With national teams invariably more stable than their club counterparts, supporters can be forgiven for arriving at a new FIFA World Cup™ expecting to see the same stars who illuminated the previous edition. Yet every global showpiece has its own, unique cast, and while some of Germany 2006's luminaries will be back for an encore in South Africa, others have passed on top billing to a new generation
Inevitably, the absence of iconic names such as Zidane, Figo, Riquelme and Roberto Carlos will be mourned, but the beautiful game evolves in such a way that new and occasionally unlikely legends rise to take up their predecessors' mantle. True to form, the qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa have witnessed several players rise from international obscurity to become genuinely indispensible.
Finalists' new starsThe reigning champions provide the perfect example of this 'changing of the guard'. Resisting the temptation to keep faith with the players who secured the game's greatest prize in Berlin three years ago, Marcello Lippi has wielded the axe in emphatic fashion. Gone are stalwarts such as Alessandro Del Piero and Marco Materazzi, and into a squad showing just eight survivors from Germany 2006 have come the likes of Simone Pepe, Giorgio Chiellini and Giampaolo Pazzini. Chiellini, 24, has proved a solid successor to Materazzi, yet it is undoubtedly Pazzini who has made the most dramatic impact, scoring within 15 minutes of his debut only to pick up a red card just three minutes into his first-ever start in Italy's next qualifier.
France, beaten finalists in '06, have faced arguably the toughest test in replacing not only Zidane, the focal point of their side, but also influential and experienced campaigners such as Claude Makelele, Willy Sagnol and Fabien Barthez. The gaping void left by these retirees has proved difficult to fill for the much-maligned Raymond Domenech, but recent evidence would suggest that the likes of Lassana Diarra, Bakari Sagna and, in particular, playmaker Yoann Gourcuff are beginning to emerge from the shadows of their iconic forerunners.
If there is another side who can claim to have undergone a transformation as radical as France's, it is surely the team eliminated by Les Bleus in the quarter-finals. Remarkably, only three survivors of the Brazil line-up that succumbed to Zidane's brilliance in Frankfurt started the recent win over Peru, with legendary figures such as Cafu, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho nowhere to be seen. Robinho, a bit-part player in 2006, now shares star billing with Kaka, yet if qualifying for South Africa 2010 has unearthed a new Brazilian star, it is surely Julio Cesar, whose outstanding displays have established him alongside the likes of Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas in the game's goalkeeping elite.
Germany's Robert Enke is another keeper filling some big gloves, having succeeded Messrs Lehmann and Kahn, while Joachim Low's faith in defensive duo Andreas Beck and Simon Rolfes has been rewarded with some dependable displays. Fabio Capello, meanwhile, has handed Gareth Barry a key role in his star-studded England midfield, while also identifying Portsmouth right-back Glen Johnson as the natural successor to Gary Neville.
Age no barrierAt 28, Barry is typical of a group of older players who have come of age on the international scene since 2006. Paraguay's Salvador Cabanas, who didn't see a second of action in Germany, has been a virtual ever-present as La Albirroja have set the pace in the South American Zone, while Jonas Guttierez has come from nowhere to earn a place in Diego Maradona's starting XI.
Like Gutierrez, Tatsuya Tanaka wasn't even in the squad in 2006, but the 26-year-old Urawa Reds striker has established himself as Japan's first-choice striker during qualifying for South Africa 2010. Greece's Theofanis Gekas, 28, has enjoyed a similarly meteoric rise, scoring four goals in his six preliminary appearances, while 33-year-old Blaise N'Kufo has gone one better with five having earned a regular place under Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld. It also seems incredible now that neither Nemanja Vidic nor Branislav Ivanovic - arguably the European Zone's most assured central defensive pairing - featured for Serbia and Montenegro at Germany 2006.
While the late arrival of these more experienced players has been an intriguing aspect of the preliminary stage, plenty of youngsters have also been hinting at starring roles in South Africa. Saudi Arabia, for example, have a new striking sensation in Naif Hazazi, a 20-year-old who stole the show in the 2-1 win away to Iran before firing the winner in a subsequent 3-2 win over UAE. Ki Sung-Yueng, also 20, has been making a similarly impressive impact in the Asian Zone qualifiers, with the speedy, powerful Korea Republic midfielder already earning comparisons to the much-loved Hong Myung-Bo.
With 19-year-old Jozy Altidore in prolific form for USA, Celso Borges starring for Costa Rica, Arda Turan emerging as Turkey's new golden boy, and Gerard Pique earning a starting place for Spain, one thing is certain. South Africa can expect to welcome a whole galaxy of bright new stars.
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