Soccer is full of stories of redemption. And if the French midfielder keeps up his World Cup form of 2006, where he helped France to reach the final, then his job will have been accomplished. But why the redemption? Because Ribery has been caught up in a sordid tale this past year involving his fellow footballers under investigation for allegedly visiting an "under age," high-price prostitute in a bar just off the Champs-Elysées in Paris. If Ribery focuses on football then his wing wizardry can make mincemeat out of the opposition; but even Ribery's sumptuous skills may not be able to carry some of his under par teammates nor the tactics of unpopular coach Raymond Domenech.
Robin van Persie
Often referred to as RVP, the flying Dutchman is set fair for a successful World Cup as he's back to full fitness after missing most of Arsenal's season through a long-term ankle injury. Since his return, both his teams have benefited from his attacking play, as he's been scoring goals — and setting them up — for fun. Not that TIME would ever condone betting but you could do far worse than taking the 16/1 generally on offer on van Persie winning the Golden Boot. If that were to happen, RVP would become known as Holland's VIP.
South Africa, Midfielder
You wouldn't want the host nation to have to pin their hopes on one man but South Africans will indeed be looking to their talismanic midfielder Steven Pienaar to at least get Bafana Bafana into the knockout phase. Pienaar is coming off his best season yet for Everton, in the English Premier League, and will be the fulcrum from which South Africa's best moves will surely spring. Watch for him to get in on the action via key assists and even the odd goal. Whether it will be enough to see South Africa through the group is another question.
The Spanish striker fired his country to EURO 2008 glory, thus getting that 44-year monkey of no major tournament success off its back. And so long as Fernando Torres can stay healthy — he's often missing for his club side, Liverpool, in England, through injury — then defenders beware. The 26 year-old has that rare ability of blistering pace and an acute eye for goal, equally adept at scoring tap-in's or from far out.
The dashing villain of the '06 games was sold for $132 million to Real Madrid. He turns heads with his step-overs and speed but has yet to prove a Cup finisher
Stat: Scored 33 goals in first 35 appearances for Real Madrid
The most internationally established and creative U.S. field player (his coach compares him to Pete Maravich), "Deuce" could be the offensive key on a D-minded team
Stat: Scored the U.S.'s lone goal at the 2006 Cup, against Ghana
St. Iker, perhaps the world's best goalkeeper, helped Spain end a 44-year title drought at Euro '08. His keen reflexes are key to his nation's chances for a first Cup win
Stat: Allowed zero goals in the Euro knockout round
An idol in Africa, where he's thrice been Footballer of the Year. He's in his third Cup, and he's a big-gamer: he's scored in two of his three Champions League finals
Stat: Cameroon's all-time leading scorer netted nine qualifying goals
Since bombing out in '06 on a red card, England's one-man strike force has had a calmer head. And a better one: he nodded in seven straight goals in one '09 stretch
Stat: Was second highest scorer in England, with 26 goals in '09-10
An end-to-end back and the face of a new-look Brazil, he is a menace on offense too; just check out his juggling act and strike for Inter against Juventus on YouTube
Stat: Helmed a defense that ceded 0.6 goals per game in qualifying
His stop-and-go moves and brazen attacks make him the most exciting player in Europe — but can he blend in with Argentina's talent and all-new tactics?
Stat: Won European Footballer of the Year by a record margin
I don't know if they did this before or after the recent injuries...