Key men winning fitness races
© AFP

Though the headlines in recent weeks have been dominated by high-profile players missing out on their country’s 23-man squads or being ruled out by last-gasp injuries, a host of others have beaten the odds to drag themselves back into the mix ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. FIFA.com takes a closer look at just some of these returning heroes.

Welcome boost for Low
Denied the services of such influential figures as Michael Ballack, Rene Adler, Christian Traesch and Heiko Westermann through injury, Germany coach Joachim Low must have been wondering who was going to drop out next. However, Die Nationalmannschaft supremo has received a timely fillip in the shape of Stuttgart’s Sami Khedira. Khedira, whose hard work in recovering from a knee ligament injury picked up in Bundesliga action in March negated the need for surgical intervention, is expected to play a key role for his country alongside fellow midfield man Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Spain also had their fair share of scares in the months preceding South Africa 2010, with world-class players such as Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres all in serious danger of missing out for the European champions. Coach Vicente del Bosque, however, will have been heartened by the trio’s returns in La Roja’s recent friendlies, with Iniesta, Fabregas and Torres coming back against Saudi Arabia, Korea Republic and Poland respectively.

Fellow favourites Brazil were made to sweat over Kaka and Luis Fabiano, meanwhile, with the key figures in last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup triumph both struggling with muscular problems late in the domestic season. Having needed intensive treatment to return to normal training, the duo seem set to play integral roles for A Seleção once more, with Kaka in particular looking considerably sharper during the friendly against Tanzania than at many stages of an injury-plagued campaign with Real Madrid.

Never give up
The efforts of two further players also deserve a special mention, with Portugal’s Brazil-born defender Pepe making a phenomenal recovery since tearing right-knee ligaments in December 2009 in order to form part of coach Carlos Queiroz’s plans. And Japanese keeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, a veteran of two FIFA World Cups, has somehow forced his way back into Takeshi Okada’s squad after breaking a leg in September 2009.

France, world champions in 1998 and runners-up at Germany 2006, had been concerned by a series of injuries to talismanic defender William Gallas. His place in Raymond Domenech’s final 23 in doubt, the Arsenal centre-half recovered in time to join the squad’s pre-tournament training camp in Tignes and earned a spot at the expense of Real Madrid midfielder Lassana Diarra.

England’s Gareth Barry will have been on tenterhooks too, having been hit by an ankle injury late in the Premier League season. Yet such is his importance to the shape of coach Fabio Capello’s team, he has been given the chance to continue his fitness battle on South African soil and should be ready for the Three Lions’ second Group C encounter.

Raising a nation’s hopes
The list of players to have overcome fitness problems continues with Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero, who battled back from a two-month spell on the sidelines to reclaim the No1 jersey in La Albiceleste’s last friendly against Canada. Nicklas Bendtner of Arsenal and Denmark, who led the Danish Dynamite line with aplomb during qualifying, is also back in normal training after a month spent shaking off a groin complaint.

Along similar lines have been the timely recoveries of Algeria’s Nadir Belhadj, Edgar Barreto of Paraguay, Chile’s Claudio Bravo, David Suazo of Honduras, Serbia’s Nemanja Vidic, South Africa’s Surprise Moriri and Slovakia’s Martin Skrtel, who are all crucial members of their country’s FIFA World Cup contingents. There were also brief scares surrounding Italy playmaker Andrea Pirlo and Uruguayan hotshot Diego Forlan, though both are now in line to appear in their countries’ opening clashes.

That said, though these stories have ended happily, fans across the world are still crossing their fingers that Côte d’Ivoire striker Didier Drogba and the Netherlands’ Arjen Robben can appear at Planet Football’s greatest spectacle. Chelsea hitman Drogba fractured an arm in his side’s friendly against Japan, though there are signs he may play some part in the Ivorians’ Group G opener against Portugal on 15 June.

Bayern Munich wide-man Robben, meanwhile, has stayed behind in Europe for frantic treatment on a serious muscular injury. And on the evidence of his performances in Bayern’s run to the UEFA Champions League final, a tournament without the Dutchman’s thrilling wing play would certainly be the poorer for it.