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World Cup: Players to watch

Player to watch

Lionel Messi, midfielder, Argentina

Last year's FIFA world player of the year has, if anything, done even more since winning that honor. Messi scored 43 goals in the 2009-10 season for Barcelona, including four during a tour de force performance in a European Champions League quarterfinal victory over Arsenal. Some pundits have begun including him in the conversation of the best players ever — and he won't turn 23 until the middle of the World Cup. Yet Messi's form for his country has not matched his club feats; he had just four goals in 18 matches of World Cup qualifying. To truly join the legends, he must be the world's best player on the world's biggest stage.

Player to watch

Samuel Eto'o, forward, Cameroon

In the past two seasons, Eto'o has been a part of two European Champions League champions, helping Barcelona win the title in 2009 then, after his transfer to Italy, leading Inter Milan to first place last month. Eto'o (pronounced eh-TOE-oh) scored three of his country's nine goals during a four-game winning streak to end qualifying, which vaulted Cameroon from last to first in Africa's Group A and clinched a spot. The 29-year-old striker has been the top scorer in each of the past two editions of the African Cup of Nations.

Player to watch

Miroslav Klose, forward, Germany

Klose was the top scorer in the 2006 World Cup with five goals and had five in the 2002 competition; his 10 goals are tied for seventh all time in Cup history. But the Polish-born striker, who turns 32 on Wednesday, had only four goals for Bayern Munich last season, and coach Joachim Low found himself defending Klose's selection for this tournament. Still, if Klose can rediscover his peak form or at least get near it, his aerial ability and nose for the goal will make him a danger on a variety of shots, and his skills will be even more important with captain Michael Ballack out injured. Klose had seven goals in six appearances in World Cup qualifying.

Player to watch

Andres Iniesta, midfielder, Spain

The hard part in this group is figuring out which Spanish superstar to pick. When ESPN.com chose its top 50 players of this year's World Cup, nine were from Spain, including six of the top 16. Iniesta, 26, is one of the world's premier playmakers and is a big reason Lionel Messi has racked up such amazing goal-scoring totals for Spanish champion Barcelona. Iniesta is nicknamed "The Illusionist" — in Spanish it sounds even cooler, El Illusionista — and shares headlines with Xavi, his fellow midfielder for club and country. Xavi's take? "Iniesta is easily Spain's most complete player," ESPN quoted him as saying. "He has everything."

By Jim Tomlin, Times staff writer

Player to watch

Cristiano Ronaldo, midfielder, Portugal

Is Ronaldo a showstopper or a showoff? Just confident or completely arrogant? Mostly a scorer or a diver? It depends on whom you ask or perhaps what day it is. Real Madrid paid a world-record transfer fee of $132 million to acquire Ronaldo, 25, from Manchester United in summer 2009. He poured in the goals for the Spanish giant last season, 26 in the league alone. His pace and skills are frightening. But in seven matches in World Cup qualifying, he didn't score once, and Portugal needed a playoff to reach the World Cup. So, what is Cristiano Ronaldo? In the end, call him one thing: mesmerizing.

Player to watch

Gianluigi Buffon, goalkeeper, Italy

As much as we'd love to pick the Tampa Bay Rowdies' own Jeremy Christie, his New Zealand squad is expected to do little. So it's Buffon, 32, who is usually regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world. In the 2006 World Cup, he gave up only two goals in seven games — one was an own goal against the United States, the other a penalty in the final. Buffon has been a star for Italian power Juventus for nearly a decade and earned major loyalty points when he stayed with the club after it was relegated in 2006 for match-fixing. The club bounced right back into the top flight thanks in large part to Buffon.

Player to watch

Wayne Rooney, forward, England

Rooney has been a star since age 16, when he burst on the scene for Everton of the English Premier League. Now 24, the Manchester United striker is regarded as one of the four or five best players in the world and the man England depends on for goals. Since Cristiano Ronaldo's move to Real Madrid, Man U relied on Rooney more than ever last season, and he delivered, scoring 34 times in all competitions after averaging 19.4 goals the previous five seasons. The lingering question is injuries; he has been battling groin and ankle problems this spring ever since limping off after a European Champions League match against Bayern Munich.

Player to watch

Giovani dos Santos, midfielder/forward, Mexico

In this group, teammates Rafa Marquez and Cuauhtemoc Blanco are more famous, and pretty much all of France's roster has more big-time experience. But dos Santos, the son of a former Brazilian pro, could be the breakout star of this World Cup. Mexico's CONCACAF qualifying campaign was floundering early last year when dos Santos began to assert himself. He scored once and assisted on the other two goals in a crucial 3-0 victory at Costa Rica and in between was named MVP of the Gold Cup tournament. At just 21, and with experience at Barcelona and Tottenham, he's a key part of Mexico's attack.

World Cup: Players to watch 06/05/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 5, 2010 6:38pm]

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