Top five players by position
Brazil's goalkeeping is no longer considered a weakness with Julio Cesar
Spain's inticate passing game relies upon the vision of midfielder Xavi
England's Wayne Rooney has arguably been the best player in the world
The World Cup will be an opportunity for young players to make a name for themselves and for established stars to shine. Here's a subjective ranking of the top players by position heading into the tournament:
1. Julio Cesar (Brazil)
Internazionale 'keeper Cesar didn't make it off the bench in Germany four years ago, but is comfortably first choice these days. Brazil conceded half the average in the South American qualifying group (11 goals compared to 23) and could have run into trouble without him against Ecuador and Uruguay. On top of shot-stopping gymnastics (not to mention penalty-saving heroics), Cesar bosses his area and anticipates danger before things get hairy.
2. Iker Casillas (Spain)
First choice for Spain for the three World Cups, Casillas is still one of the best -- only five got past him as Spain qualified with Europe's only 100 percent winning record. He has a fine-tuned sense of exactly where to be (check out the slow-mo at 28 seconds) and arms like Inspector Gadget when he's caught out. It's fairly easy to stay composed playing for the favorites, but he has that in his locker nonetheless.
3. Gianluigi Buffon (Italy)
The Juventus stopper didn't feature in all of Italy's qualifiers, but he's the man you'd want for the big occasion. Reliable in a one-on-one and willing to come out and smother trouble, his consistency between the sticks was a major part of Italy's success last time out, conceding just two goals before the final shootout against France. And this save got them that far.
4. Hugo Lloris (France)
His lightning reactions and calm command of his area helped Lyon put Real Madrid out of this season's Champions League, got the French to extra-time in the World Cup playoff against Ireland, and are now earning him comparisons with Casillas. Nine caps is all it's taken -- even the demoted former No. 1 Steve Mandanda says Lloris should play. France's elderly defense will rely on his youthful athleticism.
5. Samir Handanovic (Slovenia)
Udinese's No. 1 just nudges out close contenders like Mark Schwarzer (Australia) and Tim Howard (USA) thanks to an exceptional qualifying campaign. Handanovic played every minute in a tough group and the playoff vs. Russia, yet still conceded just six. An imposing presence (he's 6-foot-3 and off his line in a flash), the Slovenian also appears to be made of elastic.
1. Lucio (Brazil)
2010 World Cup
Not just one of the best at the moment, Lucio is one of the best ever. Although he broke U.S. hearts at the Confederations Cup, center backs just aren't supposed to run the ball out of defense with quite the panache he does. He's a bull of a defender (who's actually stared down attackers, just ask Giuseppe Rossi) and often a quality midfielder.
2. Maicon (Brazil)
At the risk of a Brazil love-in, we can't leave Maicon off this list -- this chap keeps Barca's Dani Alves out of the team. He's calm and collected under pressure at the back, and in the grand tradition of Brazilian fullbacks, he rampages forward like a dog that's seen a rabbit. Not that he lacks a delicate touch -- as Juventus found out in April.
3. Ashley Cole (England)
Unpopular off the pitch, but widely regarded as the world's best left back on it. Cole has struggled with injury this season but came back strongly to help Chelsea to a league and cup double. Like Maicon, he's more than able to contribute going forward (four goals this season) as well as reliably marshalling the flanks -- Cole can keep pace with even the flightiest of wingers.
4. Nemanja Vidic (Serbia)
Serbia is emerging as a popular pick for the tournament's dark horse, and the Manchester United man is at the heart of the defensive sturdiness that's prompted it all. Like Cole, he's not coming off a consistently good season, but on his day, Vidic is near faultless. He looks least comfortable confronted by direct pace, but his robust tackling and aerial command would earn him a spot in most teams.
5. Philipp Lahm (Germany)
Lahm instantly hit the headlines at the last World Cup, scoring the tournament's opening goal after galloping up the pitch, cutting inside of two defenders and walloping the ball past Costa Rica's Jose Porras. He has a knack of doing that for club (Bayern Munich) and country, but is lauded -- and needed -- for his ability to repel wingers too.