1. Lionel Messi, Argentina. If the Premier League wasn't the pre-eminent league in World football, this would be an even easier decision. The only detractors are those who think Wayne Rooney should be the top rated striker. Well, Messi leads the Champions League with goals, as well as La Liga, and from a player to watch point-of-view, Messi is Michael Jordan-esque on the pitch.
2. Wayne Rooney, England. Messi is a virtuoso, playing a beautiful symphony on the pitch, while Rooney is a rock star on the pitch. Rooney aided the element of being great in the air this past season. Messi is easily the most highly-skilled player of the two, but if Rooney were paired with Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic like Messi is at Barcelona, he'd be doing everything Messi is doing.
3. Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal. Perhaps thought a little bit less of now because his profile in the Champs League was short-lived, and because he didn't have much sway in Portugal's struggle to qualify for the World Cup due to injury. Ronaldo is still absolutely brilliant, and is there another player on the planet you want over a dead ball from 25 yards out in a big game?
4. Diego Milito, Argentina. The reason that Argentina could win the whole thing is because of their strikers. Messi the maestro feeding Diego Milito, who has shot his Inter Milan side into an improbable Champions League Final. He doesn't have a ton of experience with football on the grand stage, but the Champs League should be a great primer, and early round matches in a pretty weak group (Group B – Nigeria, South Korea and Greece) should help ease him into the biggest sporting event on the planet. Oh yeah, he'll also have the impetuous Carlos Tevez playing up front with himself and Messi.
5. Arjen Robben, Netherlands. In the 2006 World Cup, Robben was named Man of the Match for two of Holland's three matches in the group stage. Then in Euro 2008, with Robben's status in the top eleven in doubt, he was a model of what a player means to his country. He didn't sulk, and waited on the call from head coach Marco van Basten. He came on as a substitute to single-handedly beat France in Euro 2008, and after what he has done with Bayern Munich this season, there's no reason to think Robben won't be one of the most important players on the grass.
SLEEPER – Paulo Henrique Ganso, Brazil. Ganso plays for Brazilian powerhouse Santos FC, and wears the heavy title of Brazil's next Pelé. The 22-year-old striker plays alongside another Brazilian starlet, 18-year-old Neymar. The duo dominate the headlines despite Robinho also being on the roster for Santos. A few big question marks. How heavily will Brazilian coach Dunga rely on such young players on the largest stage in the sport? And if Dunga does goes with a heavy dose of Neyman and Ganso, will their wild success at Santos (36 goals in 24 games between the two players) translate to success on the world scene?
1. Kaká, Brazil. Maybe the easiest guy to root for on the planet....unless you are an Argentina supporter. Kaká is class personified off of the field, and on it, he's understated elegance. He doesn't score scorching goals from 30-yards out, he doesn't lead the league in goals, ever, but if you get a chance, key in on Kaká when watching the game. He just does everything right on the football field.
2. Franck Ribery, France. "The hand of Henry" which got France into the World Cup over Ireland is in the rear view mirror. Ribery is one of the best playmakers on the planet. He's got a nasty edge that is mandatory for teams who want to go deep and play into July, but he's also terrific taking corners and set pieces. Ribery has taken Bayern Munich miraculously to the Champions League Final, and he can never be counted out, especially considering his supporting cast, in the World Cup.
3. Xavi, Spain. You probably won't need to remember the name. If you plan on watching any of Spain's matches you'll hear Xavi's name enough that it will become entrenched into your brain. He'll be everywhere. Breaking up plays on defense, setting up Fernando Torres on goals, taking set pieces, and just keeping possession and following the Spanish game plan which has made them an International powerhouse.
4. Frank Lampard, England. Maybe a bit of a reach, but Lampard has made the step to being an elite midfielder this season. He had the type of year that Steven Gerrard used to have, and South Africa 2010 may be a changing of the guard in central midfield for England. Lampard has been everything for Chelsea in 2009-2010.
5. Robin van Persie, The Netherlands. Van Persie came on late for Arsenal in their North London Derby back in April, and he turned the game on its ear. He was setting up attack after attack as the Gunners fell short. He can also strike from anywhere within 40 yards of the goal. RVP doesn't need the motivation, but a lost season for the Gunners could give him that extra juice to play the best soccer of his life for the Dutch in South Africa.
SLEEPER – Aaron Lennon, England. Lennon was an absolute sensation for England in the 2006 World Cup. Lennon was 19 at the time, and England's opponents had no answer for his pace on the wing. The Tottenham winger's success in Germany in 2006 did not quickly translate to success domestically until late last season. Lennon came into his own in 2009, and started the 2009-2010 season on fire for the Champions League-bound Spurs. But he has had massive struggles recovering from groin and hamstring injuries ever since January. He is back, and fit, and England fans will hope Lennon's style of play will again cause nightmares for opposing countries.
1. Maicon, Brazil. It's not always a right-back who can claim the "best defender in the world" title, but Maicon is a transcendent player. He is an enormous reason for Inter Milan's success in Serie A, as well as their run to the Champions League Final. He'll be asked to do a lot for Brazil, who don't have a set left-back heading into the World Cup. The Brazilian free-flowing style suits Maicon beautifully and his name will be thrown around all tournament long.
2. Carles Puyol, Spain. Puyol is one of the best athletes in the game. His versatility is a major plus for Spain, and in the World Cup, he may be best served to play at right-back, because he can create so much offense from the back line. For an offense-minded defender, Puyol is still a pesky defender, and a great tackler.
3. Fabio Cannavaro, Italy. Cannavaro will retire from International football after the World Cup in South Africa, and although his ranking might be a little bit high, it's a testament to the Italian defense. Teams in Italy's group already know they are in for a bloody battle from an Italian side that personifies defensive football. Cannavaro has been the center piece of that defense for a decade. Knowing Cannavaro is in his last World Cup should inspire the Italians, who figure to go deep into the tournament once again.
4. Branislav Ivanovic, Serbia. Chelsea's Serbian right-back has stepped in and done a phenomenal job in the absence of José Bosingwa, and stories abound regarding what teams are willing to pay to pry Ivanovic away from Chelsea this summer. The Serbian defense is nasty and loaded with talent, and Ivanovic has offensive capabilities on the back line for a country that many are picking as a sleeper.
5. John Terry, England. Say what you will about Terry's character off of the field, he's all you could ask for in a center back. Despite all of the shenanigans, Terry has Chelsea perched to win the Premier League title and the FA Cup. He cranks it up a notch when he puts on his country's kit as well. You don't have to like the guy, but he will be a major factor for England in South Africa.
SLEEPER – Oguchi Onyewu, United States. Onyewu could hold the key to whether or not the United States can get out of the group stage. A fully healthy Onyewu gives the Americans a much stronger, nastier back line. He appears to be recovered from his knee injury, but he hasn't played first team football in almost a year. The pre-World Cup tune up matches will show us a lot in regards to Onyewu's fitness, and in turn, will show us if the United States can turn the page on their disappointing 2006 showing in the World Cup.
1. Gianluigi Buffon, Italy. Until another country can knock off the Italians, there is no reason that Buffon should be ranked anywhere else than the top spot in the world. He has a nasty side that fires up the entire Italian squad, and there is not a better goalie on the planet at coming out of goal and stealing balls out of the air on corners and set pieces.
2. Júlio César, Brazil. Hoisting up Inter Milan and riding them into the Champions League Final makes César the second best keeper in the world. Buffon has a World Cup, and it is really the only thing that separates the two, who are both on the path to being considered the greatest in the history of their respective countries. César was between the frame when Brazil won last summer's FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, and could add a Serie A Championship and a Champions League title to his resume before the World Cup even starts.
3. Iker Casilias, Spain. The Real Madrid goalkeeper will be 29 years old when the World Cup begins, but it seems like he has been around for an eternity. The scary thing is, he already has over 100 caps for the Spanish National team, but goalies really don't ripen until they are into their 30's. Casilias is as good as it gets as far as leadership, and ability, but he can be prone to spilling a rebound or two onto the foot of the opponents.
4. Tim Howard, United States of America. There are better goalkeepers in the world who could be on the list, but none of their countries qualified for the World Cup. That's no disrespect to Howard, who has been the number one for a USA program that is flush with good keepers. In the 2008-2009 English Premier League season, Howard had 16 clean sheets, and he has 10 this season, for an Everton side that has been destroyed by injury. He has made clutch saves in big situations for the Toffees, and his veteran leadership makes him invaluable to the U.S.
5. Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico. "Memo" is the absolute number one for the Mexicans, and took El Tri to a Gold Cup Championship last summer. It will be his first World Cup as the number one for Mexico, but if his form in the Gold Cup and in World Cup Qualifying are any indication, he has the ability to steal results for his country.
SLEEPER – Sergio Romero, Argentina. Romero has a lot resting on his shoulders. Argentina is loaded offensively, but they haven't had a ton of success in the last few World Cups...at least by Argentinian standards. He's the best keeper in the Dutch league, and will almost certainly make a big money move to a high profile club in the summer. His stock could soar even higher with a great showing in South Africa.