Team: Real Madrid (La Liga)
World player of the year in 2007. Played in just 30 games in all competitions for Real last season, scoring eight goals. Sold by AC Milan last summer, but his arrival was dimmed when Real went out and bought 2008 World player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United.
Lionel Messi, Argentina
Team: Barcelona (La Liga)
World player of year for 2009. He's only 22 (until June 24), but already has joined the list of "greatest all-time" along with Pele and Maradona. Has scored 127 goals in 214 games for Barca. The king of Youtube, it seems he doesn't score a goal that isn't spectacular, including all four in 4-1 Champions League win over Arsenal in April.
Franck Ribery, France
Team: Bayern Munich (Bundesliga)
He keeps publicly pronouncing he wants to move to Real Madrid, but he seems to be stuck in Bavaria. Has uncanny knack for finding open teammates, and is probably most important player on struggling French team. Has played for seven teams since start of 2000-01 season.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
Team: Real Madrid (La Liga)
World player of the year in 2008, his move from Manchester United last summer was believed to be most expensive player purchase ever. Has not liked being overshadowed by Messi in Spain, but his goals are usually just as spectacular. Another player whose dramatics sometimes dim his talent.
Wayne Rooney, England
Team: Manchester United (Premier League)
Absolutely the most important player in this tournament. With him in form, England has legitimate chance of winning World Cup. Therefore, his every misstep, trip, foul is front page news all over England. Coach Fabio Capello has been constantly second-guessed for playing him in friendlies, thereby risking injury.
Wesley Sneijder, Netherlands
Team: Inter Milan (Serie A)
Has finally lived up to potential, a major reason Inter won Champions League final. He'll spearhead the Dutch attack, not scoring (only getting more than 12 goals once in eight professional seasons), but setting up others. Unselfish; even in the box, he looks for the pass first.
Nemanja Vidic, Serbia
Team: Manchester United
He probably won't score a goal in this tournament, but he may be the top defender in the world. How good is he? Manchester United teammates and their fans both voted him team's player of the year in 2009, over Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, and he was twice nominated as FIFA's player of the year, unheard of for a defender.
David Villa, Spain
Team: Valencia (La Liga)
Has already been sold to Barcelona for next season, where he and Messi will form world's deadliest scoring combo. Has scored 177 goals in 319 games in 10 professional seasons, and a phenominal 38 in 58 games for Spain, including three in 2006 World Cup and four as Spain won 2008 European championship.
THE GROUP SCOOP
By Kerith Gabriel
Over the next month, soccer fans will get their fill of the biggest sporting event on the planet when 32 international teams battle to become the world's best. Here we give you the matchup worth tuning into for each of the eight groups in the first round.
Teams: South Africa, Uruguay, France, Mexico
What to watch: France vs. Mexico, June 17, 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Why?: Diego Forlan and Uruguay might have something to say about it, but this could be the matchup between the Group A winner and potential runnerup. Thierry Henry had a hand (pun intended) in getting Les Blues into the Cup, so it'll be interesting to see how the 32-year-old aids in getting the French out of the group stage.
Who moves on: France & Uruguay
Teams: Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece
What to watch: Argentina vs. Nigeria, Tomorrow, 9:30 a.m. (ESPN)
Why?: Argentina boasts one of the best players in the world in Lionel Messi. Along with Manchester City forward Carlos Tevez, the Argentines are the early favorites to win the group. However, forward Yakubu Aiyegbeni spearheads a speedy Nigerian side full of surprises.
Who moves on: Argentina & Greece
Teams: England, USA, Algeria, Slovenia
What to watch: England vs. United States, Tomorrow, 2:30 (ABC)
Why?: The last time the U.S. celebrated a win over the Brits was June 9, 1993, when redheaded defender Alexi Lalas headed home the 2-0 clincher in Boston. That game and the infamous Joe Gaetjens goal in a 1-0 defeat at the 1950 World Cup marks the only time the U.S. have defeated the Brits - at their own game.
Who moves on: England & USA.
Teams: Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana
What to watch: Germany vs. Serbia, June 18, 7 a.m. (ESPN)
Why?: It's an early riser, but these two are the favorites to emerge from a weak group. If you aren't a morning person, perhaps Ghana vs. Germany (June 23, 2 p.m., ESPN) is a more suitable fit.
Who moves on: Germany & Serbia.
Teams: Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon
What to watch: Cameroon vs. Netherlands, June 24, 2 p.m. (ESPN2)
Why?: The Netherlands, with stars like Wesley Sniejder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie - who once used cow placenta to speed up recovery time on an ankle injury - should be the class of Group E. Not if Cameroon has anything to say about it led by its world-class striker in Samuel Eto'o fresh off a UEFA Champions League final campaign with Inter Milan. Another contest likely to convey the Group winner and runner-up.
Who moves on: Netherlands & Cameroon
Teams: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
What to watch: Italy vs. Paraguay, June 14, 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Why?: There was a time when Paraguay was a mainstay in the World Cup. But after a dismal 2006 appearance, Paraguay will be out to prove its worth yet again. What better way to test its mettle than against the defending World Cup champions?
Who moves on: Paraguay & Italy
Teams: Brazil, North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal
What to watch: Brazil vs. Portugal, June 25, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Why?: In every World Cup there is a Group known as the Group of Death and this one is it. Brazil will be led by 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year in Kaka while Portugal's fuel is on high octane with Cristiano Ronaldo, the 2008 FIFA World POY. However, Ronaldo doesn't fare as well for country as he generally does for club. It's an early riser, but definitely one worth waking up for.
Who moves on: Brazil & Portugal
Teams: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile
What to watch: Spain vs. Switzerland, June 16, 9:30 a.m. (ESPN)
Why?: Spain, an early favorite to win the Jules Rimet trophy, couldn't have asked for a better gift in what is a very soft group. Switzerland and Chile are the greatest threats to La Furia Roja, but the Swiss take the edge. Led by forward Blaise Nkufo, who is set to join MLS' Seattle Sounders FC after the tournament, the Swiss battled defending champs Italy to a 1-1 result in a recent pre-World Cup friendly.
Who moves on:Spain & Switzerland
DAILY NEWS STAFF PREDICTIONS
A team full of European club heavyweights; Spain received the gift of weak opposition in Group H and should emerge the winner. The true test, however, will come in the round of 16, when four teams out of Group G (Brazil, Portugal, Ivory Coast and North Korea), this year's Group of Death come knocking.
Golden Ball (MVP): Kaka, Brazil
Golden Boot (top scorer): Lionel Messi, Argentina
Dark horse: Netherlands
You keep trying to eliminate Diego Maradona from the equation, but he's still the coach. He desperately wants to be recognized as the god of soccer, and only Pele stands in his way. Pele has never coached; if Argentina wins, Maradona is a World Cup champ as player and coach, matching Franz Beckenbauer's achievement. Team is too talented, especially those forwards, for even Maradona to mess it up.
Golden Ball (MVP): Lionel Messi, Argentina
Golden Boot (top scorer): David Villa, Spain
Dark horse: Netherlands
As a nation, Spain has always had the talent and skill to win, but a series of chokes in major tournaments left it mentally crippled. Spain finally has some swagger after winning the European championship. It makes the difference.
Golden Ball (MVP): Xabi Alonso, Spain
Golden Boot (top scorer): Wayne Rooney, England
Dark horse: Ivory Coast