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Tuesday
Jun082010

« In Which The World Cup Has Arrived »

Welcome to South Africa

by NOAH DAVIS

On Friday, Mexico and host nation South Africa will kick off the 2010 FIFA World Cup in Johannesburg's $440 million Soccer City stadium. Over the next month, 32 teams will contest 64 matches to determine the winner of the planet's single-most important sporting prize. You may hate the game, but don't hate the player.


Cristiano Ronaldo

Standing 73 inches tall, capable of incredible speed and blessed with a body that earned him a near-nude portrait on the cover of Vanity Fair, Cristiano Ronaldo would have starred in any sport he chose. Because he was born in Madeira, Portugal, he plays soccer. And sparkle he has. During the summer of 2009, Real Madrid paid a world-record $131 million for the rights to former FIFA World Player of the Year. Ronaldo, named after his father's favorite actor, Ronald Reagan, had a disappointing season for Los Galácticos but still managed to net 26 goals in 29 matches.

The player isn't without his serious faults. He's a prima donna — reportedly upset because he had to share the VF cover with another player — who angers fans with his constant "simulation" aimed at drawing a foul or penalty. (That's "diving" to Americans who laments soccer's culture of acting while overlooking the same behavior in the NBA). He wonders aloud if "maybe [people] hate me because I am too good." No, Cristiano, we just think you're an arrogant jerk.

More importantly, however, is the reality that he hasn't led his country to international glory. Portugal barely qualified for the World Cup and it's been 16 months since Ronaldo scored. (He was hurt for long stretches of this period.) Ironically, the side has often looked strongest when their captain and brightest star watched on television.

In recent World Cup preparation, Portugal suffered an embarrassing 0-0 draw to Cape Verde before defeating Cameroon 3-1. During the match, the winger made a mess of two almost sure goals. The world isn't quite ready to have the "Is Portugal better without Ronaldo?" discussion (and his country can't win the World Cup with him on the sidelines), but it could quickly become a topic of conversation in a soccer community that tears down idols faster than one of the midfielder's famous free kicks. One way or another, the 25 year old's time is now.


Didier Drogba

This was supposed to be the year an African nation won the World Cup. It won't happen, but Didier Drogba's Côte d'Ivoire could equal or exceed the feats of Cameroon (1990) and Senegal (2002) who both reached the quarterfinals. To do so, the Chelsea star will need to bring together the members of one of the most talented squads on the continent, albeit one that is divided by regional strife and consistently underachieves. (Assuming he plays. In a June friendly, a brutal challenge fractured Drogba's arm although he could return in time to partake in the event.)

During the '09/'10 season, Drogba had his best year as a professional, netting five goals in six matches for his country and scoring 39 times in 42 games for his club. He also continued his quest to be the most hated man in football, refusing to dial down the egregious diving. Critics accuse the African of acting like a petulant child, which is entirely fair, but there's more to the six-foot, two-inch physical specimen than flopping around on the pitch as if he's been shot in the leg by a bullet only he can see.

Drogba, who left Africa at the age of five to live with his soccer-playing uncle, Michel Goba, in France, works to bring his war-torn nation together. As a recent Sports Illustrated story details, after Ivory Coast qualified for the 2006 World Cup, their leader addressed the nation: "We've proved to you that the people of Ivory Coast can live together side by side, play together toward the same goal: qualifying for the World Cup. We promised you this celebration would bring the people together. Now we're asking you to make this a reality. Please, let's all kneel." Drogba's countrymen obliged, but he didn't stop there. He's continued fighting for peace and donated a $4.4-million endorsement from Pepsi to build a hospital in his hometown of Abidjan.

Still, the two-time African Footballer of the Year has failed his country on the field. Although he's scored an impressive 43 goals in 66 matches for Les Éléphants, he struggled in the '06 World Cup, missed a penalty in the '06 African Cup of Nations, and was powerless to prevent his team from going out in the quarterfinals of the '10 ACN. South Africa represents a chance for the man whose country named a dance style in honor of his footballing ability to thrive between the lines.


Franck Ribéry

A childhood car accident left Franck Bilal Yusuf Mohammed Ribéry with a massive facial scar that horribly disfigures the right side of his face. The winger's vehicular mishaps followed him into adulthood. While he and his Bayern Munich teammates were on holiday in Dubai last January, the noted prankster (and unlicensed driver) decided to hijack the club's bus. He promptly smashed it into some street signs.

Now, France's signature player is dealing with a sex scandal. Despite converting to Islam in order to marry childhood sweetheart Wahiba Ribéry and fathering two of her children, he consorted with prostitute Zahia Dehar. While the world's oldest profession is legal in France, paying a minor isn't. (Dehar was 17 at the time, although Ribéry asserts that he was unaware of her age, a claim she supports.) In the grand tradition of making things disappear until a more convenient time, the French authorities won't question the midfielder — or Karim Benzema and Sidney Govou who are also implicated — until after the World Cup.

On the field, Ribéry isn't so careless. He's lightning quick, marauding up and down the left side for both club and country. During World Cup qualifying, Ribéry netted three goals and facilitated the squad's offense. He helped Bayern reach the '10 Champions League final, but was suspended for the last match after receiving a three-match ban for a serious foul play on Lyon striker Lisandro.

Finding success in South Africa would vindicate both Ribéry and Raymond Domenech, the coach and arguably the most hated man in France. The talent-rich team barely earned a place in the finals, beating Ireland on Thierry Henry's handball. The manager's unusual practices haven't won him any supporters. He took his team for a training ride through the Alps and then buggy racing. Defender William Gallas hurt his calf during the latter excursion. Striker Nicolas Anelka fell of his bike during a different outing, although he wasn't hurt. The French, who lost 1-0 to lowly China in a warm up match, desperately need their scarred prankster to keep a proud soccer tradition from turning into a worldwide joke.

John Terry

John Terry is your prototypical England soccer player. He hails from London — born to a father who recently beat a cocaine rap — and spent his formative years as part of West Ham United and then Chelsea's youth programs. His pale skin looks as though it's seen 29 years of rain, fog, clouds, and little sun. He can catch beers with one hand. These inherently British qualities as well as his sublime defensive prowess led Steve McClaren then current coach Fabio Capello to hand the backliner the Three Lions captain's armband.

The Italian manager took the honor away in February after the press revealed that Terry impregnated French model Vanessa Perroncel, then paid for her abortion. For the English, that the Chelsea star was married, has two children, and was named "Dad of the Year" in '09 was less of a problem than the news that Perroncel happened to be Wayne Bridge's ex-girlfriend. Bridge, Manchester City's left back who would have made the World Cup squad as a backup, retired from the country's side and Capello handed the captaincy to Rio Ferdinand (who was subsequently ruled out of the World Cup with a knee injury). In an "eff you" moment a week later, Terry pulled up his sleeve after scoring a goal for Chelsea to reveal that his club still trusted him in a leadership role.


Lost in the "John Terry as lothario and/or a scumbag but certainly not fit to lead England" storyline is the fact that he might not be very good anymore. The defender struggled through a poor season at Chelsea and while his supporters blame the (admittedly self-inflicted) distractions, the four-time UEFA Team of the Year member has lost a step. His troubles caused Capello to attempt to lure Jamie Carragher out of international retirement, a move widely touted as a sign of fear by the British sporting public. (In Capello's defense, the English not only invented the beautiful game but also perfected the art of panicking about one's team.) The coach failed in his quest and will rely on Terry in the center of the Three Lions backline.

In South Africa, the defender needs to lead a side his countrymen believe can win — the Brits always think they can prevail, despite vast data to the contrary — to victory. He won't succeed, but avoiding his teammates' wives will be a step in the right direction.

Jong Tae-se

North Korea has qualified for their first World Cup since 1966, a tournament in which they shocked Italy and reached the quarterfinals. Leading them in '10 is Jong Tae-se, a player who makes his home and plies his trade in Japan. He only travels to the communist country to partake in soccer matches. The 26-year-old footballer is called "The People's Rooney," a comparison lost on those unfamiliar with England's tenacious bulldog of a forward. Tae-se's game borrows parts of the Manchester United star's trademark skill — the aggressiveness, the short, stocky build — but he'd rather be compared to Côte d'Ivoire's mercurial Drogba.

The Kawasaki Frontale striker will get a chance to battle the African as his Chollima's find themselves paired with Les Éléphants of Ivory Coast, Brazil, and Portugal in the Group of Death. Tae-se is virtually the only recognizable face on a squad filled with anonymous, hard-working, defensive-minded players who toil in their homeland. Korea DPR conceded only five goals in eight fixtures during the last phase of World Cup qualification, frequently keeping nine men (plus the goalie) behind the ball. Tae-se probed the opponent's defense by himself or with Hong Yong-Jo, one of his few teammates who also plays outside the poverty-stricken nation.

None of the country's citizens, however, will get to see their squad play. Kim Jong Il, who took credit for developing the tactics the helped the country reach the World Cup, banned broadcasts of World Cup matches... unless North Korea wins. One thousand Chinese fans will act as "surrogate cheerleaders" in South Africa.

In such a tough group, scoring a single goal would be a feat worthy of song, but there are glimmers of hope. The squad drew a warm-up with fellow qualifier Greece 2-2, with both goals coming off the feet of Tae-se. If the striker can somehow lead his country into the second round, he'll be a hero in Pyongyang despite his efforts to stay away from the capital.

Kaká

The conventional wisdom is as follows: "The English invented football; the Brazilians perfected it." The debate rages, but there's more than a kernel of truth to the statement. The South American country is the only team to play in every World Cup, winning five. The Samba Boys 1970 side, featuring Pelé, Carlos Alberto, Jairzinho, and others, tops the list of best squads ever. The green and yellow is synonymous with the beautiful game.

Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, Kaká to the world, both represents this legacy and serves as a break from tradition. After failing to win the '06 World Cup, Brazil's federation hired Dunga, a former defensive central midfielder, as manager. The 1994 World Cup winner installed a system that prizes unity and organization over flair, a strategy that's decidedly un-Brazilian but perhaps one that's required to succeed in an age of hyper-coordinated tactics. To prove his point, Dunga left Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato off Brazil's World Cup roster, a clear indication that this is Kaká's team.

In contrast to the traditional hard-partying Brazilian superstar (play a match, then jet to Ibiza), the 28-year-old midfielder doesn't smoke or drink and he wears a shirt that reads (in English) "I belong to Jesus" under his uniform. He had, by his outsized standards, a poor season after Real Madrid spent almost $100 million to acquire his rights, but he expects to be 100 percent for the World Cup. Kaká will man the central midfield position, using his power, pace, and finishing ability to lead the world's No. 1 team. He might even create a little of that joga bonito Brazil made famous.


Landon Donovan

The United States' all-time leading scorer announced himself to the world in 1999 when he won the golden ball as the best player at the Under-17 World Cup. It's the first and only time an American outfielder has earned such a prestigious award. Donovan continued his success by getting the U.S. to the semifinals of the 2000 Olympics, then scoring two goals at the 2002 World Cup and nearly leading an upstart U.S. side into the final four.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the success, he was, for lack of a better word, a brat. Donovan, who famously took a teddy bear with him to New Zealand for the '99 tournament, coasted on his talent. He twice failed to latch on at German club Bayern Leverkusen before coming home to Major League Soccer's San Jose Earthquakes. While he led the side to the 2001 and 2003 MLS Cup, talk that he couldn't succeed abroad followed America's best field player. Another failed loan stint in '09, this time at Bayern Munich, raised the chatter (although his coach Jurgen Klinsmann later admitted Donovan wasn't given a fair shake with the German giants).

But something was changing. Donovan matured, refocused, and stopped taking his skill for granted. He joined the English Premier League's Everton for three months this winter and played so well the Toffee faithful chanted "U-S-A" during this farewell match.

Now 28, he knows South Africa presents an opportunity to cement his legacy. With a good showing, he'll go down as the country's best field player ever and earn a transfer to Europe. Fail, and whispers about an inability to shine on big stages will return. He is the U.S. attack, a consummate goal-scorer who has learned to distribute as he's gotten older. During the qualification cycle, Bob Bradley moved Donovan from a striker position to a wide midfield role where he can run at defenders and facilitate the offense. The Americans score on the counterattack and Donovan is dangerous in transition. (See the wonderful quick-strike against Brazil in the Confederations Cup final.) That teddy-bear-toting-teen is now a dedicated professional, the leader of a team that rightly believes they can beat anyone in the world.

Lionel Messi

Pound for pound, Argentina's Lionel Messi is the greatest footballer on the planet. As it also happens, the Argentine who stands just five feet, seven inches tall in cleats is the consensus best player in the world by any metric. The 22 year old tallied 34 goals and 10 assists in just 35 matches during the '09-'10 campaign for the Barcelona club side that plucked him from Rosario as a child, brought him to Spain, and gave him injections of growth hormone. Messi has repaid the blaugrana by leading the giants of the footballing world to their second consecutive title La Liga (Spain's first division) as well as the '09 Champions League crown while blossoming into a brilliant attacking presence­.

At the World Cup, Messi is tasked with leading Argentina — a country blessed with more soccer talent than any nation, possibly except Brazil — to the glory it hasn't found since Diego Maradona almost single-handedly delivered the 1986 trophy to his football-crazed country. Blocking Messi's way stands the same Maradona, the best player ever (sorry, Pelé) who now coaches the national side. The manager took over La Albiceleste in December '08 and has been criticized for his lack of tactical prowess ever since. Argentina qualified — barely — for the World Cup under Maradona, but no one in the country believes his on-field genius translates to the realm of coaching, an opinion furthered when he shockingly chose to leave central midfielder Esteban Cambiasso and Inter Milan captain Javier Zanetti off the World Cup roster.

Of course, national heroes can't be fired, so it falls to Messi to rescue the side from the certain doom predicted by pundits from Mendoza to Milan. The youngster has struggled to replicate his wonderful club form on the national team, netting only 13 goals in 44 appearances while wearing the blue and white of Argentina. Cynics (correctly?) blame the tactics of Maradona for not giving his charge the freedom he needs to excel. Ironically, Messi's dramatic, slaloming runs at Barca were the specialty of his current coach who has said he'll run naked through the streets if Argentina prevails. The team will only succeed if Messi can make the world question if they are watching a live match or highlights from '86.

Noah Davis is a contributor to This Recording.
This is his first appearance in these pages. He writes about soccer here and here, twitters here, and tumbls here.

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Reader Comments (5)

'The beautiful game'. Pah.

June 8, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterg-dizzle

that picture of john terry cracks me up. is that a baby pink cardigan with pearl buttons? i actually think i like him better in his white knee high socks.

nice round up.

June 10, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersjm

I'm calling it for Argentina

June 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

yeah! what about spain? we'd die for football... and football can save us from everything else (crisis, what crisis?)

June 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermm

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December 26, 2010 | Unregistered Commenternye

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