World Cup Countdown: The Players to Watch

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These final days before the World Cup starts can be the most exciting time to be a soccer fan. Our World Cup blogger is using this period of anticipation to highlight the big stories worth watching at this year's tournament. Yesterday, he discussed the most promising teams. Today, he talks about the most exciting players:

This tournament could put Argentina's Lionel Messi in the "best ever" conversation. He's already the consensus "best player in the world," especially after a dazzling second half of the season with Barcelona, his club team. (Only Inter Milan's Portuguese wizard-coach Jose Mourinho was able to figure out how to contain him.) The first thing you notice about Lionel Messi (named after, I've read, Lionel Richie—and it's best to leave it at that) is his size. He's tiny, listed, generously, at 5-7, 147. In this post-steroids age, how refreshing is it to see the most famous athlete in world so modest in stature? (Though it must be noted that he had to take growth hormones as an 11-year-old to help get him where he is now.) He's such the anti-hunk, Vanity Fair didn't even include him in their recent beefcake cover package with some of the world's other best players, like Didier Drogba and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo.

Messi has it all: He's completely at ease with the ball at his feet. He's quick. He has vision, balance, and ideas. And he knows how to score goals with his foot, head (despite his height), and even his chest. But to be in the "best ever" orbit, the spectacular has to be achieved in the World Cup. Whether his coach, Diego Maradona, can best utilize him, well, the world waits.

Perhaps most importantly, Messi comes into the tournament healthy. (It's nice to be 22). Some of the other stand-out players—if they haven't already been ruled out—will be struggling to get into game shape after long injuries. One is Spanish striker Fernando Torres, who missed the last month of the English Premiership season with a knee injury. If he isn't back to his 100 percent self, his partner up front, David Villa, is every bit his equal. No other team in the tournament has such a devastating offensive pairing. Spain's visionary (and Messi's teammate on Barcelona) is Xavi Hernandez, the orchestrator (and advocate) of the current Spanish sensibility. He's cerebral, skillful, in perpetual, effortless motion, an enabler. And like Messi, he's a welterweight at 5-7, about 150 (as his wonderful co-director Andres Iniesta, also of Barcelona, though he, too, is fighting to get back to full fitness).

Also coming back from an injury is Wayne Rooney, pale-skinned and thick with baby fat. (He, too, was left out of the Vanity Fair package.) He's the least remarkable great player you'll see, but he could put England over the top for the first time since the days of Swinging London with his remarkable goal-scoring instincts. He'll need to watch his temper.

Holland have to deal with in-fighting for good reason: They have so many dynamic players in the attack some will be relegated to the bench. It's the same this year, though it appears that the delightful skill-set of Arjen Robben is the latest to be lost to injury. And how stupid. In a pre-tournament friendly, leading poor Hungary 6-1, Robben, with two goals already, had to do attempt a back-heel pass and strain a hamstring. But there's still Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, and Eljero (named after, again I'm not kidding, Al Jarreau) Elia. (The Dutch have the added allure of having names that make them sound like Renaissance painters—or Al Jarreau: Giovanni van Bronckhorst; Rafael van der Vaart; Klaas-Jan Huntelaar).

Presented by

Michael J. Agovino is author of The Bookmaker: A Memoir of Money, Luck, and Family From the Utopian Outskirts of New York City (HarperCollins, 2008). He will be blogging for TheAtlantic.com during the World Cup.

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