With the 2006 World Cup finals upon us, Brazil is once again the heavy favorite. The current Brazilian squad is touted as potentially one of the finest teams in recent memory, promising to merge the flair and panache of Brazil's '82 team with the more pragmatic defensive approach favored by the '94 squad. However, the Selecao won't be the only team to watch in this tournament -- here are some of the other key players, teams and themes that will provide the talking points during the tournament.
Five Players To Watch
1. Kaká, Brazil - With all eyes inevitably on teammate Ronaldinho (as befitting the FIFA World Player of the Year), Brazil's 'other' playmaking superstar enters the World Cup distinctly under the radar. In the Brazilian lineup, Kaká is the 'yin' to Ronaldinho's 'yang' and is arguably one of the few players in the world worthy of comparison to his more illustrious counterpart. With opposing teams gearing their game plan to contain Ronaldinho, Kaká has a chance to explode on the world stage, and more than enough talent to take over games. Real Madrid is already a true believer; the La Liga outfit is prepared to make Kaká the most expensive player in the world ever, and is rumored to have tabled a $70 million offer to play for Kaká's club team AC Milan.
2. Michael Ballack, Germany - Without question the finest German talent of his generation, the German captain is the rarest of breeds, a prolific goal-scoring midfielder. Having said that, he's never been embraced by the German public, a fact that many suspect is attributed to his Ossi (East German) roots. If that wasn't enough of a sin, there's also a lingering perception that he's motivated more by fiscal pursuits than a true love of the game. It's a reputation that wasn't helped by his offseason decision to leave Bayern Munich for a bigger wage packet from Chelsea. Critics in Germany have derided that move as mercenary, but the fact remains that without an in-form Ballack, the host nation has next to no chance at progressing in the tournament.
3. Francesco Totti, Italy - Totti is the embodiment of your classic self-destructive superstar talent. His sheer skill is undeniable -- Pele himself has referred to Totti in the past as the 'best player in the world' and Totti is arguably the finest player Italy has produced in the last two decades. However, here's where his one Achilles' heel kicks in -- his tendency to implode on the world stage in big tournaments. The list of transgressions is lengthy: He was suspended for most of Euro 2004 for spitting at Danish defender, Christian Poulsen and he was also sent off in Italy's defeat by Korea in the round of 16 at the '02 World Cup. If his head is screwed on straight and he's fully recovered from the broken ankle that has sidelined him the past few months, Totti finally might prove himself to be the player that many feel that he is.
4. Oguchi Onyewu, U.S. - Onyewu is the type of player who warrants a second glance solely on the basis of his physical presence. Very few defenders in the history of the game have had his combination of size, speed and strength. Even if the U.S. fails to progress out of group play, Onyewu's matchups with Czech man-mountain Jan Koller and Italy's powerhouse scoring machine Luca Toni will be watched eagerly by scouts everywhere. If Onyewu grades out well against those two, a move from the more pedestrian Belgian League to a higher-profile league is all but assured. As of today, the rumor mill suggests that UEFA Cup finalists Middlesbrough could be his destination, but a star turn might entice even bigger clubs.
5. Lionel Messi, Argentina - Living up to the mantle of the legendary Diego Maradona has been a cross that most young Argentine starlets (Carlos Tevez, Javier Saviola, Pablo Aimar, and Andre D'Alessandro etc.) have struggled to bear. It's a long list of those who were tagged the "next Maradona" but ultimately could not live up to the hype. In Lionel Messi, however, Argentina finally has a player who even Maradona himself acknowledges has the talent to succeed where others failed. But a lingering thigh injury -- which prevented Messi from playing for Barcelona in the Champions League -- has the Argentine camp concerned and might affect his playing time in the tournament.
Five Teams To Watch
1. United States - The U.S. is no longer an unknown quantity. The surprise quarterfinal run in the 2002 World Cup and recent dominance of regional rivals Mexico and CONCACAF has given the U.S. its highest profile ever entering a World Cup. It's debatable whether the starting 11 is better than the '02 team, but it is easily the deepest squad the U.S. has ever gathered. That said, the team faces a nightmare qualifying group and the very real danger that it could play better than it did in '02 and yet fail to emerge from the opening round. The reality: If the U.S. manages to get past the Czechs and Italians in group stage, it'll do far more good for the U.S. reputation worldwide than its '02 quarterfinal run did.
2. France - The French are a huge question mark. It's almost impossible to tell if the team will resemble the '98 World Cup winners, or the '02 flops that got bounced early. On paper, with a string of marquee names, there's no doubt the talent is there. However that tells only part of the story. The biggest question for the French team is its ability to co-exist. Star players Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry historically have been at odds over playing tempo -- with Zidane favoring the slow possession game and Henry favoring fast-break soccer. The two have long claimed that there is no rift, but on the tail of supposed improved chemistry in the French squad, it's been reported that goalkeeper Gregory Coupet, upset with his backup designation, recently had some type of altercation/dispute with a French assistance coach.
3. Ivory Coast - It's a fairly well known story by now that the Ivory Coast's first-ever World Cup qualification was the catalyst for a temporary cease-fire in the country's ongoing civil war. The fact that the team is responsible for national unity in the midst of armed conflict is remarkable in itself, but the Ivory Coast is not just a feel-good story. This is a team that's laden with top-tier talent from the world's finest leagues. Defenders Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue anchor Arsenal in the English Premier League, while strikers Didier Drogba and Aruna Dindane can score against anybody. Throw midfielders like Didier Zokora and Bonaventure Kalou into the mix and this is a team that will cause plenty of problems for Holland and Argentina.
4. Spain - For a country with such a long soccer pedigree, Spain is somewhat of a laughingstock when it comes to World Cup performance. The Spanish historically have underachieved and shown a chronic lack of heart. This time, however, on the heels of what could be a new Golden Generation of young talent, the Spanish look set to shed their World Cup demons. It's the first time that I can remember seeing such a complete Spanish squad that has no real weaknesses at any position. Factor in an easy opening group draw (Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia) and the Spanish have no excuses this time. The question here is whether the team will consider playing for second place, which would allow them to escape Brazil's half of the draw in the knockout stages. (As it stands, if Spain wins its group, it likely will face Brazil in the quarterfinals.)
5. Australia - Australia is making its first appearance in the World Cup in 32 years, and by all accounts the Socceroos are being heavily underestimated. A few months ago, U.S. coach Bruce Arena raised Australian ire when, in an interview with SI.com, he referred to Australia as possibly one of the two weakest teams in the tournament along with Trinidad and Tobago. (Arena later retracted those comments and said they had been taken out of context.) However, looking at the Australian lineup, it's hard to discern any noticeable weakness. Practically the entire projected lineup plays in the English Premiership, Spanish Primera Liga or Italian Serie A. Bear in mind, too, that Australian coach Gus Hiddink took a far less-talented South Korean squad to the World Cup semifinals in 2002. If the enigmatic Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell are in shape and scoring, the Socceroos will surprise.
Five storylines to follow
1. A return to normalcy. The world soccer establishment has been turned upside-down as of late. Brazil's win in 2002 overshadowed the fact that we were this close to seeing a Turkey-South Korea World Cup final. Compounding matters was traditional minnow Greece's startling win in Euro 2004. Most experts have dismissed any notion of a new world order and written off both occurrences as the proverbial blip in the stars and expect the traditional powers to reassert their supremacy at this World Cup.
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2. Will Wayne Rooney even play? England's hopes for its first World Cup title since 1966 took a severe blow when wunderkind Wayne Rooney broke his metatarsal bone in a late-season game for Manchester United. Despite not knowing whether Rooney will be even fit enough to play at any point, English coach Sven-Goran Eriksson named him to the team. It's a gamble that could pay off but will leave the English team short of striker coverage if Rooney is unable to recover. As for Rooney, he's undergone all sorts of treatment -- reportedly even sleeping in an oxygen tent -- in order to facilitate his recovery. One fact remains certain: There's no way his club team will consent to his participation unless he is deemed 100 percent healthy. With Rooney, England is a very real threat to win this tournament; without him, they'll struggle to get past the quarterfinal stage.
3. Will the Serie A scandal affect Italy? Italy's soccer scandal gets worse by the day, as the investigation into flagship franchise Juventus' supposed match-rigging gets underway. With a fair portion of the squad composed of players from the four teams being investigated for match-fixing (AC Milan, Juventus, Fiorentina and Lazio), the scandal could provide either a welcome or unwelcome distraction for the Italian squad, depending upon one's perspective. In my view, I think the Italians will shrug it off and prove to be the team to beat in this tournament.
4. Can Spain's Luis Aragones and Ukraine's Oleg Blokhin hold their tongues? In a year where European soccer has received much unwanted (albeit warranted) attention to the racist element in its sport, the sad fact remains that two of the sport's most openly racist figures will be coaching in this year's World Cup. Both Aragones and Blohkin are on record with highly controversial remarks. Aragones was sharply criticized last year after being picked up by TV microphones telling Spanish player Jose Antonio Reyes he was better than "that black (expletive)," in reference to the striker's Arsenal colleague, France's Thierry Henry.
Not content to be outdone, Blohkin caused a furor when he told reporters earlier this year: "The more Ukrainians that play in the national league, the more examples for the young generation. Let them learn from Shevchenko or Blokhin and not from some Zuma-Bumba whom they took off a tree, gave him two bananas and now he plays in the Ukrainian League."
Irony? Spain and Ukraine's opponents in group play will be Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.
5. Mixing politics with sports. The specter of politics might raise its ugly head during this World Cup courtesy of the Iranian team. If Iran's World Cup team advances out of the first round, the nation's controversial president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has stated he might attend the rest of its games. Ahmadinejad, repeatedly has questioned Israel's right to exist. He has called for the country's destruction and questioned whether or not the Holocaust took place. As a result, European Parliament members have sought an indefinite EU travel ban on Ahmadinejad and his presence in Germany potentially could spark violent protests from exiled Iranian opposition groups.
Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com