By Tom Sheldrick
On BBC Radio 5 Live’s Fighting Talk a couple of weeks back, guest panelist Martin Kelner argued that the second most important player in England’s World Cup campaign will be Wes Brown. Who? The Manchester United utility man, not even sure of a place in Fabio Capello’s squad, will be Wayne Rooney’s roommate if he goes to South Africa, and so reliant are England on Rooney that keeping him occupied and smiling off the pitch is the key to the side’s success on it.
The poor form endured by most of England’s first 11 is no worry because Rooney is on fire, having scored 30 goals already this term. He stamps his authority on nearly every game in which he plays, through relentless energy and sublime ability. He will be England’s “give him the ball” man, capable of dragging his nation where he wants to go, as he has done with his club side so far this season. He is good enough to be the defining force of the whole tournament this summer.
Who will this summer’s tournament belong to, who will define it, for better or for worse? They may not be one of the game’s brightest lights – they may drag sides there making up the numbers further than they thought they could go – they may not bend football matches to their will at all, but become cult heroes we’ll remember because of a goal celebration or a haircut, a second of genius or madness.
This isn’t just an excuse to chat about the best in the game – or even reminisce about some great World Cups gone by – it’s more important than that. To win a World Cup – or at least come agonizingly close – I say you need a player who’s going to own the games that matter, do it all on their own when their team needs them. That’s why I don’t think the two favorites – Spain or Brazil – will prevail in 2010. Spain have a side full of world class talent, and play beautiful football, but they can be bullied; for all of Xavi, Iniesta and Torres’ ability not one will drag a game by the scruff of its neck. Dunga’s got Brazil playing startlingly efficient football, and the Kaka to Luis Fabiano supply-line looks good, but again neither will run the show on his own.
Look at 2006, and unusually, a defender who dominated. Fabio Cannavaro captained his Italy side to triumph in conceding just two goals in the tournament, the first in a 1-1 draw with USA in the groups, the second to that man Zidane. The opposing captain in that final, ‘Zizou’ was anonymous in the group stages, scored in the last 16 and semis, got man of the match in the quarters, and well and truly left his imprint on the final. Of course, he’d already proved to us that he’s got what it takes – whatever that is – 8 years earlier with two goals in the Parisian final. But 1998, and 2002, just about belonged to the Brazilian, Ronaldo. He was the golden boy, primed for the final in 1998 – then he wasn’t on the team sheet, then he was – then he was a shadow of himself as Brazil went down. Four years on and he scored eight in the tournament, both goals against Germany in the final. Vengeance.
The only man who might have stopped him was suspended that day. Michael Ballack picked up the yellow card that meant he would miss out if Germany made it in the 71st minute of their semi-final. Four minutes later he’d scored the goal that took them there. He’s one who grows when he puts his national shirt on. But in those tournaments who could forget Senegal’s Boupa Diop, Diao, Diouf as they shocked France, Marcelo Salas and Davor Suker’s goals, the Paraguay ‘keeper Jose Luis Chilavert who took their set pieces, and the Nigeria of Sunday Oliseh and Jay Jay Okocha?
The Italians have had their heroes. One of them was a winner, the other lost. The Italy of 1982 were awful, the press laying into those tarnished by a match-fixing scandal, three uninspiring draws in the groups. Then Paolo Rossi scored a hat-trick to beat Brazil, and three more in the semis and the final. Top scorer with six, and they’d won the World Cup. 12 years on, and he was called Baggio, Roberto Baggio. Losing to Nigeria in the last 16, he equalised in the 88th minute, then grabbed the winner in extra-time. The winner in the quarters, both in the semis. But his shoot-out miss was the end in the final, Italy the losers. For better or for worse.
In between times, there was Maradona, and he was a bit special. The ‘Hand of God’ and the goal of the century against England in the quarters, two in the semis, the most delicious pass for the winner in the final, and he was the finest player on the planet. The hype in 1990, but they started with a loss, to the Cameroon of iconic veteran Roger Milla, and a tournament of petulant disappointment. 1994, and that celebration, his eyes bulging into the camera. Ephedrine in his blood, and he was kicked out, a career tarnished.
In his image, at least on the pitch, there had been Gheorghi Hagi in yellow and Hristo Stoichkov in white, carrying their teams, inspiring their teams – Romania to the quarters, Bulgaria to the semis. 1990 was all about Paul Gascoigne. He was at the heart of everything good about England in that tournament; to remember him only in that one image – tears in his eyes as he realised he would miss the final if his side made it – would not be fair. Sometimes though an image is plenty.
So, to 2010 and South Africa. Who can lead their side to the Jules Rimet trophy? The world’s most expensive player would be a good place to start looking. Just how good is Cristiano Ronaldo? $100million means nothing, bullying the smaller sides means little, and now Real are out of the Champions League for another season. The best players prove it at the highest level, and this summer gives him the chance. With Figo’s golden generation now only a memory, this Portugal side has few big names; it can be Ronaldo’s side. But he didn’t score a single goal in the qualifiers, and he hasn’t got time to grow into the tournament. Portugal have got to get out of a group containing Brazil and the Ivory Coast.
The Ivorians – despite sacking their manager recently – are most likely African side to challenge this summer, in the first competition held on the continent. And in their captain they have a man with an almost messianic zeal to seize that chance. The sheer physicality of Didier Drogba makes him unplayable at times and, at 32, this may be the Elephants’ all-time top scorer’s last tournament.
On to two of Europe’s big boys, and a Germany like we’ve never seen them before. This isn’t the functional side of old; Joachim Low’s men are full of attacking options. 21-year-old Mesut Ozil might be the finest of these. Having progressed through the German youth sides, he turned down the chance to play for Turkey and made his full Germany debut in February 2009. The playmaker has been in searing form for Werden Bremen this season, recently admitting he wants to play for Barcelona one day.
The difficulty comes in fitting him in Germany’s starting line-up, and although he got the number 8 shirt in last week’s high-profile friendly with Argentina, they only gained a real cutting edge when Ozil was replaced by Cacau in the 67th minute. Low will be a brave man to include him in his starting 11, but, if he does, he could well be richly rewarded. France shouldn’t be in South Africa in the summer, but, as they are, they’ll need talisman Franck Ribery to enliven what has been a listless side recently. The Bayern Munich creator is angling for a move – and the World Cup is an unparalleled place at which to sell himself.
Getting out of Group A ahead of France or Mexico will be an achievement enough for Uruguay and South Africa. The South Americans newest star is Luis Suarez. Already the club captain of Ajax at 23, Suarez has 26 goals in 25 league games this season, and has been linked with a £30-million move to Manchester United. He’s right in the Cristiano Ronaldo mould, able to play on either flank or up front. As for the hosts, Bafana Bafana will have to call upon playmaker Steven Pienaar to produce something special. His give-and-go style helps Everton play great one-touch stuff, but, now at 27 and nearing 50 caps, Pienaar must be ready to take games by the scruff of the neck. He’s from a township of Johannesburg, where the opening game will be.
Tranquillo Barnetta is in the same vein, getting Switzerland playing attractive soccer. He played all four games at World Cup 2006, and was nominated for the tournament’s best young player at 21. Four years on, the Bayer Leverkusen midfielder’s ready to star. The Slovakians, like the Swiss, were overachieving qualifiers, largely thanks to box-to-box midfielder Marek Hamsik. He’s scored 9 in 27 games so far this season in dragging Napoli to seventh in Serie A. Japan’s version is Keisuke Honda, who made his CKSA Moscow debut two weeks ago in the 1-1 draw with Sevilla in the Champions League last 16. The midfield man will be 24 the day before Japan’s opener against Cameroon.
And so to the bizarre world of Theofanis Gekas. The Greek surpassed a certain Wayne Rooney to top the European World Cup qualifying charts with 10 goals. At the same time, he was sent out on loan from Bayer Leverkusen, to play just one minute at Portsmouth, didn’t get any game time back at Leverkusen, and after a goal-scoring start is now back on the bench for Hertha Berlin, rock bottom of the Bundesliga. Safe to say he likes playing in his national shirt then.
For my outsiders – a youngster and a golden oldie. Nigerian Rabiu Ibrahim turns 19 in a few days time, having already starred at the U-20 World Cup last summer. He hasn’t played for the full side yet, but, after Shuaibu Amodu was sacked due to a poor Africa Cup of Nations showing, new coach Lars Lagerback promised to shake up the side with players “both young and old”.
36-year-old Carlos Pavon has done the rounds, playing for nearly 20 clubs before arriving back where he started out, Real Espana. He will reach the 100-cap mark during the World Cup, and has an impressive 57 goals for Honduras. As well as a pretty eye-catching haircut.
Tom Sheldrick is a freelance writer and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org