LIONEL MESSI (Argentina): Shy, only 22, and already considered the best soccer player in the world, he’s a magician with the ball. You’ll need slow motion to keep track of his footwork once he starts weaving through opponents inside the box. He scored one goal in his first World Cup appearance, in 2006, which also made him, at age 18, the youngest player to play for Argentina in the World Cup. “Messi is a creature as biologically adapted to play football as a shark is to smell blood, a salmon to swim upstream, a squirrel to gather nuts,” says the London Times. He plays professionally for Barcelona. Soccer fans in Pretoria, South Africa, wave to Messi and teammate Juan Sebastian Veron during practice on June 6. Enrique Marcarian/Reuters
CRISTIANO RONALDO (Portugal): A lethal dribbler and long-range shooter, the 25-year-old started his career in 2003 with Manchester United until 2009, when he was sold for a record $132 million to Real Madrid, where he now plays professionally. In the 2006 World Cup, he scored one goal. His explosive speed and upper-body strength make him the LeBron James of soccer. Watch for him to blow by opponents – when he’s not running them over. Ronaldo (l.) takes a shot on goal during a friendly soccer match against Cameroon on June 1 in Covilha, Portugal. Armando Franca/AP
WAYNE ROONEY (England): Rooney is the key to the Brits winning the World Cup, which has been predicted by analysts at JP Morgan. The hot-tempered striker will need to look at the tattoo on his forearm – which reads “Just Enough Education to Perform” – to remember to keep his cool and stay in the game. Rooney twisted his ankle in the Champions League quarterfinal on March 30, but he’s fit to play in the World Cup. He plays professionally for Manchester United and will be key to the Three Lions’ chances of advancing to the latter stages of the tournament. Rooney is seen here reacting in a goal during a match against Japan in Graz, Austria, on May 30. Darko Bandic/AP
KAKA (Brazil): The 2007 FIFA Player of the Year. The 28-year-old is beloved by his home country, but also by Spain, where he plays professionally for Real Madrid. He is a World Cup veteran, with appearances in 2002 and 2006. He is joined by Brazilian teammate Maicon, also age 28, arguably one of the world’s top 10 players and best defenders. Kaka is welcomed by supporters at the Rainbow Towers Hotel in Harare, Zimbabwe, on June 1 as Brazil arrived to face Zimbabwe in a warm up match ahead of the World Cup. Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters
XAVI (Spain): A savvy midfielder and considered the pulse of the Spanish team. He finished third for the 2009 FIFA Player of the Year award, behind only Messi and Ronaldo. He is joined by star teammates Fernando Torres (a top scorer), Andres Iniesta (nicknamed "The Illusionist"), and Iker Casillas (who tops of many people’s lists of the world’s best goalkeepers). He plays professionally for Barcelona. Here, Xavi (l.) celebrates with teammate David Villa after Villa's goal against Poland during a friendly match at the Nueva Condomina stadium in Murcia, Spain, on June 8. Alberto Saiz/AP
DIDIER DROGBA (Ivory Coast): The world-class finisher is one of few soccer players with the size and strength to play in the NFL. “Known for his big personality and intense looks, Drogba is spectacular to the eye,” says ESPN. The 32-year-old forward scored one goal in his 2006 World Cup appearance. His health is in question, having broken his forearm in early June, but he hopes to recover in time for the June 15 opener against Portugal. He plays professionally for England’s Chelsea, and is red hot, having scored five goals in the last 3 games of their championship season. Drogba (r.) is chased by Japanese defenders during a friendly match in Sion, Switzerland, on June 4. Jean-Christophe Bott/AP
FRANCK RIBERY (France): The Energizer Bunny of international soccer, Ribery will be one of the most fun players to watch during the Cup. He can change a game and his playmaking will be integral to France progressing up the bracket. He plays professionally for Bayern Munich. Ribery, seen here playing for Bayern Munich, celebrates with teammate Hamit Altitop after scoring the opening goal in the Champions League round 16 first leg soccer match against Sporting in Lisbon, Portugal. Armando Franca/AP
SAMUEL ETO’O (Cameroon): Not as fast as he used to be, but still a goalkeeper’s nightmare. His level of controlled aggression is unmatched and when he gets that look in his eye, the ball is not long for the back of the net. Expect to see him in the highlight reels. He appeared in the World Cup in 1998 and 2002, but missed 2006 when Cameroon failed to qualify. He was voted Footballer of the Year three times. He plays professionally for Inter Milan and continues to be one of the world’s highest paid stars. Eto'o is featured here on the cover of ESPN The Magazine's 2010 World Cup Preview issue. Business Wire
LANDON DONOVAN (United States): Yes, there’s an American to watch. This is Donovan’s third World Cup, having scored twice in his first appearance in 2002. US goalie Tim Howard and forward Clint “Deuce” Dempsey will back him up when the US goes against England on June 12, the two countries’ first World Cup matchup since the so-called “Miracle on Grass” in 1950. Donovan plays for the Los Angeles Galaxy alongside globetrotting heartthrob David Beckham. Donovan answers a question from a reporter during a news conference in Irene, South Africa, on June 9. Brian Snyder/Reuters
PARK JI-SUNG (South Korea): The midfielder, team captain, and best Asian player in the World Cup is worshiped in Korea. The 29-year-old plays professionally for Manchester United. With a disciplined, fit, hungry Korean team, he could give Argentina and Nigeria a run for their money in the first round. South Korea's Park Ji-sung participates in a training session in Rustenberg, South Africa, on June 7. Lee Jae-Won/Reuters
On Friday Spain's Catalonia region voted to give their leader the power to call a secession referendum. Inspired by Scotland's vote on indpendence, European separatists are seeking the same chance.
ByAlan Clendenning and Joseph Wilson, Associated Press
Despite Scotland's decision to reject independence, lawmakers in Spain's Catalonia region voted overwhelmingly Friday to give their leader the power to call a secession referendum that the central government in Madrid has denounced as illegal.