Soccer is the ultimate team sport. Every player on the field has a specific set of tasks, and if they fail to do them properly then their team is going to suffer. The game is so low scoring that mistakes can be massive, and players need to work together. That being said, there are some players who are more important to their success than others. In football terms, it doesn’t really matter how the rest of the offense plays if the quarterback throws five interceptions. Here’s a look at the five most important players at this year’s World Cup. Their play could be the difference between success and failure for their team:
Didier Drogba, Ivory Coast – Ivory Coast has an extremely sound backfield. Their defenders are among the best in the world, and they are going to be hard to score against. Unfortunately, they are playing against two of the better teams in the tournament in the first round in Portugal and Brazil. If they can somehow survive that then their reward could be having to play Spain in the first elimination game. That all makes for a difficult task. Their strong defense isn’t going to be enough to beat those teams – they are going to need to score some goals as well. Luckily, few guys in the world are better at doing that than Drogba, the star striker for Chelsea who led the Premier League in scoring this year. Drogba is battling a nagging hernia issue, but if he can stay healthy enough to contribute like he can then Ivory Coast stands a fighting chance. He’s not just the team’s best player, though, but also the biggest star and the leader. If he falters then the team will likely fall.
Gianluigi Buffon, Italy – When Italy was the somewhat unexpected winner of the World Cup in 2006 Buffon was a big part of the reason for the success. He was named the top goaltender in the tournament, and he was the brick wall at the back of the potent defense that led Italy all the way. A funny thing has happened to Italy since that last tournament, though – they got old. More than one key player has lost a step or two, and several, including Buffon, are coming off reasonably disappointing seasons with their club teams. If Buffon can again show he is the best goalkeeper in the world then Italy could do some damage. The offense isn’t likely to score a lot of goals, though, so if Buffon falters then the team could be in a hole they can’t dig out of.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, Germany – When Germany made their run to the semifinals last time there were two guys who deserved more credit than the rest – coach and German soccer legend Jurgen Klinsmann and superstar Michael Ballack. Those two were the heart and soul of this team, and they carried the team further than they perhaps should have gone on paper. Now both of those guys is gone – Klinsmann moved on, and Ballack is injured and out of commission. That means that the team needs a new leader, and Schweinsteiger is the likely choice. He has the talent to lead this team, but he needs to prove that he can step up on and off the field on the biggest stage. If he can’t then this could be a team without a rudder.
Nicolas Anelka, France – The French are a mess. They barely squeaked into the tournament, and there are controversies and issues galore with this team. Thierry Henry is older and less effective than the team needs him to be. Zinedine Zidane is gone. Franck Ribery, Zidane’s heir apparent, is distracted by an under-aged prostitution case at home. Everyone hates coach Raymond Domenech – a nutcase who consults astrological signs before setting rosters. Through all of that the team still has a chance because of a fairly fortunate draw. They need someone to score goals, though. With Henry aging, the biggest burden falls to Anelka, who plays beside Drogba at Chelsea. He was left off the squad in 2006, so he has never played a World Cup game. Some goals and some success would help this team forget their woes and focus on the task, so early success by Anelka would be a huge help.
Wayne Rooney, England – It’s an impossible thing to measure, but it’s possible that England needs a win in this tournament more than any other country. They are a proud, avid soccer nation that hasn’t enjoyed any notable international success in far too long, and have been forced to suffer through countless humiliations instead. There are issues with the team – especially defensive and goalkeeping depth – but they stand a chance of success. To get it done, though, they need a hero – someone to rally around. Rooney is the most obvious choice. He’s a goal scoring savant, and the most talented on this team. Injuries limited his effectiveness in 2006, and the team suffered. If he can stay healthy this time, and play at his best, then England can do some damage. If he crumbles under the pressure, though, then the team is likely to crumble around him.