Players to watch - World Cup 2010
Position: Striker / Winger
Dubbed affectionately as "La Pulga" (The Flea), Messi's small size but natural skill has reshaped the soccer landscape. He is widely considered the best player in the world having won the 2009 FIFA World Player of the Year, 2009 FIFA Club World Cup Golden Ball, the 2009 European Golden Ball, and now it looks like he is easily closing in on dozens awards more for the 2010 season.
But all these accolades have come at the club level with F.C. Barcelona, where he scored a league-leading 34 goals this year, with critics saying he must win and score at the international level, where Messi has faltered repeatedly, to be compared to legends such as Pele, Cruyff and Maradona.
The bullish English striker probably won't go scoreless this time around. In a forgettable 2006 performance (he was only 20), Rooney failed to score and picked up a memorable red card during England's quarterfinal exit against Portugal.
These days, Rooney, 24, has joined former teammate Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina's Lionel Messi in the discussion of the world's best, however, Messi's late scoring bonanza all but locked up the award. The Man U striker is overcoming minor ankle ligament damage, but should return to full health in time for the tournament. The hopes of his nation's World Cup chances hinge on it.
The Valencia striker is sometimes overlooked due to his counterpart Fernando Torres playing in a bigger market, but Villa has been the most consistent goal scorer for his national team having scored 37 goals in 55 games. Of course, Villa won't be overlooked any longer, signing with powerhouse Barcelona weeks before the World Cup.
With Torres possibly being slowed by knee problems, Spain's attack will be rely heavily on Villa's abilities.
Gerrard's wizardry in the midfield is often overlooked on an England squad loaded with talent. The Liverpool skipper, 29, possesses the versatility to control the game in the middle of the field, out wide or on the attack.
Known for his loyalty to Liverpool (so far ... ) and his knack for clutch, brilliant goals, Gerrard has won almost every competition out there -- except for an EPL title. After a disappointing season at Anfield, he'll look to cement his standing as one of England's greats and avenge his crucial missed penalty kick in the 2006 World Cup shootout loss to Portugal.
The Dutchman will help form one of the most dangerous midfields in this year's World Cup when he teams up with winger Arjen Robben and rising star Eljero Elia for the third-ranked Netherlands. Sneijder, 25, recently led Inter Milan to the Champions League title with an assist on the first goal of a 2-0 win over Bayern Munich.
The central midfielder is known for his creativity in distributing the ball and his supreme talent in dead-ball situations, as he is capable of bending the ball into the corners with either foot with relative ease. He was a starter four years ago in Germany and helped lead the Dutch to the quarterfinals of Euro 2008 while being named to the Team of the Tournament.
Position: Attacking midfield
The 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year has been struggling since he joined Real Madrid this season. A persistent groin injury, poor physical conditioning, and style clashes with other playmakers such as Cristiano Ronaldo has limited his role in Real Madrid's recent run in the Champions League and La Liga.
But this is the same player who led Brazil to last year's Confederations Cup win and won the tournament's MVP award. Look for Kaká to play like he has something to prove after his abysmal club season.
Pele, Romario, and Ronaldo are just some of the shadows that loom over any current Brazilian striker. In today's Brazil, there is no clear torch bearer, but Luis Fabiano looks to be ahead of teammates Ronaldinho, Robinho, and Adriano.
The Sevilla striker has been the most consistent goal scorer for Brazil, having recently won the Confederations Cup Golden Boot. Being down 0-2, Fabiano scored Brazil's first two goals in the final against the United States, propelling the South Americans to the World Cup warm-up title. Fabiano is also looking to move out of Sevilla, so look for him to make a good showing as the rest of the world watches.
Although he stands nearly 6 inches taller than Leo Messi, Higuain can't seem to break away from the over-imposing shadow of his diminutive teammate. While Messi may deserve the title of the world's best player, Higuain needs to be mentioned among the super elite strikers of the world.
The Real Madrid forward has scored 27 goals this season in La Liga, only behind Messi's 34. Higuain made his first international debut in October, started his first game against Germany on March 3 and scored the only goal of the game.
Argentina struggled to qualify for the World Cup using Messi as their featured forward. If Argentina is to have success this summer, it will hinge as much on Higuain as it does Messi.
Schweinsteiger, who already owns one of the coolest names in the tournament, now shoulders an even greater responsibility. He must carry Germany's midfield without the services of Michael Ballack, who injured his ankle in the FA Cup final May 15 and has been ruled out of what would have been his third World Cup. Schweinsteiger, already a Bayern Munich and national team veteran at the age of 25, must now be the man in the middle.
Though he has experience on the wing, Schweinsteiger may move into Ballack's role in central midfield to help Germany cope with the loss. He missed out on the coveted treble when Inter Milan defeated Bayern in the Champions League final, but does enter the World Cup after one of his best seasons as a pro.
(May 15, 2010)
Team: South Korea
Park is a national hero in South Korea as one of the few Asian players to enjoy great success in the English Premier League. To boot, he's doing it at Manchester United, one of the most recognizable teams in the world. Park, 29, burst onto the scene at the 2002 World Cup when the co-host country made it all the way to the semifinals with victories over Portugal, Italy and Spain.
The versatile midfielder, known for his fitness and excellent work rate, played with American DaMarcus Beasley at PSV Eindhoven during the 2004-05 season. The following season, he transferred to Man U and has carved out an underrated, impressive career while helping the Red Devils lift numerous trophies along the way.
The Spanish team, known mostly for its passing and attack, also possesses one of the best goalkeepers in the world, Iker Casillas. The Real Madrid veteran and now Spanish team captain is only 29 and has already made 102 international appearances. Of those 102 games, Casillas has produced a shutout 57 times, a Spanish record.
The Euro 2008 MVP was hitting top form just in time for the World Cup, but recent injury woes hampered him at the end of Barcelona's brilliant, 99-point season. His surgical-like passes helped his club team reach the Champions League semifinals and most recently his two assists gave Barcelona a 2-0 victory over rivals Real Madrid that helped them claim another La Liga title.
Spain will need Xavi to control an upbeat tempo, with strikers Fernando Torres and David Villa needing to effectively run off their markers to receive Xavi's quick and deep passes.
Blanco, considered one of Mexico's best and most entertaining (he's got his own TV show) players of all time, will be the team's leader this summer in South Africa. Though he currently plays for Veracruz in the Liga de Ascenso -- Mexico's second division -- he has won the Primera Division's MVP award five times.
Blanco, 37, helped Mexico advance out of the group stage in both the 1998 and 2002 World Cups and led the team to victory in the 1999 Confederations Cup. Personal differences with coach Ricardo Lavolpe kept him off the 2006 team, but he'll be back this year to prove he can still compete at the highest level. Look out for his signature move, the "Cuauhtemiña" -- or the "Blanco Bounce" -- this summer. You'll know it when you see it.
Position: Center back
The former England captain is one of the world's best -- and most controversial -- defenders. Terry's off-the-field actions have gotten much of the press lately after it was reported that he had an extramarital affair with the ex-girlfriend of ex-teammate Wayne Bridge, who refused to join England for the World Cup as a result.
Despite the Tiger-like attention he's been getting, the former "Dad of the Year" has anchored Chelsea's back line during another fine campaign at Stamford Bridge in which the Blues captured the league and FA Cup titles. Terry, 29, has won numerous accolades and titles, though his missed penalty kick in the 2008 Champions League final is one he surely won't forget.
Position: Attacking midfielder
The French star has a lot on his plate heading into the World Cup -- legal troubles for allegedly soliciting a 16-year-old prostitute, a persistent knee injury, Real Madrid transfer rumors, and continued poor performances by French national side.
With the announcement of Karim Benzema being left out of the World Cup, it will be up to Ribery to somehow light a fire under lackadaisical strikers, Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka.
Position: Center back
Vidic, who plays club ball with Manchester United, may be one of the best center backs in all of soccer. The 28-year-old hopes to lead a young Serbian squad out of the group stage of this year's World Cup after its Group D opponents -- Germany and Ghana -- suffered crippling injuries to star players Michael Ballack and Michael Essien, respectively.
The Serbians, who went winless in 2006 without Vidic, have an inexperienced offense, so Vidic and Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic will be leaned upon to get better results this time around. This will be Serbia's first World Cup appearance on its own, having previously qualified as part of Serbia and Montenegro. Vidic was named the top player in the EPL for the 2008-09 season, during which Manchester United recorded a record-breaking 14 consecutive clean sheets.
(Oct. 10, 2009)
Buffon, 32, is the face of the reigning World Cup champions. The Juventus star has won the Serie A's Goalkeeper of the Year award a record eight times and is considered by many to be the top stopper in the world. Buffon made his international debut in 1997 and was Itlay's back-up keeper in the 1998 World Cup before taking over full-time duties soon thereafter.
In the 2006 World Cup, Buffon did not allow an opposing player to score during the run of play in all seven matches -- a total of 690 minutes. The "Azzurri" only allowed two goals all tournament -- an own goal against the United States and a penalty kick against France in the final.
Team: Ivory Coast
Drogba's devastating elbow injury less than two weeks before the World Cup surely looked to knock him out of the tournament, but he had the required surgery and could see minutes to help his country advance out of the "Group of Death." The Ivory Coast striker became one of the top players in the world after the 2006-07 season in which he netted 33 goals for Chelsea in all competitions. This year, he netted 37 goals -- his last coming in the FA Cup final as Chelsea defeated Portsmouth 1-0 to complete their league and cup double.
Drogba, 32, has won the African Footballer of the Year award twice (2006, 2009), though his temper often gets him into trouble. He was memorably sent off during the 2008 Champions League final for slapping an opposing player and was recently given a two-match ban while on "probation" by UEFA's governing body.