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Center stage (cont.)

Posted: Monday June 5, 2006 1:16PM; Updated: Monday June 5, 2006 3:49PM
Unfortunately, the dynamic Jay Jay Okocha and Nigeria won't be in the World Cup.
Unfortunately, the dynamic Jay Jay Okocha and Nigeria won't be in the World Cup.
Dave Cannon/Getty Images

3. All the African teams: Squads from Africa always seem to be underrated and then surprise everyone. But what I particularly enjoy are the African teams' evocative and colorful nicknames: the Angola Black Impalas, the Ghana Black Stars, the Ivory Coast Elephants. I'm particularly upset that the Nigeria Super Eagles didn't qualify, just because the world will miss the ball mastery of Jay Jay Okocha.

4. Zlatan Ibrahimovic: He's tall and lean and one of the world's best ball handlers, but he's also one of the world's greatest quotes, as is documented here. When asked what his fiancée received upon their engagement, Zlatan responded, "What she got? She got Zlatan."

5. Fabian Barthez: The French goalkeeper looks like one of the motorcycle guys from Weird Science, and he consistently manages to get himself in the middle of some ridiculous plays. In 2005 he missed six months after being found guilty of spitting in a referee's face.

6: Lionel Messi: The young (18 years old) Argentine is unbelievably fast, skillful and brilliant. He didn't even crack his club team Barcelona's lineup during the recent Champions League final, but he'll have to provide a torrid attack for Argentina to advance. Watching him during the 2005 Under-20 World Cup was a revelation.

7. Francesco Totti: The Italian is not only a deadly scorer with a heavenly wife, but he's also a budding Yogi Berra. After being the butt of jokes for his occasionally lamebrained quotes, Totti released two books of jokes about himself that that were best sellers, the proceeds going to charity. Sample joke: Totti's girlfriend sees that Francesco is getting wet on the terrace and calls out to him, "France, come inside, it's raining." Totti: "But it's raining out here as well."

8. Michael Ballack: Probably the best all-around player on the home team. Germany usually plays with a maniacal sense of purpose, but some fans are nervous this year, with U.S.-based manager Jürgen Klinsmann at the helm. Ballack must coordinate the attack and get the ball to scorers Klose and Podolski in space so they can succeed.

9. Oguchi Onyewu: Team USA's guys have been pretty well documented over the last few months, but the kid they call Gooch is still just under the radar. The son of Nigerian immigrants, Gooch is huge (listed at 6-4, 210) and he can pound opposing scorers like Ray Lewis hitting the hole. For the U.S. to have a shot to shock the world again, Gooch has to be on his game.

10. David Beckham: For all the talk about Becks and his glittering life away from the pitch, it's easy to forget how good he is, and precisely how brilliant his pinpoint passing from the wings can be. He's held to a higher standard than most, and he has yet to really perform at that highest level. Will this be the year?

Game of the Week

Staying with the World Cup theme, here's a fun, tough soccer game. By the way, if you can find a good online basketball game, please send it to me for next week. They're tough to find, for some reason.

Lang Whitaker is the online editor at SLAM magazine and writes daily at http://www.SLAMonline.com.