Confederations Cup preview
The seventh incarnation of the Confederations Cup, latterly designed as a dress rehearsal for World Cup hosts, on this occasion Germany, pits the champions of six continents against each other - with the not inconsiderable pedigree of Olympic Champions Argentina and World Cup runners-up Germany thrown into the mix - in what promises to be an entertaining fortnight of football.
Oft derided as a meaningless tournament more geared towards filling FIFA's already bulging coffers, a look at the past four golden ball award winners it has produced - Thierry Henry (2003), Robert Pires (2001), Ronaldinho (1999) and Denilsen (1997) - bears testament to the galaxy of stars that have thrilled crowds in Korea/Japan, France, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.
Billed as a demonstration of the global reach of the game, last time round was over shadowed by the horrific events surrounding Cameroon's former Manchester City loanee Marc-Vivien Foe, who tragically lost his life after collapsing on the pitch in a match between the Indomitable Lions and Colombia.
The eventual winners, France, paid tribute to the well liked African by sharing the trophy with Cameroon, whose players wore shirts bearing his name in an emotionally charged game.
This year the games will give the Germans a chance to test run their much-vaunted organisational skills and showcase stadiums in Hanover, Leipzig, Cologne, Frankfurt and Nuremberg over a 15 day period that will see 16 matches played in total.
The tournament takes the form of two four team groups, the winners playing the runner-up from the other group in two semi-finals before the two last teams standing play for the trophy in Leipzig's Zentralstadion stadium on June 29.
The four countries competing in group A will approach the tournament with differing expectations but, more than that, hoping to derive vastly different value.
Hosts Germany line up with perhaps more pressure on them than any other. With the tournament itself an examination of their technical readiness for next year's main event, the home crowd will also be looking for a decent showing on the pitch from Jurgen Klinsmann's young side.
Starved of competitive action since a shambolic showing at Euro 2004, the coming weeks afford them the opportunity to test themselves against some of the big hitters.
One of those sides, Argentina, like Germany, are assured of a place at the World Cup finals, thanks to a dramatic 3-1 destruction of old rivals Brazil. The form team of world football, Argentina can relax into this 'Festival of Champions' knowing that the pressure is off.
In fact, for all the nations there will be little of the customary fear of failure, while a first prize of €2.28million (£1.54million), as well as a world stage on which to perform, should provide ample incentive to win.
Australia and Tunisia are the makeweights in Group A but the Aussies have a handsome tradition in this tournament having reached the final against Brazil in the 1997 vintage (though they were pummelled 6-0 by the South Americans) and come third in 2001, beating France and Brazil on route.
They will also relish the opportunity to test themselves against creditable opposition ahead of their customary World Cup play-off against the fifth-placed South American side, currently Colombia.
Tunisia earned their place amongst such exalted company by winning last year's African Cup of Nations, beating many people's favourites Morocco in the final on home turf. They, like everyone competing this summer, even those assured of participation, will have one eye on the World Cup and as a barometer for things to come, whilst not perfect, the next fortnight's action should provide a few clues as well as plenty of entertainment along the way.
Perhaps no one has more to gain, or conversely, more to lose from this exercise than the hosts. A rigorous examination of their readiness for next summer off the field will be combined with a need to assert themselves on it.
Not having beaten a top level side in competitive action since England were dispatched at Wembley some five years ago, and forced to subsist on a merge diet of unappetising friendlies over the last year, the Confederations Cup gives them a rare chance for some (semi)meaningful action.
'We want the players to grow together as a team during this competition,' said coach Jurgen Klinsmann, whose side automatically qualify for next year's finals as hosts.
'It's really important for us. It's our only chance to be together in a competitive situation and we have to see what we can get out of it.'
'It's also a chance for the boys to be together for a few more weeks, which isn't always easy to organise. It's important for the team chemistry. It's obvious that this tournament is something of a burden after a long season but it will be the same situation next year.'
Further to that, an onus is placed upon the young coach, new to the job, to prove to a football mad public that he and his squad have made strides forward after the capitulation that saw them draw with Latvia in Portugal.
Klinsmann has been hit by the withdrawal of European Cup winner Dietmar Hamann due to a stress fracture in his foot, as well as chief goal threat Miroslav Klose. Klose's absence should, however, mean more opportunities for Lukas Podolski, the gifted young striker who has been in prolific form at FC Cologne in the second division.
Podolski celebrated his 20th birthday on Saturday with his fourth goal in 10 appearances for Germany, most of them brief run-outs as a substitute. The late goal helped Germany to an encouraging 4-1 win over Northern Ireland in Belfast.
If Podolski continues in goalscoring form, and Michael Ballack and his Bayern Munich colleagues stay motivated after their double-winning exploits, Germany have every chance of giving the country a big lift with a year to go before the World Cup.
Argentina arrive at the Confederations Cup assured of their place in next year's World Cup finals but with coach Jose Pekerman under growing pressure to settle on a team and a system.
Argentina have used 43 players in their 10 matches since their former youth team coach Pekerman was promoted to the senior job following Marcelo Bielsa's resignation last September.
Pekerman was a taxi driver before embarking on his successful coaching career in the early 80s and, prior to his present job, had not been in charge of a full professional team. He made his name rising through the youth ranks of the national set up, coaching many of the present crop of stars along the way, after his own unspectacular playing career was cut short by injury.
Publicly criticised by legends Diego Maradona and Cesar Luis Menotti, he still commands a grudging respect from most in the game. He led his country to three Under-20 world titles between 1995 and 2001 and, with qualification secured, has earned himself some breathing space.
Expect Ranieri-esque tinkering throughout the tournament as he begins his planning for next year in earnest.
Argentines are hoping that the Confederations Cup will give them some idea of what to expect in Germany next year, even though several regulars will be missing this time around.
Pekerman has excused many of his most experienced players, such as striker Hernan Crespo, who scored twice against Brazil, central defender Roberto Ayala and midfielder Cristian 'Kily' Gonzalez.
He has also omitted three home-based players - Boca Juniors goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri and River Plate midfield duo Luis Gonzalez and Javier Mascherano - because their teams are involved in the Libertadores Cup.
The competition will give fringe players such as defender Gonzalo Rodriguez, Liverpool target Gabriel Milito, Martin Demichelis, midfielder Lucas Bernardi and forwards Cesar Delgado, Mario Santana and Luciano Galletti a chance to stake a place in the squad.
For some others, such as Real Madrid defender Walter Samuel and Valencia's attacking midfielder Pablo Aimar, the tournament is a chance to relaunch their international careers after absences during the last year.
'Argentina always have to play to win, there's no other way for us,' said Pekerman, when asked about the importance of the FIFA-organised tournament.
'This is a very tough competition where the teams will draw a lot of conclusions but we and the players and the public know that Argentina will give everything.'
Returning to Germany should stir warm memories for Australians, at least for those of a certain age. It was back in 1974 that they competed in what remains their only World Cup finals to date, in the old West Germany. Still aiming to make the finals this time around, the Confederations Cup gives the Socceroos a valuable run out against top level teams prior to a more than likely play-off match against the fifth placed South American side next year.
Australian football suffers as a poor relation to other major team sports in the country, and the governing body is desperate to make another major finals to boost the game's profile down under.
'It is a terrific honour for these players to be selected to play for their country at a major FIFA tournament,' Frank Farina, current coach and the first Australian national to hold the post, said.
'It's a tough tournament but its exactly the type of matches we want to be involved in as we get ourselves in the best shape possible ahead of the World Cup qualifiers later this year.'
As is now customary whenever an Australian squad gets together, Farina has been beset by players torn between club commitments and pulling on the green and gold.
In the past, Farina's hard nosed policies have angered European clubs over this issue but this summer he has been more pragmatic, leaving out Parma duo Vince Grella and Marco Bresciano so they are able to play in an end of season relegation play-off.
'I decided it was best for the team as they prepare for the Confederations Cup and the World Cup qualifiers later in the year and in the best interests of the players that they not be selected,' Farina said.
'It is a difficult situation for all involved. Both players love playing for their country and at the same time feel a responsibility to help their club.
'It's a shame they will miss the tournament but it will give others an opportunity to step up.'
In the absence of a meaningful regional competition - Oceania has previously and cruelly been described as the footballing equivalent of the world's tallest dwarf competition - the Confederations Cup has brought most of the highs in Australia's recent history: a final appearance against Brazil in 1999 and a third place finish four years later.
Australia clearly have the potential to compete internationally; a recent and undeniably satisfying 3-1 win over England in London bearing testament to that. Moves towards joining the Asian Confederation are well underway and this can only help sharpen their competitive edge.
Also without Liverpool's Harry Kewell, who has had surgery following an injury-plagued season, Australia do, however, bring the experience of Sydney's David Zdrilic and Spanish-based striker John Aloisi with them.
It's a tough ask for the Aussies to win it but when it comes to sport, they are a nation who will never go down without a fearsome fight.
Tunisia's participation in the Confederations Cup in Germany gives coach Roger Lemerre precious time to work with his team but the event comes on the back of much more important assignments.
Tunisia's bid to reach the World Cup finals for the third successive time is being hampered by a strong run in their group by North African rivals Morocco. Having beaten Botswana 3-1 away last Saturday in a difficult encounter, Tunisia cut Morocco's lead to just one point with a 2-0 win over Guinea at home in Rades on Saturday.
Victory would extend the Tunisians' winning run this year to four games. They have scored 14 goals in 2005, reviving their World Cup qualifying hopes after some disappointing results last year. Lemerre knows all about preparations for the Confederations Cup, having led his native France to victory in the tournament in 2001 following their Euro 2000 success.
He has already held a mini-training camp in Frankfurt before returning to Tunisia for the match against Guinea - and will then head back to Germany for their opening Group A match against Argentina in Cologne on Wednesday.
Glasgow Rangers striker Hamed Namouchi has joined up with the squad after missing the Botswana match. The French-born striker is one of several new additions in recent months by a Tunisian side who have benefited greatly from the inclusion of foreign-born players in their team.
They started the trend before the 1998 World Cup finals with the naturalisation of Brazil-born defender Clayton, who still provides an exciting option down the left wing.
Another Brazilian, Francileudo dos Santos, has proved to be a match winner for the Tunisians since he was given a passport on the eve of last year's African Cup of Nations.
Dos Santos' goal tally is 11 in 14 international appearances over the last 18 months for his adopted country.
Tunisia's latest acquisition is the former French junior international Chaouki Ben Saada who has won two caps in recent months and looks to be another positive find.
French-born Adel Chedli and Slim Benachour are also among the trump cards for Lemerre as Tunisia look to use the Confederations Cup as practice ahead of another World Cup game against Kenya in August.
Tunisia will also be seeking some long-awaited African success in the tournament. Apart from Cameroon reaching the final in 2003, Africans have made little impact and Tunisia would love to change that in Germany this month.
Additional reporting by Reuters