For most American sports fans, soccer is a sport for toddlers too young to join Pop Warner football. But once every four years, we live and die with every corner, cross and nutmeg.
The 2010 World Cup is only weeks away, so we thought we’d take a look at 10 of the most indispensable players of the World Cup. This comes on the brink of ESPN's top 50 players of the World Cup.
Their analysis is great but the list, in our humble opinion, is flawed. Spain had six of the top 16 players on their list. Who the hell cares about Spain? It doesn’t matter who suits up for the 2008 Euro Cup winners; that team is going to be loaded.
We decided, instead, to focus on players whose countries cannot survive in the World Cup without them. Whether it’s an injury or simply not on form, these players have to step up for their countries to have any chance of progressing from the group stage.
Didier Drogba: Striker- Ivory Coast
It’s no secret that both Drogba and England’s Wayne Rooney have been two of the hottest strikers this season for their club teams. But, Drogba serves multiple roles for the Ivory Coast.
He is their all-time leading goal-scorer on top of being their top forward and the player that can provide a moment of brilliance that could make all of the difference. And, the Ivory Coast can’t possibly hope to get out of a nightmarish group featuring Portugal and Brazil without Drogba being on form.
Even if the Drogba is on top of his game, he will be challenged by two familiar faces: Alex (Brazil) and Ricardo Carvalho (Portugal). Each defender will know some of his strengths/ weakness and, maybe most important, his antics which they see every day as club teammates at Chelsea.
Cristiano Ronaldo: Midfielder- Portugal
In the last five years, Cristiano has been so good he’s forced newbie soccer fans to label Brazilian striker and three-time FIFA Player of the Year winner as the “other” Ronaldo.
A shaky and unstable Portuguese side will need every ounce of the midfielder’s talent if they are to advance from their group. Ronaldo didn’t find the back of the net once in qualifiers and it took a play-off against Bosnia and Herzegovina to qualify for South Africa.
If he fails to show up, it’s right to expect the Portuguese to have an early exit.
Ashley Cole: Left Back- England
Coming into the 2008-09 season, it would have taken a staunch Chelsea supporter to convince you that Ashley Cole was one of the best left backs in the world. He was coming off a season-long injury to an ankle (which he played through) and looked a shadow of the player that was such a threat down the left for Arsenal.
He is arguably the best left back on form in the world. But, he’s injured. He should be back by the World Cup and England will need him.
If not, their options fall to a bevy of players who have little to no international experience. Wayne Bridge is a no-go after a well-publicized fall out with (former) England captain John Terry.
Either way, it’s a safe bet Cole has to be in for England to have a chance, especially in the knockout stages.
Michael Essien: Midfielder- Ghana
Make no mistake, Ghana has talent. But, without their super train in midfield, the impetus to attack the Black Stars presents itself. And, with Germany and Serbia (two formidable midfields) in their group, it’s a safe assumption that as Essien goes, so does Ghana.
Case in point: The 2010 African Cup of Nations. Essien was injured and Ghana came runner-up in their group before defeating a bad Angola team and getting past a game Nigerian squad who was sluggish and travel weary. They fell in the finals to Egypt but never looked the part.
With Essien healthy, there is hope, however large or small, Ghana could be the first African team (and potentially Ivory Coast) to lift the World Cup trophy.
Theofanis Gekas: Striker- Greece
Some soccer fans who follow the game close will tell you Greece has no chance. Others will point to Greece’s 2004 Euro Cup win. If they can play the same strong defensive, counter-attacking style, the Greeks could surprise again.
One thing is certain: If they come out of a group that features Argentina, Nigeria and South Korea, it’ll be thanks to large contributions from Gekas. He led all of UEFA with 10 goals and he’ll need at least a pair for Greece to overhaul any of the others in a very, very difficult group.
Steven Pienaar: Midfielder- South Africa
This name won’t appear on many lists but Pienaar is the leading candidate to spare South Africa from their blushes. No host nation (South Africa hosts the 2010 World Cup) has ever failed to make the knockout round.
If this trend continues and South Africa navigates its way amongst Mexico, France and Uruguay, it will come down to the play of the star Everton midfielder.
His teammates are, with respect, not very good. If he plays well, and I mean, REALLY well, there is hope for the hosts.
Humberto Suazo: Striker- Chile
It might have surprised some people that Chile finished second in the 18-game CONMEBOL (South American) World Cup Qualifying stage. But, if you’ve seen some of their performances, a certain player should have really stuck out.
Suazo was outstanding, and he did it in some of the biggest matches. He scored twice on Brazil and scored the winner against Ecuador on the final Matchday to ensure the Chileans a spot in South Africa.
His 10 goals led all of the COMEBOL qualifying and if there is a chance for Chile, who is paired with Spain, Honduras and Switzerland, it may come down to the gifted right foot of the 28-year-old Real Zaragoza forward.
Tim Howard: Goalkeeper- USA
Screw Landon Donovan. The United States needs Howard to be on form. Without him, they lose one of their most capped internationals and the stalwart of their, at many times, shaky defense.
He brings confidence and savvy and isn’t afraid to get after his teammates. Remember, it was this guy that kept shut out Spain in last summer’s Confederations Cup.
If the Yanks are to get to the knockout stages, they’ll need great, great play from Howard.
Diego Forlan: Striker- Uruguay
The chance is there for Uruguay. They are in a group with South Africa (not very good) and Mexico (wildly inconsistent) to go along with top-seeded France (qualifying almost didn’t happen). If Uruguay makes it to the knockout rounds, they’ll need the Atletico Madrid striker to find the back of the net and be a commanding force.
Samuel Eto’o: Striker- Cameroon
No matter who Cameroon brings with them for the hike to the south of the continent, it’s fair to bet Eto’o will have scored more international goals (42) than the rest of his teammates combined.
If he is up for it, he’s one of the best in the world. If he isn’t, it’s safe to assume Cameroon, with one trip past the group stage ever, will be watching Netherland and Denmark (or Japan) in the knockout stages.