London (AP) -
From the shot-stopping talent of Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon to the
mesmerizing dribbles and scoring skills of Argentina forward Lionel Messi,
the leading World Cup contenders will all be looking to their most
influential stars to guide them to the biggest trophy in football over the
next four weeks.
Although Brazil, Spain, England and Argentina have
talented players throughout the team, they still rely on key individuals to
shine brighter than the others.
If players like Buffon and Messi don’t play to their
usual high standards it affects the confidence of their teammates.
Conversely, a vital stop by the Italian ‘keeper or a mesmerizing run and
goal by the diminutive Argentine lifts them all.
Buffon has been one of the world’s best goalkeepers for a
decade, playing 100 times for his country. He was in Italy’s squad for the
1998 World Cup but didn’t get a game and, when the team won the title for
the fourth time in Germany four years ago, he did not concede a goal in five
games, including a run of 453 minutes.
Because of the way the draw for this year’s World Cup
pans out, Buffon can’t run into Messi until the semifinals.
The young Barcelona forward made his mark at the 2006
World Cup with a goal in his first game in the competition at age 18, and
was one of the stars of his club’s triple triumph last season, which
included the Spanish league and Champions League titles.
Messi torments defenders with his ball control, pulling
them out of position to set up goals for teammates or weaving through to hit
the target. Without a World Cup triumph since 1986, Argentina badly need him
to be on form in South Africa.
Brazil will be chasing their sixth World Cup title armed
with quality players throughout the team. If Kaka is struggling for form,
however, the team won’t likely have the extra ingredient to turn a good team
into a great one. Like Messi, Kaka can create a goal with a moment of sheer
brilliance - a dribble or an expertly timed pass to set up a chance for a
proven scorer like Luis Fabiano.
Unlike Brazil, which last won the title in 2002, England
have been waiting for a World Cup triumph since 1966, when Geoff Hurst
scored the only hat trick in a final at Wembley against West Germany. Now,
the English will be looking to Wayne Rooney to inspire something similar.
With his powerful, all-action style of play even when he
is back helping his defenders, Rooney has the ability to lift the team and
the fans when he is at his best. A defender’s nightmare, he muscles them out
of the way and scores goals from distance and close range, hitting the
target more than 30 times this season. He has the tendency to lose his
temper, however, and was sent off in his last World Cup appearance four
years ago for stamping on a Portuguese opponent.
Portugal winger Cristiano Ronaldo was Rooney’s Manchester
United teammate in those days, but moved to Real Madrid for a world record
transfer fee last June. Ronaldo will be Portugal’s key player as the team
face Brazil and Ivory Coast in a tough World Cup group in a competition
where they have never made the final.
The same, surprisingly, applies to current European
champions Spain, despite the fame of club sides Real Madrid and Barcelona,
and it will be a big disappointment for the Spaniards if they fail to make
it to the final at Soccer City on July 11.
With Fernando Torres, David Villa, Andres Iniesta, Carles
Puyol and Iker Casillas in the lineup, Spain have an abundance of talent
throughout the team. But the player who pulls things together is Barcelona
midfielder Xavi Hernandez, and he could be the orchestrator who takes the
team to its long overdue first world title.
The two-time runners-up Netherlands reached this year’s
World Cup by winning all their qualifying games. But they will rely heavily
on Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben being in top form.
Likewise, 1998 champions and 2006 runners-up France are
low in confidence and only reached the tournament with the help of a
handball by Thierry Henry, who is at his fourth World Cup. France’s best
player, however, could be Franck Ribery, who hopes to shake off injury and
doubts about his club future by shining at the World Cup.
Three-time World Cup winners Germany will be relying on
the goals of Miroslav Klose now that midfield general Michael Ballack has
been ruled out by injury, while the United States will look to Landon
Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley to guide them to at least the
Of the other nations, Steven Pienaar hopes to use his
Premier League experience to help the hosts, while Tim Cahill, the attacking
midfielder who has the habit of scoring vital goals for Everton, could be
the player to influence Australia’s World Cup chances.
South Korea will look to Manchester United midfielder
Park Ji-sung to make an impact, and Japan will be hoping that midfielder
playmaker and free kick expert Shunsuke Nakamura will regain form and boost
the team’s World Cup chances.
The 2010 World Cup kicks off this Friday at 9 p.m. (Thai
Time) with the hosts South Africa taking on Mexico in Soccer City,
Johannesburg. Check out the World Cup schedule in this week’s Chiang Mai
Mail for the dates and times of all the first round matches.