Every great meal relies as much on the appreciation of its guests as on the generosity of its host. In four days’ time, the world will take its seat in Johannesburg for football’s greatest banquet, the FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010™, and it takes a mere glance at the menu on offer to whet the appetite for what is to come.
The tournament will be a showcase for the world’s finest talents, and from amongst the 32 teams and 736 players registered, there is something to cater for everyone’s palate.
From the dazzling wing-play of Portuguese wizard Cristiano Ronaldo, to the power and presence of Serbia’s star centre-half Nemanja Vidic, or the poise and elegance of Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, South Africa 2010 will have fans all over the globe licking their lips in anticipation of moments of individual artistry. For those who prefer their football prepared à la française, there is the speed and skill of Franck Ribery, and from the Netherlands, the blistering long-range shooting of playmaker Wesley Sneijder.
The recipe for success
Of course, some teams enjoy the privilege of having a host of superstars at their disposal, and perhaps none more than Argentina. Diego Maradona's team arrives in South Africa as worthy successors to a fine Albiceleste FIFA World Cup tradition, and all eyes will be on the outstanding Lionel Messi, FIFA World Player of the Year 2009. Alongside Messi will be Carlos Tevez, Diego Milito, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero, and together this fabulous five will carry the attacking hopes of Diego Maradona’s men, who will be captained by Liverpool midfielder Javier Mascherano.
Five-times world champions Brazil are always many fans’ favourites, and 2010 will be no different. Perhaps A Seleção will have a slightly different flavour this time around, however, as coach Dunga has based his team’s recent success very much on collective endeavour and a fierce work ethic. However, that togetherness will serve to provide a more prominent stage for Brazil’s outstanding individuals, from Kaka and Robinho in attack, to goalkeeper Julio Cesar and skipper Lucio at the back.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Spain’s success at junior levels over the last few years is now bearing fruit, and the proud footballing nation lived up to expectations by winning the UEFA European Championship in 2008. Coach Vicente del Bosque has an enviable range of ability at his disposal, and can call on the likes of razor-sharp strikers David Villa and Fernando Torres, imaginative midfielders Xavi and Andres Iniesta, and goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas.
England is a nation not often praised for its culinary craft, but Italian coach Fabio Capello has added a touch of Latin spice to a talented and experienced squad to produce a heady mix. Former skipper John Terry keeps things tight in defence, midfielders Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard provide enterprise and energy in the middle of the park, and the dynamic, all-action style of striker Wayne Rooney fits England’s powerful gameplan to perfection.
Sweet and sour
As regards the African contingent, some coaches will be keen just to get the tournament underway. Ivory Coast fans are waiting with bated breath for good news on Didier Drogba’s injury, and Ghana have already lost the services of the striker’s Chelsea team-mate, Michael Essien.
However, the continent will provide the world with its fair share of thrills and spills too. The Ghanaians will base their campaign on the midfield craft of Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah, and Cameroon will rely heavily on Samuel Eto’o, fresh from an outstanding, trophy-laden campaign in Italy with his club, Inter Milan. Algeria will hope that Karim Ziani and Rafik Saifi make their mark, and Nigeria will serve up the likes of strikers Obafemi Martins and veteran Nwankwo Kanu.
And what about the hosts themselves? If the optimism of their fans is anything to go by, as shown by FIFA’s specially commissioned survey in May, and heightened expectations on the eve of the tournament, every one of South Africa’s players can expect to be a high-profile figure throughout the finals.
Of course, every continent represented in South Africa has its own idols, from the Eastern delights of midfielders Park Ji Sung and Shunsuke Nakamura, to USA's captain Landon Donovan, and Australia’s jack-in-the-box, Tim Cahill.
All of these men are, in their own way, household names already, even if they arrive in South Africa still with a burning desire to realise their ambitions at the very top of their profession. But we can also expect the unexpected: the cauldron of the FIFA World Cup Finals always produces some new twist, with the emergence of new talent, and this tournament will be no exception.
Every team has potential stars waiting in the wings for a chance to shine, and since the start of the year FIFA.com has been running the rule over young players from the 32 qualifiers, highlighting those players who are likely to vie for the coveted title of Hyundai Best Young Player. From the Mexican duo of Carlos Vela and Giovani dos Santos, to the Germans Thomas Mueller and Toni Kroos, and New Zealand’s Chris Wood, these players will all come under the scrutiny of FIFA’s Technical Study Group (TSG) over the course of the finals.
From 11 June to 11 July, the great and the good of the global game will parade their wares in South Africa for the delectation of fans across the world. Faced with such an array of mouthwatering choices, perhaps the most difficult decision will be which one to try first!