SOCCER: 2010 World Cup qualifying’s top players; Ronaldo missing
The qualifying stages for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa are drawing to a close. Eleven national teams have already punched their tickets to the tournament next year, including the host country, and dozens more are still scrambling for the remaining 21 spots.
Though soccer is very much a team sport, the difference between qualifying or staying home for another four years often comes down to the play of an individual. One or two players can get hot and carry their team to the biggest tournament in all of sports.
Some players who’ve done just that are undoubtedly familiar. Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney have had remarkable runs in the qualifying stages for the English side. The latter, in particular, might be the single most valuable player thus far. David Villa, though he’s played fewer minutes than Rooney, has been a key to Spain’s success. Goalkeeper Julio Cesar has been the stopper that perfectly complements the well-rounded Brazilian team.
But there are some surprises as well. Current FIFA World Player of the Year, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, is not on the list, and Portugal is in grave danger of missing the World Cup. Across the Atlantic, Lionel Messi of Argentina, considered by many to be the best soccer player in the world, also has missed the list, as his side has slipped from contention.
Behind the numbers
To create our list of the best 11 players – one for each position – of World Cup qualifying play so far, the player had to be an integral part of his team’s push for the tournament in South Africa. For goalkeepers and defenders, we looked at total minutes played, goals scored against and the teams’ results. For midfielders, we added in a metric for the players’ goals scored. And for the forwards, we dropped the “scored against” metric. Ultimately, what we sought for each position was the player who made a difference when he was on the field for important matches. Using the balanced 4-4-2 formation, we found a starting side that fit the bill.
Some of the names that made the list are perhaps even more surprising than those that didn’t. Two players from the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), considered by many to be an international lightweight, have made the list. Defender Carlos Bocanegra has been a stalwart for the U.S. National Team. Despite several goals allowed, Bocanegra has been on the field for 10 U.S. wins.
And the 21-year-old Costa Rican midfielder Celso Borges has demonstrated many moments of brilliance in leading his home side to the precipice of a World Cup birth. The team has won 11 of 15 matches with Borges on the field. He’s scored five goals.
But not everyone agrees with our list. When we showed our picks to ESPN soccer analyst and former U.S. National Team member Alexi Lalas, he said, “I love subjective ‘best-of’ lists, but this one stretches it a little bit too far. Each region has hundreds of players and each team faces different and unique qualifying challenges.”
Fair enough. But some of these players’ performances in World Cup qualifying matches has elevated their status. Manchester United academy director Brian McClair says Rooney’s recent play has pushed him into the top five players in the world. And Brazilian coach Dunga and Italian goalkeeping stalwart Gianluigi Buffon now both proclaim Brazil’s Cesar as the best goalkeeper in the world.
Also, it’s no coincidence that all of the players on this list are on successful squads. Cesar’s Brazil, Lampard’s and Rooney’s England, Villa’s and Joan Capdevila’s Spain and Andre Ooijer’s and Joris Mathijsen’s Dutch teams have all already qualified for South Africa. Bocanegra’s U.S. side is currently in first place in the CONCACAF region. Bastian Schweinsteiger’s German team is atop Group Four in Europe, followed closely by Konstantin Zyryanov’s Russian side.