May 26, 2010
Posted: 1244 GMT
London, England – As the clock ticks down and anticipation grows for the kick-off of the World Cup in South Africa, there is a burning question that bothers many soccer fans the world over.
It is not whether the African hosts will be up to the task of holding the sporting showpiece, or if the Vuvuzela will prove the most annoying accessory in the history of football spectating. No, the poser that is pressing on the minds of passionate devotees across the planet is who will be the World Cup's best player?
From armchair aficionados to brand executives who have paid millions of dollars to be associated with big-name footballers, each is keen to know which man will etch his legend into the history books by turning on the magic on the biggest stage of them all. You may have your own ideas on who it will be.
Ahead of the first game, for this writer, there are a handful of leading contenders, and sadly for the hard-working goalkeepers, defenders and midfielders of this world - it is those with an eye for goal that make up the numbers.
Heading the list is Argentina's Lionel Messi - a man who many see as the natural successor to Diego Maradona. After being crowned World Player of the Year by FIFA, the diminutive attacker notched up a staggering 34 goals from 35 appearances to help his side Barcelona retain their league crown. He also top-scored in the European Champions League with eight strikes in 11 games.
But two factors may count against the 22-year-old. He has surely played more games in the last two years than any other international player (Barcelona won six trophies in the previous campaign), so he is due a dip in form. To add to this Maradona, his national coach, has still yet find out how to get the best out of Messi for Argentina.
England's Wayne Rooney is another who has the ability to shine after proving his worth with a superlative season for English side Manchester United. Top-scoring for his club with 26 goals in 32 games, the fiery 24-year-old also netted nine times in nine games to fire Fabio Capello's England side to South Africa qualification.
However, Rooney has been hit with a number of minor injuries in the last few months and does not have a great record of maintaining fitness at major tournaments (he limped out of the quarterfinals of Euro 2004 and was hampered in the 2006 World Cup after recovering from a broken foot). Much will also depend on his temper; he needs to remain calm to steer clear of any costly suspensions.
Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba has been seen by many as the man who could help the Elephants become the first African nation to secure overall victory. Though such a claim might still a long shot, there is no doubting the awesome Ivorian's importance to his side.
Coach Sven Goran Eriksson will be hoping his captain brings his rich scoring form to the fields of South Africa - Drogba was the English Premier League's top goalscorer after racking up 29 goals in 32 games for newly-crowned champions Chelsea.
Ivory Coast do not always live up to pre-tournament hype either, as their experience at both the 2006 and 2008 Africa Cup of Nations showed, so the 32-year-old will need support from his teammates. If the likes of Salomon Kalou, Yaya Toure or Bakary Kone get injured or suspended, Drogba may be short of supply.
Former world player of the year Kaka became a Real Madrid Galactico after a big-money move to the Spanish giants in mid-2009, but was blighted by injury for much of the season just gone. This may prove an advantage, as he arguably could travel to Africa feeling fresh.
If he can recapture the form that made him the man to watch at the 2009 Confederations Cup and helped to power AC Milan to the Champions League title in 2007, he has all the skills needed to help Brazil win the World Cup for the sixth time.
Bizarrely, the player who has arguably the most difficult task of stamping his mark on the tournament is Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo. This is because, despite the 25-year-old scoring an unbelievable 26 times in 29 appearances in La Liga - a feat which almost single-handedly kept Real Madrid in the title race - his national side are in stuttering form.
Carlos Queiroz's Portugal are up against it to progress from a group that features Brazil, Ivory Coast and North Korea, so the question remains whether Ronaldo will dumped out of the tournament too early to have fully captured the imagination.
So who will come out on top? Has CNN overlooked a player who will emerge as the best? Have your say by adding a comment below.