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Thursday, March 11, 2010
World Cup storylines to watch

By Jeff Carlisle
Special to ESPN.com

For months, just about any World Cup-related concern could be deflected with the phrase, "There's still time." It's been used by coaches whose teams are underperforming. It's been used by players who are attempting to come back from poor form or injury. And it's been espoused by the tournament's organizers in an attempt to reassure the public that any glitches will be taken care of soon.

Yet with the start of the tournament fewer than 100 days away, time is a commodity that is disappearing fast, and the obstacles are beginning to mount in some quarters. With that in mind, here are the storylines to watch between now and the tournament's opening in June.

1. Will the hosts be ready?

It's a question that has been asked practically from the moment South Africa was awarded the tournament back in 2004. The answer has always been a resounding "yes," yet the query persists. At present, published reports indicate that plenty of work remains to be done on the grounds surrounding the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg. No crime that, but of greater concern is the inability to maintain a FIFA-quality playing surface at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit. Throw in the long-held concerns about the country's infrastructure, crime and exorbitant travel costs, and the doubts that the hosts can repay FIFA's faith begin to grow.

Of course, Danny Jordaan, chief executive of the 2010 World Cup organizing committee, insists that all will be ready when the first ball is kicked on June 11. He'll no doubt be hoping that at that point, observers of all stripes will be free to turn their attentions to the action on the field.

2. FIFA's bid to fill the stands

As of last week, more than 600,000 tickets remained unsold, a number caused by the worldwide recession as well as the aforementioned steep cost of travel. This led FIFA to reprice many tickets in a bid to enable more South Africans to attend matches. Although this is a noble, inclusive gesture on the part of the game's governing body, it will no doubt cut into the profits that both FIFA and South Africa had hoped to gain from the tournament. It might not be enough to fill the stadiums, either.

Wayne Rooney
Wayne Rooney's Manchester United squad has advanced to the Champions League quarterfinals while also battling for the EPL title.

3. Will the tournament's European-based players have anything left?

No World Cup run-up would be complete without talk of the long European club season and its effect on players. And although this explanation is usually trotted out by teams that end up playing poorly, the fact remains that the performers in the world's most competitive leagues will need to find some way to conserve their energy in the coming months. Given that plenty of them will be involved in UEFA Champions League and domestic title races, this will be no easy feat. And chances are that numerous national team coaches won't be shedding any tears if certain clubs -- like Real Madrid and AC Milan -- make an early exit from those competitions.

4. Bafana Bafana's struggles

Whatever off-the-field obstacles remain for South Africa, these pale in comparison, relatively speaking, to the struggles of the national side. No host country has ever failed to reach the second round of the tournament, yet the play of Bafana Bafana has been woeful of late, with a 1-1 tie to 111th-ranked Namibia the latest evidence that they'll be hard-pressed to get past the likes of Mexico, France and Uruguay in Group A.

To be fair, none of South Africa's top foreign-based players, including Steven Pienaar, played in that match, but that will provide only a smidgen of comfort to a side that has won just two of its past 10 games.

5. Capello tries to calm Team Turmoil

In terms of sheer drama generated, England has lapped the field, a feat made all the more impressive by the theater provided by Diego Maradona and Argentina during the past several months.

A scandal in which defender John Terry had an affair with the former girlfriend of international teammate Wayne Bridge led manager Fabio Capello to strip Terry of the team's captaincy. Bridge, meanwhile, refused a call-up to the England team, saying he didn't want to be a distraction in the dressing room. With Ashley Cole (broken ankle) and Wes Brown (broken foot) struggling with injury, England is far from settled in the back.

Topping off Capello's list of issues is the revelation that a meeting between him and the team before last week's friendly win over Egypt was secretly recorded. It is alleged to contain information regarding the team's tactics. Add it all up, and the run-in to the tournament looks to be anything but smooth.

6. New coaches try to get up to speed

One would think that with less than three months left until the start of the tournament, the time to switch managers has long since passed. Yet that hasn't stopped African powers Nigeria and Ivory Coast from changing coaches. For the Super Eagles, a trip to the semifinals of the Africa Cup of Nations wasn't enough for manager Shaibu Amodu to keep his job, with Swede Lars Lagerbäck named as his replacement.

In the case of Ivory Coast, a quarterfinal loss to Algeria in the same tournament -- which ended the Elephants' 21-match unbeaten streak -- cost Vahid Halilhodzic his job. Dutchman Guus Hiddink, who previously has worked wonders with South Korea and Australia, is now the favorite for the position.

In the case of both teams, there is considerable talent available, but time will tell whether three months is long enough for the new coaches to weave their magic.

7. The injury watch continues

Managers will be praying for all manner of good news during the next three months, but first on the list will be the health of their players. That goes for performers currently free of ailments as well as those already on the injured list such as Dutch forward Robin van Persie (ankle) and Argentine defender Martin Demichelis (broken jaw).

Those two are expected to recover in time, but at this point, any setbacks will put their World Cup participation in jeopardy, and the same goes for any other player who incurs a serious injury from here on out.

8. Chile's heavy hearts

World Cup preparations require maximum focus for all involved, but after a devastating earthquake struck Chile earlier this month, it's clear that the collective thoughts of La Roja will lie elsewhere in the coming weeks and months. The Chilean Football Federation understandably canceled two friendlies scheduled for last week. Now manager Marcelo Bielsa will need to rally his players in a bid to provide a welcome diversion come June for a country that clearly will still be in recovery mode.

9. The Salvador Cabanas saga

At the conclusion of qualifying, Paraguay's attack looked to be in the capable hands of the Club America striker. But a horrific nightclub incident in January that ended with Cabanas being shot in the head has left the Albirroja reeling.

Initially, Cabanas insisted he would able to return in time, but upon leaving the hospital, it was revealed that he now faces a 13-week stint in a rehabilitation clinic and his movement, memory and speech are limited.

In the meantime, Gerardo Martino's squad will be left to carry on, with attackers Oscar Cardozo, Nelson Haedo Valdez and Roque Santa Cruz expected to pick up the slack.

10. Is Argentina's revival for real?

Maradona's tenure with the Albiceleste has been anything but tranquil, with the team's struggles to qualify providing ample proof. But last week's impressive 1-0 road win over Germany gave an indication that Maradona's obsessive tinkering may have finally paid off. The team looked solid at the back, and with an attacking triumvirate of Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain and the incomparable Lionel Messi, Argentina will never be out of a game.

Of course, Maradona has never been one to wear prosperity well, and plenty of eyes will be on him to see whether he can maintain his side's momentum.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.