We're only four days away from the World Cup opener between South Africa and Mexico, so it's a good time to unveil my overview for the tournament. Let's break it down:
1. Whose name will be on the new era? This World Cup marks the beginning of a new age. The Era of Zinedine Zidane (1998-2006) ended when the genius from France sullied a comeback for the ages by head-butting Italy's Marco Materazzi in Berlin. Since then, three players have won both Champions League titles and FIFA World Player of the Year awards in the same year: Brazil's Kaká, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina's Lionel Messi. All three are capable of taking over the World Cup, yet all three will have to shake their reputations for performing better for their clubs than for their countries. Truth be told, Ronaldo's Portugal and Messi's Argentina were fortunate even to qualify for South Africa, and few observers consider them likely to raise the 13½-pound gold trophy on July 11. One player who could crash their party, of course, is England's Wayne Rooney.
2. Can South Africa come up big -- on and off the field? No host country has ever failed to advance from the group stage, and Bafana Bafana may well be the first, having plummeted from No. 16 in the FIFA rankings in 1996 to the 80s earlier this year. But Carlos Alberto Parreira's team will have big local support, and it has now gone 11 games without a loss. Then there's South Africa's organization of the tournament itself, the first World Cup held on African soil. Will it be secure enough? Will it run smoothly? The Rainbow Nation has a giant opportunity here to showcase itself for the rest of the world.
3. Is this finally England's year to relive 1966? The country that gave us the sport hasn't reached the semifinals since 1990, but its Italian coach, Fabio Capello, thinks he has a team that can reach the World Cup final. If England were to win it all for just the second time (the first was on home soil in 1966), Capello would become the first foreign coach to lead a team to the World Cup title.
4. Are three-man back lines the new new thing? The latest tactical trend may be going with three men in the back. Who might try it? Say hello to Mexico, Uruguay, Chile, Algeria, North Korea and New Zealand. It's not necessarily indicative of a certain playing style. While North Korea is ultra-defensive and plays with three center backs, Chile is a group of swashbuckling attackers under coach Marcelo Bielsa.
5. Politics and sports. You always hope that politics doesn't interfere during the World Cup, but the recent surge in tensions between North Korea and South Korea could spill over to South Africa, where both teams will be competing. North Korea's national pride could be in for a bruising in a group against heavyweights Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast -- all of which will be trying to score as much as possible in a group that could be defined by goal-differential. That leaves me hoping that 1) North Korea doesn't instigate anything globally during the World Cup, and 2) the North Korean players are treated well upon their return home, no matter how they perform in South Africa.
1. France. One of the tournament's most talented but unpredictable teams, Les Bleus has been saddled for years with the enigma that is coach Raymond (Crazy Ray) Domenech. What I like: wingers Franck Ribery and Florent Malouda, rising star goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. What I don't like: Crazy Ray and his loopy decisions. Of all the European powers, this is the one most likely to crash out of the group stage.
2. Argentina.Diego Maradona is a deity in Argentina on account of his 1986 World Cup glory, but as a coach Maradona makes Isiah Thomas look like Phil Jackson. What does Messi have to do to get a good manager at the World Cup? In '06 he sat on the bench as Jose Pekerman didn't bother to use Messi in the quarterfinal exit against Germany. And now Messi has to deal with El Diego. Pobrecito.
3. Cameroon. It's the first World Cup on African soil, but which African teams could go deep? Ivory Coast got a terrible draw with Brazil and Portugal. Ghana lost injured star Michael Essien and is in the Group of Depth with Germany, Serbia and Australia. Nigeria was better 10 years ago. Perhaps the continent's best chance is Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions have one of the world's top big-game goal-scorers, Samuel Eto'o, and quality players surrounding him, to say nothing of a good coach in Paul Le Guen. I've got Cameroon dumping Italy in the second round to reach the quarters.
4. United States. Being favored to advance from the group stage is a new position for the U.S., which tends to play better as an underdog than as the favorite. If the Americans really are one of the top 15 teams in the world, then there will be no excuse if they don't advance to the second round in a group that includes mid-level teams like Slovenia and Algeria. If it reaches the knockout rounds, the U.S. would probably be an underdog in a second-round game against a team from Group D (Germany, Serbia, Ghana).
5. Brazil. No, there is no Ronaldinho or Neymar or Alexandre Pato on this Brazil outfit. But Dunga has constructed a highly practical team that could easily win its sixth World Cup title behind Kaká. Whether Brazil's fans would be happy with winning in a less aesthetic style is another matter altogether, though.
1. Lionel Messi, Argentina. Messi's epic four-goal rampage against Arsenal in April had everyone (including me) hailing him as the best player in the world. But Messi's record with Argentina is decidedly more mixed, and the psychodrama involving him annd Maradona is the stuff of a two-man stage play. The best piece I've read about it is S.L. Price's story in Sports Illustrated.
2. Xavi, Spain. The midfield maestro of Barcelona and Spain probably doesn't get the credit he deserves, but his ability to string passes all over the field and to control the tempo of a game is unmatched. Having sidekick Andres Iniesta beside him prevents opposing defensive mids from focusing on closing down Xavi. Watch this guy for an entire game: It's mesmerizing.
3. Steven Gerrard, England. The Liverpool star will wear the captain's armband now that the injured Rio Ferdinand has been ruled out of the tournament. But where will Gerrard play on the field? If Gareth Barry's injury problems persist, Gerrard may have to play in the central midfield next to Frank Lampard, which has rarely been a dangerous combination. Gerrard is often more dangerous playing in the hole behind Rooney, where he's able to have a much bigger influence on the attack.
4. Michael Bradley, United States. I'm still convinced that if Bradley had been in the central midfield the U.S. would have held on to beat Brazil in last year's Confederations Cup final. The Americans need Bradley's vision and tackling to do well in South Africa, and he needs to stay on the field after being suspended for the decisive games in the 2007 Gold Cup, '08 Olympics and '09 Confed Cup.
5. Steven Pienaar, South Africa. If Bafana Bafana is going to pull off a big surprise and advance from the group stage, Pienaar will have to play out of his mind in games against Mexico, Uruguay and France. The Everton midfielder is capable of it, but his national team asks for more out of him than the Toffees ever do.
An injury epidemic has already ruled out several players, including Essien (Ghana), Michael Ballack (Germany), David Beckham (England), Ferdinand (England), John Obi Mikel (Nigeria), Salvador Cabanas (Paraguay), Carlo Costly (Honduras), Jose Bosingwa (Portugal), Charlie Davies (United States) and Rene Adler (Germany). Here are five other injury concerns:
1. Didier Drogba, Ivory Coast. The African player of the year and remarkable humanitarian broke his right arm against Japan and is still hopeful of playing in the World Cup after undergoing surgery over the weekend. If he can't play, Ivory Coast's scoring burden will fall on Gervinho.
2. Arjen Robben, Netherlands. The injury-prone right winger can be devastating when healthy, but Robben injured his left hamstring late in a friendly on Saturday against Hungary and did not travel with the rest of the Netherlands team to South Africa.
3. Humberto Suazo, Chile. La Roja's top striker is expected to miss at least the team's opening game against Honduras after suffering a left hamstring injury in a friendly against Israel.
4. Jozy Altidore, United States. The starting forward suffered a mild ankle sprain in practice last Wednesday and sat out the Americans' 3-1 win against Australia on Saturday. He's listed as day-to-day.
5. Andrea Pirlo, Italy. The playmaker injured a calf in a friendly against Mexico and is questionable for the World Cup.