The World Cup will be an opportunity for young players to make a name for themselves and for established stars to shine. Here's a subjective ranking of the top players by position heading into the tournament:
1. Julio Cesar (Brazil)
Internazionale 'keeper Cesar didn't make it off the bench in Germany four years ago, but is comfortably first choice these days. Brazil conceded half the average in the South American qualifying group (11 goals compared to 23) and could have run into trouble without him against Ecuador and Uruguay. On top of shot-stopping gymnastics (not to mention penalty-saving heroics), Cesar bosses his area and anticipates danger before things get hairy.
2. Iker Casillas (Spain)
First choice for Spain for the three World Cups, Casillas is still one of the best -- only five got past him as Spain qualified with Europe's only 100 percent winning record. He has a fine-tuned sense of exactly where to be (check out the slow-mo at 28 seconds) and arms like Inspector Gadget when he's caught out. It's fairly easy to stay composed playing for the favorites, but he has that in his locker nonetheless.
3. Gianluigi Buffon (Italy)
The Juventus stopper didn't feature in all of Italy's qualifiers, but he's the man you'd want for the big occasion. Reliable in a one-on-one and willing to come out and smother trouble, his consistency between the sticks was a major part of Italy's success last time out, conceding just two goals before the final shootout against France. And this save got them that far.
4. Hugo Lloris (France)
His lightning reactions and calm command of his area helped Lyon put Real Madrid out of this season's Champions League, got the French to extra-time in the World Cup playoff against Ireland, and are now earning him comparisons with Casillas. Nine caps is all it's taken -- even the demoted former No. 1 Steve Mandanda says Lloris should play. France's elderly defense will rely on his youthful athleticism.
5. Samir Handanovic (Slovenia)
Udinese's No. 1 just nudges out close contenders like Mark Schwarzer (Australia) and Tim Howard (USA) thanks to an exceptional qualifying campaign. Handanovic played every minute in a tough group and the playoff vs. Russia, yet still conceded just six. An imposing presence (he's 6-foot-3 and off his line in a flash), the Slovenian also appears to be made of elastic.
1. Lucio (Brazil)
Not just one of the best at the moment, Lucio is one of the best ever. Although he broke U.S. hearts at the Confederations Cup, center backs just aren't supposed to run the ball out of defense with quite the panache he does. He's a bull of a defender (who's actually stared down attackers, just ask Giuseppe Rossi) and often a quality midfielder.
2. Maicon (Brazil)
At the risk of a Brazil love-in, we can't leave Maicon off this list -- this chap keeps Barca's Dani Alves out of the team. He's calm and collected under pressure at the back, and in the grand tradition of Brazilian fullbacks, he rampages forward like a dog that's seen a rabbit. Not that he lacks a delicate touch -- as Juventus found out in April.
3. Ashley Cole (England)
Unpopular off the pitch, but widely regarded as the world's best left back on it. Cole has struggled with injury this season but came back strongly to help Chelsea to a league and cup double. Like Maicon, he's more than able to contribute going forward (four goals this season) as well as reliably marshalling the flanks -- Cole can keep pace with even the flightiest of wingers.
4. Nemanja Vidic (Serbia)
Serbia is emerging as a popular pick for the tournament's dark horse, and the Manchester United man is at the heart of the defensive sturdiness that's prompted it all. Like Cole, he's not coming off a consistently good season, but on his day, Vidic is near faultless. He looks least comfortable confronted by direct pace, but his robust tackling and aerial command would earn him a spot in most teams.
5. Philipp Lahm (Germany)
Lahm instantly hit the headlines at the last World Cup, scoring the tournament's opening goal after galloping up the pitch, cutting inside of two defenders and walloping the ball past Costa Rica'sJose Porras. He has a knack of doing that for club (Bayern Munich) and country, but is lauded -- and needed -- for his ability to repel wingers too.
1. Xavi Hernandez (Spain)
How many gallons of drool have dribbled down chins while Xavi has been on the ball? The perfect creative midfielder, Xavi sets the tempo according to his own faultless rhythm. Labeled el maestro arquitecto, he knows where the space is, where his teammates are, and when precisely the right moment to release the ball is -- and his passing percentage is rarely lower than 95 percent.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Granted, he can be an irritating showpony, but anyone who can caress the ball with their feet, sprint down the line like Usain Bolt and bang in goals with the regularity he does deserves a look-in. Qualifying unconvincingly, Portugal landed the nightmarish Group G and will need their prima donna to be at his dazzling best on the biggest stage of all.
3. Andres Iniesta (Spain)
In the galaxy of talent that is Spain (the only nation good enough to have Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas on the bench), it's tempting to think of Iniesta as Canopus to Xavi's Sirius. But 300 light years separate the two brightest stars in the night sky, and there's far less to choose between the Barca midfielders. Iniesta's harder to get the ball off than a man of 5-foot-6 is entitled to be, and his movement on or off the ball is mesmerizing as well as effective.
4. Wesley Sneijder (Netherlands)
Jose Mourinho may be the Special One but how different would Internazionale's season look without Sneijder's creative thinking in the middle of the park? He's cucumber cool on the ball, can sight -- and make -- the right pass within milliseconds and has a sharp finish on him too. The Dutch have a fearful forward line and Sneijder is a generous provider.
5. Kaka (Brazil)
Since making the switch to Real Madrid, Kaka's tended to look a bit lost, but when he's on form, he's impossible to stop and even harder to match. He's scored some amazing goals, and his all-round play can be breathtaking -- especially on the international stage. There's a vigor to Dunga's Brazil that could mean Kaka has plenty of opportunities to reassert his stake in lists like this.
1. Wayne Rooney (England)
Having notched up 26 league goals this season in a lone role for Manchester United, Rooney, according to spies at England's training camp, might start as England's sole striker. Muscular, tireless, instinctive and deadly, Rooney is lapping up praise as arguably the world's best footballer heading for South Africa.
2. Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Rooney faces nippy competition, mind you -- Messi's being hailed as the best player in soccer's history in some parts. His ball control on the move through packed final thirds is second to none; one flick of his ankle is like a wave of a magic wand. A World Cup winner's medal is the only thing missing from his collection of silverware, and he's still only 22.
3. David Villa (Spain)
Villa has 37 goals in 55 international appearances, but is nothing like the goal-hanger that incredible profile might imply. He's always prepared to do some leg-work, and drops deep to help bring the team forward, but retains a deadly eye for goal once he's in range to shoot. If he can rustle up seven goals in South Africa, he'll match Raul's Spanish record for career international goals.
4. Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast)
The Chelsea forward is essentially an overgrown and petulant child, but that kid's a damn fine striker. Combining strength, pace and pinpoint finishing, Drogba is a natural predator. He doesn't care so much for link-up play, but he's comfortable with the ball at his feet and can create chances from nothing. Has perfected Ronaldo-esque bullet free kicks, too.
5. Luis Fabiano (Brazil)
The Sevilla man isn't always the most spectacular striker but he's very effective, averaging a goal a game throughout World Cup qualifying and in Brazil's Confederations Cup win, too. Strong and skilful, Fabiano worries defenders and can shoot from almost anywhere -- no wonder he's being tipped for the Golden Boot.