This month's Confederations Cup is a dry run for next summer World Cup Finals and, with the Olympic bandwagon due to roll into Rio in 2016, all eyes of the sporting world are on Brazil, ready to sit in judgement of the country's ability, or inability, to handle such high profile events.
And there have already been more than a few teething problems giving cause for concern. Delays with stadium redevelopment have led to FIFA threatening to remove Sao Paulo from its list of World Cup venues - the city is conspicuous by its absence from the Confederations Cup schedule - and of course the Maracana Stadium was only granted its safety certificate a few days prior to the recent clash with England. Add the enforced 'modernisation' of the shanty towns, where drug gangs and police have frequently engaged in gun battles in the streets, with the favellas currently looking like occupied territories, such is the extent of the police/military presence, the country remains poverty-stricken, there are social problems aplenty, and availability of hotel accommodation is set to pose a major headache. Room rates certainly won't undercut Premier Inn prices.
But the Brazilians are so immersed in football that it is unthinkable that the Confederations Cup and the World Cup will turn out to be anything other than resounding successes. If it means relocating paupers, beggars and other unsavoury elements, it will happen to make sure the worldwide audience does not have to contemplate the 'other' side of Brazilian society. It is all about prestige, appearance counts, everything will be made to run smoothly...or else! Besides, Sepp Blatter probably thinks a favella is something a Spaniard nibbles on for his tea-break!!!
It would be interesting to know the demographic make-up of your average football crowd in Brazil. Is the game going the same way as in England, with corporate punters putting the matchday experience outwith the reach of the man in the street? It really gets on my goat when I'm watching a big match at Wembley and see rows and rows of empty seats at the start of the second half because the camel-coat brigade are still guzzling champers and stuffing their coupons full of prawn sandwiches. Meanwhile, the genuine fan with a real feeling for the game is stuck at home or in the pub, having to make do with the TV coverage.
Brazil weren't overly impressive in their recent 2-2 draw with England but, by all accounts, they totally outclassed France last weekend, winning 3-0 at Gremio with a superb second half performance, so Japan really shouldn't cause the host nation too many problems when the Confederations Cup kicks off in Brasilia on Saturday night. As always, there is enormous pressure on the Brazilians to deliver and, with the World Cup just a year away, the ultra-critical home fans will not accept anything which suggests next year's main event won't have a happy ending.
Following Neymar's big money move from Santos to Barcelona, the heat will be on the 21-year-old to show he is capable of following in the footsteps of legends like Romario, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho by taking the move to Europe in his stride. With Hulk and Fred also in contention for berths up front, Neymar is far from an automatic choice in Luiz Felipe Scolari's side but the manager is sure to throw down the gauntlet and demand that Naymar rises to the challenge.
Japan have already booked their passage to next year's finals and, with a number of their top players now plying their trade in Europe, they won't lack big-time know-how. But they still have a long way to go before they can be seen as serious challengers to the traditional footballing powers. Nagatomo (Inter Milan), Uchida (Schalke), Kagawa (ManUre), Honda (CSKA Moscow), Okazaki (Stuttgart) and Inui (Eintracht) all exude quality but I expect the Japs to be playing catch-up after their opener and they will also find Italy and Mexico to be very difficult opponents.
Assuming it will be Brazil and one other who qualify from Group A, Sunday's clash between Italy and Mexico will be fascinating. The Mexicans have an impressive record in the Confederations Cup, winning the trophy in 1999, and if they were to upset the Italians they could again be the competition's surprise package. Man Utd's Javier Hernandez in the class act in the Mexico line-up but my money is on the menacingly mean Italian defenders to get the better of him and for the Azzuri to take a giant step towards the semi-finals.
The Italians qualified for the Confederations Cup as runners-up to Spain at Euro2012 because the Spaniards had already booked their ticket as World Cup holders. The Juventus spine of Buffon-Chiellini-Pirlo holds the side together, although their front-line partnership is undecided. Balotelli did himself no favours when he was sent off against the Czech Republic recently but his AC Milan team-mate Al Shaarawy looks the part and the prospect of playing an established club double-act in the national side could get the 'unstable one' the nod from coach Cesare Prandelli.
Assuming Italy do the business against Mexico, their clash with the hosts at the Fonte Nova Arena in Salvador next Saturday afternoon could be the match of the group stage, possibly even a dress rehearsal for the June 30 final.
Spain and Uruguay look like certain qualifiers from Group B. As reigning World Cup and European Championship holders, we all know what the Spaniards have to offer and, although it is hard to imagine them going into this competition at full tilt, they have enough quality to see off all three group rivals quite comfortably. I expect Spain to win the opener on Sunday, then it will all depend on how Uruguay respond to the defeat.
With top names like Liverpool duo Coates and Suarez, Maxi Pereira of Benfica, Atletico Madrid's Diego Godin and Inter Milan veteran Diego Forlan, the Uruguayans don't lack glamour, plus their real box-office attraction is the currently most sought-after player in European football, Napoli's Edinson Cavani. If these guys gel together as a team, they could pose problems for the more fancied nations, just as they did when winning the Copa America in Argentina two year ago.
Nigeria are back on top of the heap in Africa, with Chelsea's John Obi Mikel being their inspiration, but we will only be able to seriously assess their strength when they come up against Uruguay next Thursday. They will surely score goals galore against Tahiti on Monday but if, as expected, Uruguay have lost to Spain, the midweek match will determine who accompanies the World Cup holders to the knock-out stage.
Tahiti's presence in Brazil has puzzled many but they are there on merit, having won the Oceania Nations Cup. Of course, with Australia no longer a member of the Oceania Confederation, the title is now much easier to win and the Tahitians did it by beating Samoa 10-1, a 4-3 win over New Caledonia and a 4-1 success against Venuata (half-a-dozen staunchly Presbyterian islands in the South Pacific!). After beating the Solomon Islands 1-0 in the semi-final, a Steevy Chung Hue goal was enough to clinch a second victory over New Caledonia in the final.
With Nancy's Marama Vahirua being their only high profile player, having been a veteran of French League football for the past 15 years, Tahiti will do well to avoid a series of heavy defeats.
So the scene is set, it all kicks off with Brazil v Japan on Saturday night, with the big bonus for armchair fans being that the action is available on terrestrial TV via the BBC. No doubt the Beeb will see to it that we get full value for our licence fees by scrutinising the expense accounts of those they've sent to Brazil to cover the tournament for us. I'll believe it when I see it!!!
LITTLE BOY BLUE