From purgatory to paradise
© Getty Images

“It doesn’t matter if he’s in the second division; I’d take him to South Africa even if he was in the third division. I don’t care where my players play as long as they’re playing well.” So said Diego Maradona when pressed on why he had picked Newcastle United’s Jonas Gutierrez, backing his midfielder to perform in paradise despite spending last season toiling away in purgatory. The step up may prove vast, but Gutierrez will be far from alone in attempting to pull it off, as FIFA.com now examines in this look at the players ready to make the leap from the second tier to South Africa 2010.

Overall, around 20 players will be feeling the added urge to prove they belong at the global showcase, with many having given up hope that they would be called up at all. That was certainly the case of Algeria’s Djamel Mesbah, who spent the 2009/10 campaign with Lecce in Italy’s Serie B.

“What’s happening to me proves that you must never lose hope,” he said after being called up. “In life, anything can always happen. That’s maybe even truer in football.” Those thoughts would no doubt be echoed by Djamal Abdoun of Nantes, Rafik Saifi of Istres and Ajaccio’s Carl Medjani, all of whom have teamed up with Mesbah after plying their trade in France’s Ligue 2 last term.

There is even a hint of fairytale in some cases, with the lower leagues cast less as the game’s inferior divisions than as the place where the grandest dreams take shape. Thus intimated United States captain Carlos Bocanegra when discussing compatriot Jay DeMerit, who spent several long years as an amateur footballer. “His story is really great: here’s a guy who went from kicking a ball against the walls of a farm in Wisconsin to the [English] Premier League.” Though his club, Watford, have since been relegated, DeMerit will be back rubbing shoulders with the game's leading stars on South African soil.

Australian goalkeeper Adam Federici would doubtless recognise much of that tale, having “played amateur football because, after all, I needed to put clothes on my back and eat”. Already living a dream to be playing for Reading, he must be pinching himself to now be part of the Socceroos set-up, particularly as he puts his presence in the squad down to an extraordinary exploit from December 2008. “When I scored against Cardiff, I got an SMS from the national coach saying he liked goalkeepers who scored goals,” Federici explained. “I hope that plays in my favour during the World Cup.”

His story is really great: here’s a guy who went from kicking a ball against the walls of a farm in Wisconsin to the [English] Premier League.
Carlos Bocanegra on Jay DeMerit

Federici is in good company too, as Pim Verbeek also plumped for second-tier ambassadors Carl Valeri of Italian outfit Sassuolo, Dario Vidosic of Duisburg and Mark Milligan of JEF United Ichihara. “I needed to leave Australia and have one or two good years before Pim started thinking about me again,” said Milligan, who quit Australia’s Newcastle Jets for China in 2009, before making the switch to the Japanese second division. “It was time for me to grow up, I think. I knew what I needed to do to go to the World Cup. I’ve grown in maturity and if I hadn’t made that move, I wouldn’t be part of the World Cup squad.”

His namesake Dave Mulligan of New Zealand is in an even more extreme situation as he is not attached to any club at all, and the Kiwis’ Simon Elliott is in the exact same boat, suggesting coach Ricki Herbert is more concerned with a player’s talent than the reputation of his club side. Indeed, another five members of the New Zealand squad earn their pay in the lower leagues: namely Ipswich Town’s Tommy Smith, Chris Wood of West Bromwich Albion, Jeremy Christie from FC Tampa Bay, Plymouth Argyle’s Rory Fallon and Middlesbrough’s Chris Killen.

For their part, Slovenian duo Jasmin and Samir Handanovic may well be cousins and operate between the sticks for Italian clubs, but their careers have followed vastly divergent paths. While Samir is first choice for the national side and wears the gloves for Serie A tenants Udinese, Jasmin’s Mantova have just been relegated to the third division. The considerable gap between them has nonetheless been temporarily reduced, with Matej Mavric of Koblenz in Germany and captain Robert Koren, who was playing for West Brom but has since been released, sandwiched between the pair as second-division representatives.

For many of these players, the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ will provide their very first taste of football’s highest standards. For others, meanwhile, it represents another chance to seize the spotlight, and that applies to Slovakia’s Marek Cech, who joined current club West Brom from Portuguese giants Porto, where he helped clinch two domestic titles and experienced the thrill of UEFA Champions League nights. Likewise, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, now with Vera Cruz, brought his sparkling talents to bear at France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002, and, at 37, will be hoping to perform at least one more trademark Cuauhtemiña on the grandest stage of all.

Also dreaming of making an impact after club campiagns away from the elite will be Cameroon’s Georges Mandjeck and Slovakia’s Erik Jendrisek, both of Kaiserslautern; fellow Slovakian Martin Petras of Cesena; Honduran midfielder Julio Cesar De Leon from Torino; Serbia and Munich 1860 player Antonio Rukavina; Korea Republic international Kim Bo Kyung of Oita Trinita; Chile and Real Sociedad goalkeeper Claudio Bravo; and Andre Ayew of Ghana and Arles Avignon.