In the 1998 World Cup, Zinedine Zidane’s magical midfield pirouettes lit up stadiums across France, and took the host country to its first triumph at the world’s biggest football spectacle. In 2002, it was Ronaldo’s incredible speed and finishing that put Brazil on the podium for a record fifth time. The 2006 edition was a damp squib for people looking for individual genius from the world’s greatest footballers, but things look set to change this year in South Africa.
Football historian and commentator Novy Kapadia and Goan I-League club Salgaocar SC’s Moroccan coach Karim Bencherifa pick and analyse seven footballers who have the potential to make football into art, and the 2010 World Cup a tournament to remember.
Lionel Messi , winger/forward, ARGENTINA
Kapadia: Messi can do what Maradona did in 1986—can there be higher praise than that? Funnily enough, Maradona himself has said this, despite his God-like ego. Messi’s biggest strength is that he is deceptive; he has so many tricks up his sleeve that defenders are always guessing. When he does body feints, they are so subtle and quick that his opponents are almost always fooled. He also has incredible pace, and he can accelerate in furious bursts. His finishing is perfect too—whether he is chipping, volleying, heading, or getting a vital final touch. He is the most complete player on this list and leaves the others behind with the sheer range of his technical abilities.
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Bencherifa: He is without a doubt the best player in the world at the moment. He has so many tricks and skills that no one knows what he is going to do next when he has the ball on his feet. When he is playing, you understand why football is called “the beautiful game”. He’s got tremendous speed and excellent balance, he always keeps his centre of gravity low, and this makes him perhaps the strongest player in a one-on-one situation. He can also score with both feet with equal ease, and the free role he got to play with Barcelona has allowed him to show his class whether he played as a striker or on the flanks.
Samuel Eto’o , centre forward, CAMEROON
Kapadia: He has always been a fabulous finisher, but under (Inter Milan coach Jose) Mourinho his work rate has increased sharply. He runs back to defend, he works the wings, he makes darting runs into the box—he is a tireless leader. He drifts into space silently and unseen, and finds these pockets between defenders to get that final touch and score. He doesn’t score spectacular goals and he doesn’t need to, because he is always in the right place at the right time.
Bencherifa: Eto’o is a player with immense experience—I doubt any other player in Africa right now has had the kind of success and big-match experience that Eto’o has. He can quickly adapt to various positions up front—linking up with a fellow striker, playing as a lone striker, and playing as a withdrawn forward. Like most African players, he has immense physical prowess; he is wiry and it’s difficult to bring him down or throw him off the ball.
Cesc Fabregas , midfielder, SPAIN
Kapadia: If Fàbregas, (Andrés) Iniesta and Xavi (Hernández) click together, this Spanish team can be like Brazil in 1982, reminiscent of the Falcão, Zico, Socrates combination that took the world by storm. His reading of the game is fantastic—he finds space, and delivers long-range, defence-splitting passes that can only result in goals. Everything he does is effortless, which makes him deceptive and hard to read. Unlike most creative midfielders, his finishing is also world class—he can make this Spain’s World Cup.
Bencherifa: Fàbregas’ vision and passing are incomparable. He developed this skill by being the main attacking force in a club (Arsenal) that has mastered the passing game. He is an intelligent player, and reads the field like a rapid chess champion. He looks up from the ball for a fraction of a second and he will know exactly where to put the ball to cause maximum damage. He is also strong in one-on-one situations, so it’s difficult to tackle him without conceding a foul.
Kaka , attacking midfielder, BRAZIL
Kapadia: The irony is that this Brazilian team is the first in 18 World Cups where the defenders and the goalkeeper are rated higher than the attacking players. Except for Kaka—and that’s why Brazil’s success depends heavily on him. He has amazing creativity, a fantastic eye to spot the right opening in the play, and he times his passes to perfection. But Kaká’s greatest contribution might be psychological. Usually the Brazilian stars love the high life (think Ronaldo or Ronaldinho), and the rest of the team falls under their influence. Kaka is a born-again Christian who believes in strict discipline and is totally selfless on the field—and this will rub off on the rest of the team.
Bencherifa: Kaka can play in a variety of positions—he can be a second striker, a midfield playmaker or an attacking winger. Kaka has fantastic speed, and he can easily run the whole length of a pitch without getting tackled. After Ronaldinho was dropped, the onus of orchestrating the forward line is entirely on Kaká—he will have to turn Brazil’s possession into goals.
Steven Pienaar , attacking midfielder/winger, SOUTH AFRICA
Kapadia: He really is South Africa’s only player with serious big-match experience right now. If the “Bafana Bafana” need to do well on their home soil, Pienaar will have to orchestrate his team on a tight leash. He is fit, with the ability to take up heavy workloads. He has been fantastic for Everton down the flanks, with his speed and his perfectly delivered crosses into the box. He can create many goal-scoring situations, but can the rest of the South African team match his skills and finish the moves?
Bencherifa: Pienaar had a great season with Everton, and he is a hard-working midfielder. He covers a lot of ground, box to box, in every match he plays. He is creative, smart and delivers insightful passes, combined with wispy, darting runs down either flank. Everton use him on the left, South Africa may prefer him in a more central position.
Cristiano Ronaldo , winger/forward, PORTUGAL
Kapadia: He is a throwback to an earlier generation of “the beautiful game”, and what makes him remarkable is his ability to dribble while running at great speed. He can cut inside or outside his defender with such sudden change in direction that most defenders are left rooted to the spot. He tended to over-dribble earlier, but has now matured a lot. His club record is remarkable, but to be an all-time great he has to perform the same way for his country.
Bencherifa: His trademark free kick is deadly—the long run-up and his muscularity result in a shot that takes off like a bullet, but what makes it unique is Ronaldo’s ability to get a curved flight path at that speed. He has an outrageous range of tricks and skills, including the “roulette”, where you flick the ball in an arc from the back to your front, and over your head—a trick that few modern footballers use at the international level.
Wayne Rooney , centre forward, ENGLAND
Kapadia: In the 1990s, the Indian cricket team was all about Sachin Tendulkar. This England team’s relationship with Rooney is similar. His form for Manchester United has been amazing, and he has really enjoyed the central striker’s position he played in after Cristiano Ronaldo left the club. He is United manager Alex Ferguson’s dream player—a strong working-class boy who does not let glamour go to his head and is always willing to work harder. He has both strength and finesse; he can chip a ball delicately over the goalkeeper’s head, or drive in a blistering shot.
Bencherifa: He operates best as a second striker and he is vital near the box, where his strength and determination to hold on to the ball is a nightmare for the opponents’ defence. He is definitely England’s biggest weapon, as we saw in the World Cup qualifiers, where he scored nine times in their first eight games. He is pacy, powerful and capable of moments of brilliance. Sometimes he drifts to the left and allows (Steven) Gerrard to check inside, and that’s a deadly combination.