Under a week until the World Cup, and I can literally not take the excitement. In the pre-World Cup build-up we've already had heartbreak and disappointment, what with some key players getting injured in the friendlies and warm ups, whilst others have failed to been selected by their country's managers. Of the players that are going, here are the 10 that I'm most excited about seeing in action.
10. Salomon Kalou (Ivory Coast, Chelsea)
Now that Drogba's out of the World Cup (weep), Salomon Kalou could well find himself acting as the key striker for the Ivory Coast. This will be a slight change from his role at Chelsea, where, although he has been deployed as a forward, he has had more experience playing on the wing. Furthermore, whilst the Ivory Coast does still feature some premiership names (Arsenal's Eboue, and Man City's Kolo Toure, their captain in the abscence of Drogba), Kalou is one of the IC's more prominent players, unlike at Chelsea, and it will be interesting to see how he copes with this higher level of responsibility. Many Chelsea fans frequently find themselves banging their heads against the wall when watching Kalou; for all his pace and troubling defenders, some of his crosses leave a lot to be desired, and his finishing fluctuant. But I bloody love him. As you'll discover (to a point ad nauseum), I love footballers who try, and Kalou does just that. Plus I find it totally adorable and refreshing how in this day and age, when many players utter a couple of expletetives when they miss the goal, Kalou just grins sheepishly, and carrys on. It's that kind of cute, angel-faced school prefect behaviour that makes me just want to mother him.
09. Tim Cahill (Australia, Everton)
Arguably one of the best premier league players not playing for a top four side, Tim Cahill has been on the English football scene for 12 years now, six of those with Millwall and six with Everton. On more than one occasion he has been the saviour for Australia in internationals, as he has done with Everton - witness the way he skipped merrily around Man City's defenders in the match this season as if they simply weren't there. The pacey, energetic way at which he bounds around the pitch is, in itself, not dissimilar to that of a kangaroos. It will be exciting to see how he runs circles around Germany, Ghana and Serbia in the so-called "group of death" (vol1). There's a vol 2 later. :p
08. Park Ji-Sung (South Korea, Manchester United)
I find Park Ji-Sung massively underrated. Whilst I know his erratic performances in front of goal have led to many Manchester United fans to want to punch him, I personally love him for his work ethic and energy. I'm a huge softie for football players who, although not the best, always give 110%, and nobody exemplifies that better than Park. As captain of South Korea, he is the one in the squad with the most experience of football at its highest level (the only other premiership player in the squad is Bolton's Lee Chung-Yong), and the big-game mentality that he has acquired from representing Manchester United in Europe shall surely come in handy when South Korea find themselves face to face with Argentina in the group stages. Also, he's Asian, as am I, so automatic brownie points for that.
07. Ashley Cole (England, Chelsea)
You've got to hand it to Ashley Cole. Quite possibly the most reviled man in England, every football ground he visits is met with animosity at his every touch of the ball, and banter in the form of his ex-wife's song lyrics (Stoke fans sang "We've got to file file file file file for divorce" to him as Chelsea rogered Stoke 7-0 at Stamford Bridge). But with his philandering and being detested, Ashley Cole has also acquired a mighty thick skin. In a season where he started so promisingly, Ashley Cole picked up an ankle injury at Everton in February, around the time when Chelsea needed him the most. He returned towards the end of the season and his four great performances in the remaining matches helped win the league and the FA Cup - but there was a faint trace of regret interwoven with my pride when Chelsea paraded those two trophies around West London. What if, I wondered, Ashley Cole had been fit for those two integral games against Inter in the CL? Could, perhaps, it have been the treble we'd been sporting - and finally have the CL trophy to Chelseabung's name. Anyway, thinking over scenarios that never happened is just a waste of time. Ashley Cole hadn't been fit, and we didn't beat Inter. But, for all his questionble morals "as a person", Ashley Cole is a dynamite of a left-back; both at attacking and defending. Whilst England's right-back, Glen Johnson, has a tendency to dose off - something Aaron Lennon must atone for in midfield if it happens, Ashley Cole barely has that problem. Alert, agile (even at 29) and consistently a threat, it will be terrific fun to see him dancing with the ball with Chelsea team-mate Joe Cole down the left. England don't need a parachute, if we've got him.
06. Wesley Sneijder (Netherlands, Inter Milan)
Sold to Inter from Real for around 15million euros with the money Inter got for their "Ibrahimovic sale", Sneijder made a splash straight away, adapting to Italian football brilliantly and greatly enjoying the role Jose Mourinho gave him as a trequartista behind Eto'o and Milito. It is this attacking trio, along with goals from all over the pitch and Jose Mourinho's machiavellian know-how that guided Inter Milan to the treble, and after all that, one could hardly blame Sneijder for feeling a little... fatigued. But no, the 25-year-old, balding, thrice-divorced Dutchie is having none of that. Having gotten his hands on three major trophies already, he's got his eye on a fourth.
05. Kaká (Brazil, Real Madrid)
It would not be unfair to say that on the whole, Ricky Kaká has had a bit of an underwhelming season for Real Madrid. A lot of this is not the poor boy's fault; unlike at Brazil and AC Milan, where the team was built around him, Kaká found himself having to adapt to a different style of play in Spain, and he has struggled with form-dipping injury throughout the season. Plus, with the hefty price tag burdered on him, anyone would feel a bit nervous. Nonetheless, he will not feel content with how the past season has gone - especially when compared to Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid's other multi-million Euro signing - and will take it upon himself to find redemption in South Africa. Interestingly enough, Kaká and Ronaldo will find themselves face to face in the Group Stages, as Portugal, Brazil, Ivory Coast and North Korea form Group G, the "Group of Death" (vol2). If things don't go as planned, Kaká may find himself talking to god on more than one occasion...
04. Philipp Lahm (Germany, Bayern München)
When Chelsea's Michael Ballack was ruled out of the World Cup with an ankle injury, it added to Germany's already growing injury list of first-team players, what with their first choice goalie Rene Adler nursing a rib injury. Speculation also arose as to who would wear the captain's armband. The smart money was on Stuttgart's Sami Khedira, though Klose, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski also in for a shout. But in the end, Germany manager Joachim Löw gave the position to pint-sized Philipp Lahm, one of the most baby faced players in the World Cup. A right-footed left-back, he was doing the "playing inside out" thing long before Ashley Young, Craig Bellamy and Damien Duff cottoned onto it, and whilst his minute height occasionally leads to gaps in his defensive game, he usually takes it upon himself to compensate - it was Lahm who scored the equaliser for Germany in their 3-1 friendly victory over Bosnia when he was at fault for the one goal Bosnia conceded. A key stalwart for Germany in their past few tournaments, it will be interesting to see how he fares in South Africa, carrying the weight of representing his country, defending and now captaining on his 5'7" shoulders.
03. Xavi (Spain, Barcelona)
In May, reports broke out that Cesc Fàbregas, the 23-year-old captain of Arsenal, wanted to re-join Barcelona, the club he started at. Whilst his desire to do so is partially justified; as a Spaniard, who can fault him for wanting to go back to his homeland, and season upon season of disappointment with Arsenal can only push him so far, the best argument for Cesc not going to Barca and staying exactly where he is is in the form of Xavi Hernandez, Spain team-mate. They play in similar roles for their teams and with Xavi still at the peak of his powers, I feel that were Fàbregas to be Cataluña-bound, he would be forever playing second fiddle to the man seven years his senior. At 30, Xavi is at the age when footballers are supposed to be declining in physical fitness, but the past season he has had with Barcelona completely counters that. Arguably the best playmaker in the world, his passing is second to none, his link-up play with Barca and Spain team-mate Andrés Iniesta is borderline telepathic, and, for all the plaudits Lionel Messi has won for his many match-winning goals, there is a monster in midfield behind him, quietly doing the integral cogwork.
02. Frank Lampard (England, Chelsea)
Lampard has just had a sensational season with Chelseabung, wherein he has topped his own scoring record with 21 league goals and more assists than any other player. That his reputation as a World class footballer is in refute is just a joke. But anyway. For those of us with eyes and can see how immense Mr. Lampard is, the desire to see him play for England is also intermingled with trepidation for how Capello will handle the Lampard/Gerrard conundrum, something he still hasn't sorted. I have my own ideas but I'm no football manager, so I shall hold my own counsel over the matter (for once). But I do hope Lampard isn't the casualty, because he is an absolute diamond of a footballer. Two years ago, his mother passed away, and six days on from the tragedy he chose to go back to his job as a 'player and play in the crucial CL tie between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. With the game tied at 1-1, 2-2 on aggregate, a penalty was awarded to Chelsea. Many people could barely watch as Lampard prised the ball away from team-mate Ballack to take the spot-kick. His heart and head must have been all over the place and had he missed, it would have hurt a lot more than any other penalty. But the way he scored the penalty - essentially securing a victory for Chelsea, was transcendent in that, in its own way, also represented a victory for life over death. Tears streaming down his face as he looked upwards to the sky, Lampard won, the haters lost and for me, he is King.
01. Peter Crouch (England, Tottenham Hotspur)
No surprise, really. Peter Crouch turned my head in the 2006 World Cup and worringly, 4 years on, the obsession still hasn't desisted. Between those four years, he has played for three different teams, had good spells and bad but never failed to entertain me. Whilst not the most fashionable of footballers, Crouchie nonetheless epitomizes everything I love about the beautiful game: determination, team spirit and a simple thirst to play football. Some may argue that he's a flat-track bully at international level, but this argument is circular; Crouchie is hardly ever selected to play against the more "difficult" nations and when he does, it is for 4 minutes as a substitute- hardly a reasonable length of time to score in. When given the chance to shine, oh, how he soars; back in 2007 he scored a hattrick against Arsenal (the only other player to achieve such a feat in recent years is Leo Messi), and what a hattrick it was, scored with his left foot, right foot and head. Capello would do well to start Crouch alongside Rooney; Crouchie has a knack of getting himself in the right place at exactly the right time (Manchester City conceding the goal from him that put Spurs in the CL at their expense will attest to that) and his international goal-scoring rate (21 in 38 games) speaks for itself. As an England fan, I'm always wary of over-optimism, but I can't help thinking that with Crouchie as our #9, there could just be a few treats in store for England this Summer.
And players who will be sorely missed...
From top left then clockwise: Didier Drogba, Ivory Coast and Petr Cech, Czech Republic (both Chelsea, Drogba due to injury and Cech due to failing to qualify), Michael Ballack, Germany and Michael Essien, Ghana (both Chelsea, both got injured), Adam Johnson, England (Man City, was selected for the privisional 30-man squad but failed to make it into the 23), Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar, both Croatia (Tottenham, Croatia failed to qualify) and Shay Given and Richard Dunne, both R.O.I (Man City, Aston Villa, Ireland missed quliaification by an arm)