dark-horse contender to win the whole thing, Uruguay is certainly a team to keep an eye on.
La Celeste notched a fourth-place finish at the 2010 World Cup, winning its group and reaching the semifinals before a 3-2 loss to the Netherlands. They're back and are stocked with talent up front, even if results this year have been subpar. Wins over Venezuela and France this month bode well, but prior losses to Chile (2-0) and Spain (3-1) suggest they have yet to find top form.
But with a strike force that ranks among the world's best, no one will be overlooking Uruguay.
Liverpool's Luis Suarez (23 goals last season), Napoli's Edinson Cavani (29) and Diego Forlan make for an explosive attacking trio, and keeping those three quiet will be a mammoth task for any opponent.
The tournament also marks a big opportunity for Cavani, who is reportedly being courted by both Manchester City and Real Madrid.