Thursday, May 20, 2010
Who's missing? Ask Maradona
By Brent Latham
Special to ESPN.com
In a normal World Cup year, a list of the best players not headed to the tournament would be comprised primarily of the injured, along with the top players from one or two high-profile teams that failed to qualify.
But 2010 is a bit different. Most of the world's best players have avoided long-term injury, and all the top teams will be in South Africa -- Egypt and Russia are among the most notable absences, proving the point.
Add to that a number of bold and perhaps ill-advised personnel decisions by World Cup-bound coaches, and an embarrassment of riches for the top countries, and many of the most notable absences come from roster omissions, particularly in attack. Famous names like Ronaldinho, Francesco Totti and Juan Riquelme will miss out, but there are a number of even more noteworthy players who will also be watching the Cup from their couches.
So even though most of soccer's big names will be there, there are still plenty to choose from for an all-star team of 11 who won't grace the fields of South Africa next month.
Edwin van der Sar, GK, Holland
Even at 39, the most-capped Dutch player of all time still has a place in the argument for world's best goalkeeper. Manchester United's No. 1 since 2005 would still be Holland's undisputed starter as well, had he not hung up his international gloves after EURO 2008. Calls for a World Cup return went unheeded, and the giant shot-stopper will instead watch from home, hoping his country can overcome its problems in goal without him.
Daniel Van Buyten, D, Belgium
The 6-foot-5 inch defender has been a regular for Bayern Munich since 2006, and is the best defender who won't be in Africa this summer. The type of lockdown center back that every team at the World Cup could use, the 32-year-old Van Buyten probably missed out on his last chance to return to the world's stage (he played all four games of Belgium's 2002 World Cup) when the Red Devils failed to qualify for South Africa.
Javier Zanetti, D, Argentina
If coach Diego Maradona's omission of Zanetti is any indication of what awaits Argentina this summer, it may be an up-and-down World Cup for the South Americans. The jettison of Zanetti epitomizes Maradona's cavalier attitude towards team cohesion and experience. Zanetti has turned out 136 times for Argentina, and will reach a mind-boggling 700 appearances for Inter Milan when he captains them in the Champions League final this weekend. But while Zanetti continues to perform at the highest level, there was no room for him in Argentina's squad.
Esteban Cambiasso, MF, Argentina
The best defensive midfielder not at the World Cup was lining up to be Barcelona and Mali stalwart Seydou Keita, until Maradona stepped into the fray. Cambiasso has been raising his game all season, as a key cog in Inter's Champions League run. But Maradona's snub has ensured that this weekend's game will be Cambiasso's last until the fall.
Michael Ballack, MF, Germany
Ballack has dropped plenty in form since being named to the all-star team at the last two World Cups. But the German captain still figured to play a huge role in South Africa before an ankle injury last weekend ruined his chances. Ballack is the most important player to be definitely ruled out of South Africa 2010 to injury thus far.
Antonio Valencia, MF, Ecuador
Despite keeping a low profile for a player good enough to make a list like this one, Valencia is perhaps the best pure crosser of the ball in the game today. The Ecuadorian has been the secret behind Wayne Rooney's incredible success at Manchester United this season. A terror on the wing, such speed and precision of delivery would be a boon to the attack of any team headed to South Africa.
Ivica Olic, M/F, Croatia
Olic is among the finest of an incredible train of talent from what was once Yugoslavia. Of the former Yugoslav republics, Serbia and Slovenia made the World Cup this year, leaving Olic's Croatia on the outside for the first time since the nation's independence. The Bayern Munich attacker has been a solid role player at the club level for years, but 2009-10 has been his breakout season, particularly in the Champions League, where he is tied for second-leading scorer in the competition with seven goals.
Andrei Arshavin, F, Russia
The best player on perhaps the best team absent from this year's World Cup, Arshavin's creativity in attack will be missed by impartial fans worldwide. The Russian -- sometimes lost among a talented squad at Arsenal despite scoring 10 times this season -- is at his best for his country, as he proved when bursting onto the international scene at EURO 2008.
Alexandre Pato, F, Brazil
Neither half of AC Milan's Brazilian attack combo impressed coach Dunga enough to make the final 23-man roster. But while the omission of Ronaldinho made the headlines, Pato probably had the better case to go to South Africa, after scoring14 times across competitions in a consistent club campaign. The 20-year-old's speed, creativity and youthful exuberance may be missed in the Brazilian attack.
Edin Dzeko, F, Bosnia and Herzegovina
The Bosnian is not the biggest name on this list, but he has been among the most prolific scorers in Europe in recent years, notching 22 goals for Bundesliga side Wolfsburg after netting 26 last year. With Bosnia, Dzeko came closer than ever to getting to the World Cup this year, losing out in a playoff to Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, F, Sweden
Considered by many the best player in the world prior to his offseason move to Barcelona last year, Ibrahimovic has been the victim of over-inflated expectations in Spain. The relatively poor appraisals of his play haven't been helped by comparisons to his strike partner, Leo Messi, but the towering Swede still put in 21 goals across competitions this season, helping Barcelona to the Spanish League title.
|Without Edwin van der Sar in goal, the Netherlands' hopes took a big blow.|
Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio and now works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at email@example.com.