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The World Cup's 'untouchables'


Every team at this summer's World Cup has key players on which it depends. But some squads have players who influence the game so much that their team simply isn't the same without them. These are the "untouchables" -- the guys for whom coaches, fans and even teammates at times say little prayers in hopes they'll stay healthy. Here are some of those players whose teams need them to be at their very best.

Ghana:Michael Essien. The Chelsea star has been a key player for Ghana since he was a teenager playing for his nation's youth teams. The midfielder makes the center of the field his castle, reigning with power to kill opposing attacks and the grace to hit accurate passes to penetrate enemy territory. In the 2006 World Cup, Essien was instrumental in his team's wins over the Czech Republic and the U.S., helping the Black Stars advance to the second round. When he was suspended for the round-of-16 clash with Brazil, Essien could only watch helplessly as the South Americans bounced his team out of the tournament.

Ivory Coast: Didier Drogba. Arguably the best striker in the game right now, Drogba led his team to its first World Cup berth in '06. The Ivorian seized the moment of national pride to plead with warring factions in the Ivory Coast's bitter civil war to make peace. That they did so shows not only the respect Drogba engenders in his country but also the recognition of how his talent for scoring is crucial to the team. However, Drogba also fills another important role for the Elephants -- that of head cheerleader. He may be the most potent weapon in the team's arsenal, but Drogba isn't a diva on his national team. He's fiercely loyal to his teammates, encouraging them, complimenting them and, in the case of young striker Salomon Kalou, mentoring them to improve.

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Portugal: Cristiano Ronaldo. A player this good can sometimes throw his own team off. Too often, Ronaldo pushes things a bit too much while on national-team duty, perhaps compelled by patriotic ambition to try yet another tricky move instead of settling for the simple pass. His own teammates seem to sit back a bit, as if they're waiting for the Real Madrid star to do it all. Yet the most expensive player in history still puts Portugal on another plane when he plays well. The winger's speed stretches defenses and his set-pieces are guided missiles. If Portugal meshes a bit better with its superstar, it could do some damage this summer.

Uruguay: Diego Forlán. The dynamic yet unpredictable striker followed a family tradition when suiting up for Uruguay -- his father made his country's World Cup squads in '66 and '74. Forlán has scored in nearly every other game every time he suits up for la Celeste. Uruguay may have won two World Cups early in the tournament's history, but now it's notable when the country even makes it to the competition. Now that it has, Uruguay will need Forlán to be at his best to help the squad advance.

United States: Landon Donovan. Team USA isn't simply more threatening when Donovan's in the lineup -- it also has more attacking ideas and the skills to pull them off. The contrast when Donovan is out of the lineup is stark. He's also been moved from striker to midfield, to withdrawn striker to both wings in different efforts to see where his talent can have the most impact. Donovan's versatility may in fact be his best asset -- he doesn't need to have a team designed around him.

New Zealand: Ryan Nelsen. The All-Whites captain brings a wealth of experience to a nation that's making only its second appearance in the World Cup. Nelsen is the team's talisman, famed for scoring the winning goal that brought New Zealand a proud victory over eternal rival Australia in the final of the '02 Oceania Nations Cup. The defender, who faces off against England's best clubs regularly as a member of Blackburn Rovers, is unintimidated by the international level of play. This confidence is crucial for other players to draw from as they head to South Africa.

Mexico: Cuauhtémoc Blanco. When El Tricolor trailed the U.S. in its famed Estadio Azteca during World Cup qualifying last August, it didn't panic. A lot of that was because Blanco was in the game. The wily veteran went on the attack, and it was his quick, darting pass to Israel Castro that set up the equalizer. Early in qualifying, Mexico played at its worst while Blanco was retired from the international game. Coach Javier Aguirre made sure to bring him back, and Blanco has repaid that loyalty with excellent performances.