The carefully laid plans of several of the major contenders for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ have been rocked by untimely injuries to key players, leaving their coaches with serious headaches with just days remaining before the finals kick off.

England have lost their captain Rio Ferdinand and Nigeria their midfielder John Obi Mikel, while Brazil left-back Michel Bastos and Italy midfielder Andrea Pirlo have picked up worrying knocks. The whole of Côte d’Ivoire, meanwhile, is waiting anxiously on updates on inspirational forward Didier Drogba after he suffered a potentially tournament-ending arm injury.

The biggest casualty of recent days is Manchester United central defender Ferdinand, who sustained knee ligament damage in a training session on Friday. In a statement on its website, the England Football Association said that the 31-year-old skipper had been ruled out for four to six weeks, forcing him to return home.

The FA also announced that Fabio Capello had called up Tottenham Hotspur's Michael Dawson to replace Ferdinand and that Steven Gerrard will take over as captain. "It is obviously bad news and everyone with the squad is very disappointed and sorry for Rio," Capello said. "It was an accidental injury in training, but had nothing to do with the pitch."

There was worrying news for the Côte d'Ivoire camp in the wake of their 2-0 win over Japan in Switzerland on Friday, a match marred when talismanic striker Drogba fractured his elbow following a collision with Marcus Tulio Tanaka. "It was unlucky. It wasn't bad or stupid. He [Tanaka] didn't want to hurt anyone. Football is a game of contact,” lamented the Elephants' Swedish coach, Sven-Goran Eriksson. "We don't know how serious the injury is yet. It's still possible we’ll see him in South Africa."

Drogba's absence would be a massive setback for the Ivorians, who will need all the firepower they can muster against Group G opponents Brazil, Korea DPR and Portugal, their rivals in their opening game on 15 June. "We can just see on his face that he was sad and when he is like that you can't ask more," added team-mate Kolo Toure. "It is difficult for us because he is such a really important player."

Drogba may yet avoid the fate of Chelsea colleague John Obi Mikel whose absence from the finals was confirmed on Saturday. The Nigeria midfielder had not played since mid-April because of a knee problem and was unable to train properly after arriving in South Africa.

Like Ferdinand, Brazil defender Michel Bastos was the victim of a training-ground injury when contesting a loose ball with team-mate Elano, though unlike the Englishman, his injury was less serious. After team doctor Jose Luiz Runco looked at the player's ankle, the Brazilian Football Confederation confirmed that the Lyon full-back had suffered heavy bruising.

To round off an unhappy 24 hours, Italy midfielder Pirlo picked up a calf strain in his team's 2-1 defeat by Mexico, prompting a cautious diagnosis from squad doctor Enrico Castellacci. "I'm concerned about Pirlo's injury," he said. "Thankfully we still have time on our side. Everyone reacts to injuries differently and we'll be monitoring Pirlo's progress day by day."