World Cup Countdown: The Players to Watch



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).

The Brazilians, even with the Ronaldinhos and Patos not called up for the team, still have the best right fullback in the world—no, the two best: Maicon and Dani Alves; the vision of Kaka, who doesn't run but instead glides; and the temperamental but superlative Robinho. If/when Ramires gets on the field, who can keep up with his speed. He chould draw fouls, cautions, free kicks.

Landon Donovan has been, and still is, the best creative talent the U.S. has ever produced. This is his third World Cup and he should be slowing down, but after a terrific spell at Everton last spring, he looks as if he's gotten better. Same for Texas native Clint Dempsey, whose club team Fulham, in leafy southwest London, made a surprise run to the Europa Cup Final. Jozy Altidore, still another American playing in England, is the main threat upfront. If only he had an experienced partner beside him.

It's easy to focus on the creative talent. That's what most of us are naturally drawn to, but the No. 6 position, the defensive midfielder, sometimes serving as withdrawn playmaker (like Italy's Andrea Pirlo in 2006) has become quite fashionable. Pirlo's talent and playmaking ability from that deep is rare. Even Pirlo isn't Pirlo anymore (and he's hurt on top of that).

The Swiss have a couple good ones, Gelson Fernandes and Gokhan Inler, both shining examples of what the Swiss call "secondo," the hardworking childen of immigrants (in Inler's case, from Turkey). In fact, the Swiss team is filled with secondos or recent immigrants, including three from Kosovo.)

For the hosts, so much is on Steven Pienaar's slim shoulders. He's terrific, but he'll need help. He'll need help. And quickly here's a man-to-watch for each of the teams not mentioned above:

Mexico: Giovani Dos Santos, and there's good team balance;
France: Florent Malouda, who ended the season in great form with Chelsea;
Nigeria: Yakubu Aiyegbeni (it's a shame John Obi Mikel is out for Cup);
South Korea: Ji-Sung Park, the tireless Man U. man;
Greece: Sotirios Kyrgiakos, helms the Greek defense;
Algeria: Karim Ziani, who attacks from the left;
Slovenia: Samir Handanovic, the 6-4 goalkeeper could keep them in games;
Germany: With Michael Ballack gone, a lot will fall to Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Ozil;
Australia: Tim Cahill, the best among a team of hard workers;
Serbia: Dejan Stankovic, who does everything in midfield;
Ghana: Sulley Muntari, who must step up—no more fighting with the coach.
Denmark: Simon Kjaer, one of the few great young defenders in Europe.
Cameroon: Samuel Eto'o, obviously, but who's going to get the ball to him?;
Japan: Keisuke Honda will be their next great—but not just yet;
Italy: Danielle De Rossi, one of the most in-demand holding mids in Europe;
Paraguay: Christian Riveros, all-everything in midfield;
Slovakia: Marek Hamsik, who can score from anywhere—and has flair;
New Zealand: Only defender Ryan Nelson is world class on this team;
Portugal: Cristiano Ronaldo—how can we forget. One of the top three players in the world. Really.
North Korea: Tae-Se Jong, one of the few to play abroad—in Japan;
Ivory Coast: Didier Drogba might play yet. If not Gervinho has speed and finesse;
Honduras: Wilson Palacios, who does all the dirty work;
Chile: Matias Fernandez, who will have to supply three strikers.

Other posts in the "World Cup Countdown" series:

World Cup Countdown: The Teams to Watch

World Cup Countdown: The Waiting Is the Sweetest Part