There was never going to be any such thing as an easy ride to South Africa. As expected, qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ has proved a real challenge for any number of teams so far. However, it still comes as a surprise to find a clutch of the biggest names in the world game desperately battling to keep alive their hopes of a place at the greatest show on Planet Football next year.
FIFA.com examines the plight of four superstars on four continents, all of whom are in grave danger of missing out on the first FIFA World Cup in Africa. And all four face challenges likely to prove among the sternest of their careers.
Ronaldo faces fall from grace
He is the current FIFA World Player of the Year, he switched from Manchester United to Real Madrid for a world record fee, and there seemed no end to his stellar ascent: Cristiano Ronaldo would rate among the happiest players on the planet were it not for FIFA World Cup qualifying. He is without a goal in four qualifying appearances for Portugal, and if the drought continues, it could well be that South Africa 2010 will take place without the electric pace and devastating dribbling which are the 24-year-old Ronaldo's trademarks.
In European Group 1, the Portuguese lie third on a measly nine points, well short of Denmark (16) and Hungary (13). In their four remaining games, Ronaldo and Co still have to face the Hungarians twice. In a further twist of the knife, the nation which finished fourth at the 2006 FIFA World Cup travel to Copenhagen on Saturday for a do-or-die meeting with the unbeaten Danes. Realistically, the Portuguese need nothing less than a win to remain in the running. On the plus side, the match offers Ronaldo a perfect stage to prove he really does possess the temperament and sense of occasion to rank among the greats of the game.
Hero to the rescue - again?
The hope in Mexico is that history really does repeat itself. El Tri were in trouble in qualifying for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, until Cuauhtemoc Blanco returned from a serious knee injury to fire his country safely to the finals in Japan and Korea. If anything, the situation is even more dramatic this time round. The 36-year-old strike legend had actually retired from the international game, but after his successors repeatedly failed to deliver the goods, he was persuaded to pull on his boots again, and promptly inspired his country to vital home wins over the USA and Trinidad and Tobago.
It certainly has the feeling of Blanco's last major mission in Mexico colours, and while not impossible, the task is nothing if not daunting. In the final group phase in North, Central America and the Caribbean, where the top three qualify directly for South Africa and the team in fourth meet the fifth-placed finishers in South America in a play-off, Mexico are fourth with four games to play, two of which are tough away trips. Much rests on the outcome of Saturday's visit to leaders Costa Rica. Can Blanco pull a rabbit from the hat one more time?
Pharaohs face a fight
In normal circumstances, Mohamed Aboutrika would be in seventh heaven. His quality was a major factor in Egypt retaining the CAF African Cup of Nations title last year, and the elegant playmaker also showed the world why he is regarded as an icon at home with a stirring performance at the FIFA Confederations Cup 2009. But elation could turn to despair with horrifying rapidity if the Pharaohs' bid for a place in South Africa continues to falter.
"I really had to fight," Aboutrika exclusively told FIFA.com while discussing the early years of his career a few months back. He will need to draw on all that fighting spirit again if he is to lead his country to the 2010 finals. Egypt lie second in African qualifying Group C, three points adrift of Algeria. They play their next two games away from home, before the final showdown with their North African rivals in Cairo. On Saturday, Aboutrika will aim to extend his run of five goals in as many games as he and his team-mates attempt to make up lost ground in Rwanda.
A legend at the crossroads
"The World Cup wouldn't be the same without Argentina. It would be colourless." So Diego Maradona told FIFA.com in a recent interview. It would also be a pity if Maradona himself only had a passive role in South Africa. The Argentinian football legend has the fate of the Albiceleste in his hands, as he is currently his country's national team coach.
Maradona the player won everything there is to win, but his second career as a head coach is threatening to get off to a catastrophic start. Argentina are a troubling fourth in the South American standings - and their next opponents are five-time world champions Brazil. The outcome of the titanic clash between the bitter rivals in Buenos Aires could have a huge bearing on Maradona's future at the helm. Without the merest shadow of a doubt, one of the true greats of the game faces arguably the stiffest test of his eventful career.
Have your say
Four stars on a mission: will all four make it to South Africa? Or will the watching world have to do without any or all of these towering personalities at the 2010 FIFA World Cup? Click 'Add your comment' and let everyone know your opinion, remembering to keep your posts clean, respectful, on-topic and in English.