The football extravaganza has finally begun. The month long tournament dawns the fortunes of 32 teams who have toiled hard for the past two years in the qualifying rounds. The FIFA World Cup 2010 is being played in the African continent for the first time and it is definitely a special time for them, a time to cherish long and one that will be remembered once its history.
Coming first in a series of articles, I focus on the players who will vie for winning the championship. From the rosters of the 32 teams selecting 10 of them is a tough job. But here I enlist 10 key players who could make the difference for their nations and be a part of glorified history.
There is however one refrain I force into the selection. I enlist only one player per nation. This is what makes the selection tough; choosing one among the best is definitely the worst job. Many players who would walk into many world XIs are missing but this list entails the driving force of some of the participating nations.
(photograph– up-right) Lionel Messi is the best pound-for-pound soccer player in the world, and perhaps of all time. At 22, Messi has won just about everything there is to win, both individually and in club soccer. Missing is any sort of hardware with Argentina, aside from an Olympic gold medal. Messi’s game relies on its unpredictability and magnificent control of the ball, which seldom demurs to anything Messi asks it to do. Listed at a charitable 5-foot-7, he’s even a good header. While transcendent with his club, Barcelona, in the last few years, the knock on Messi has been that he doesn’t match that dominance for Argentina. For the most part, this is blamed on Argentina manager Diego Maradona’s refusal to deploy him in his natural position — on the right, allowing him to cut in — and posting him behind a deep striker instead. Maradona, one of the best of all time as a player, has named Messi his successor as Argentina’s soccer savior, a label that has proved disastrous for all others so designated previously by Maradona.
Scouting thumbnail: Technical genius with a low center of gravity and pace who can break down any defense off the dribble and conjure something out of nothing. Struggles when used as a striker and prefers playing out wide and cutting in on his left foot.
“Buy that kid,” Manchester United players told manager Alex Ferguson after an 18-year old Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro, whose middle name allegedly honors Ronald Reagan, had torched Man United in a friendly in the summer of 2003. Ferguson obliged his players’ wishes, shelling out some $20 million and handing Ronaldo the No. 7 jersey, previously worn by legends George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona and David Beckham. Ronaldo responded by outdoing all of the aforementioned in a six-year romp during which he scored 118 goals and won three Premier League titles, one Champions League and one Club World Cup, swiping 42 individual prizes, including the 2008 FIFA World Footballer of the Year, along the way. Last summer, Ferguson sold him to Real Madrid for a record $132 million. Ronaldo has become a lethal dribbler, superlative header and long-distance shooter and one of the better free-kick takers on the planet and will anchor an aging Portugal looking to shine one last time.
Scouting thumbnail: Explosive, pacy and an astonishingly prolific goal scorer for a winger. Specializes in long-range free kicks and shows the ability to shoot from anywhere.
When Wayne Rooney broke through internationally at just 17 years of age and took his place next to then-England striker Michael Owen, a British journalist referred to them as “the baby-faced assassin and the assassin-faced baby,” with Rooney accounting for the less flattering of the descriptions. An England side without him has become unimaginable, as the Liverpool-born Rooney developed into a world-class striker in a country starved for them. The highly athletic Rooney has reinvented his position, swerving all over the attacking half of the field to drop back into midfield when needed or provide the final tap on a goal. With former teammate Cristiano Ronaldo now in Spain, Rooney has carried the scoring load for Man United. Rooney sports a tattoo that says, “Just Enough Education To Perform.” While this may be generous, his on-field intelligence is off the charts. One half of another British power couple, Rooney and his wife Colleen have taken England by storm, he as a soccer player and she as a fitness guru/fashion commentator of some sort.
Scouting thumbnail: Complete striker who can play anywhere across the front three. Powerful build and aggressive attitude poses problems for any defense. Can score any type of goal and has improved his finishing skills.
Kaka belongs to Jesus. The T-shirts he has shown underneath his jersey say so. An oxymoronic principled soccer player, Kaka also happens to be the rare Brazilian star who comes from an upper-middle-class background. Money couldn’t tear him away from Milan and its fans. Kaka said he wasn’t interested in the heaps of money offered him by Manchester City and Real Madrid. So long as Milan would have him, he would be staying. Milan needed his transfer fee to stay afloat though, so after Kaka won everything there is to win for club and self, Milan sold him to Real Madrid for about $95 million in June. So now Kaka also belongs to Real Madrid. Kaka has become a central figure in manager Dunga’s new Brazil, masterminding its lethal counterattacks, which have made a Brazil team not as deep in world-class players as in past years still one of the world’s best.
Scouting thumbnail: Knee injuries have sapped some of his speed and he no longer goes on galloping dribbles the entire length of the field. Artistic playmaker who can break down defenses via dribble or pass.
Every soccer team needs a Xavi, a savvy midfielder whose organizational skills are the glue that held both Barcelona and Spain together in their respective runs to glory. Along with Andres Iniesta he makes up the superb engine room for club and country, connecting the dots between those around him with his infallible short passes. The natural successor to Pep Guardiola, now Barcelona’s manager, Xavi has been a mainstay in Barcelona’s lineup since 1998 after joining the club’s academy in 1991. With a contract running through 2014, he isn’t liable to be leaving the only employer he has ever had anytime soon. His Player of the Tournament award for Spain’s EURO 2008 triumph was justified. Perhaps the best illustration of the force that is Xavi was his performance against archrivals Real Madrid in May 2009, when he notched four assists in a 6-2 Barcelona win.
Scouting thumbnail: Intelligent playmaker who combines precise passes and artistic vision in both the final third and from a deep lying position. The pulse of the Spanish team. Superb ability to keep the ball.
A man who once pronounced himself ugly and OK with that, Franck Ribery led a nomadic soccer existence until the day his Turkish club Galatasaray could no longer pony up his salary and Ribery moved to Marseille. There he became a star and was appointed the successor to France star Zinedine Zidane, even though Ribery is more a winger than a playmaker. Establishing himself as one of the finest of his craft at Bayern Munich, the bite-sized and injury-prone Ribery has yet to confirm that status with France, for which he has been a regular since its surprise run to the final of the 2006 World Cup.
Scouting thumbnail: Clever playmaker who operates anywhere behind the striker but prefers the wing. Direct player who loves to run at defenders and get to the byline. Impressive work rate.
The transfer fee record for a goalkeeper set when Buffon was sold by Parma to Juventus in 2001 may never be broken — perhaps because no goalie may ever again be so dominant at such a young age. The stylish Buffon, who needed a little time to cement himself as Italy’s undisputed No. 1, embodies the very essence of Italian soccer: rock-solid defending with a superlative goalkeeper as a backstop. During the 2006 World Cup, Buffon conceded only two goals — a penalty and an own goal — to bookend a 453-minute goalless streak.
Scouting thumbnail: Veteran Italian goalkeeper with sound positional sense. Solid shot stopper, rarely makes a mistake. Vulnerable to low shots.
While his stature leaves him likely to trip over a postage stamp, his ego is not so encumbered. Wesley Sneijder, while fabulously talented, is as likely to deliver an inch-perfect pass from 80 yards away as he is to hurl abuse at his coach. Suspected of being a clubhouse cancer in his native Netherlands, whatever psychological defect he has that makes him act like a spoiled teenager is tolerated for the positive effect he has on a team’s play. On the field, Sneijder’s world-class passing game does provide the glue that will hold together the 10 players surrounding him.
Scouting thumbnail: Short, squat playmaker with vision and impressive long-range shooting ability, harnessed with precise set-piece delivery. Can play anywhere in midfield but prefers to operate centrally in the final third.
When Chelsea splashed out $37 million for him in 2004, Didier Drogba seemingly came out of nowhere, uncommonly late in arriving on the world scene at 26. Now 31, he nonetheless has become one of the world’s foremost strikers, and probably the most athletic one. Both captain and all-time leading scorer of Ivory Coast, he will be relied upon to debunk the stereotype that for all their ability, African teams never perform. This robust striker both takes up andWhen Chelsea splashed out $37 million for him in 2004, Didier Drogba seemingly came out of nowhere, uncommonly late in arriving on the world scene at 26. Now 31, he nonetheless has become one of the world’s foremost strikers, and probably the most athletic one. Both captain and all-time leading scorer of Ivory Coast, he will be relied upon to debunk the stereotype that for all their ability, African teams never perform. This robust striker both takes up and covers a lot of real estate, often requiring several opposing defenders to keep him in check — although Premier League opponents haven’t been too successful at that this season, as Drogba won the golden boot. Known for his big personality and intense looks, Drogba is spectacular to the eye.
Scouting thumbnail: Talismanic striker and physical specimen whose power makes him practically unplayable when he puts his mind to it. Can score all types of goals and excels as a lone front man.