For the first time in the 80-year history of the FIFA World Cup, the world's biggest sporting event will be played in Africa. Some have heralded the competition, hosted by South Africa, to be a triumphant event for the country and the continent, while others look at the month-long tournament to be a gigantic waste of resources and money. We will meekly defer judgment on that score, and leave the arguing to the grown-ups.
Whether hosting the cup is a coup or curse for South Africa, a World Cup in Africa will give some of the continent's brightest stars a chance to shine a little closer to home. Here are a few hometown heroes that could make a big impression starting June 10th.
Didier Drogba, Ivory Coast: The Vanity Fair cover boy and reining African Footballer of the Year is one of the sport's biggest stars. No surprise, considering the powerful Ivorian scores lots of goals and earns big bucks at Chelsea. Fresh off playing an instrumental role in The Blues' league double, Drogba will have a big say in whether or not The Elephants can survive 2010's Group of Death. Matches against Brazil and Portugal are two of the most highly anticipated early contests of the tournament. Drogba tallied only one goal at the 2006 World Cup, and he will need to be more prolific if the Ivory Coast is to make it through.
Mikel Jon Obi, Nigeria: Nigeria is consistently one of the top sides in Africa, but they have yet to carry their continental successes - two African Cup of Nations championships - to the World Cup, where the Super Eagles have never progressed beyond the Round of 16. Midfielder Mikel John Obi, who also plays for Chelsea, is a crucial player for the Nigerian national team. Surrounded by world-class talent at Chelsea, Mikel is most comfortable in a supporting role. For Nigeria to advance from Group B, he will have to excel in an unfamiliar position: Leading man.
Samuel Eto'o, Cameroon: The Cameroonian striker has won nearly every individual accolade and team prize possible during his illustrious career. Everything, that is, except the World Cup. He won the Champions League twice at Barcelona and has a chance to capture an impressive third title with Inter. Eto'o has already appeared in two World Cups (1998 and 2002), but he will be looking to lead Cameroon into the Knockout Rounds for the first time since 1990, when the Indomitable Lions made a magical run to the Quarterfinals.
Steven Pinnear, South Africa: The agile winger, who plays club football for Everton in the English Premier League, is one of just a few South African footballers plying their trade in Europe's top leagues. He is expected to lead the attack for Bafana Bafana, creating havoc on the wing. Recently selected as Everton's Player of the Year, pressure will be on the diminutive Johannesburg native to produce for his country. Hosting nations have advanced to the Knockout Rounds in every World Cup and Pinnear will have a large say in whether South Africa continues that trend.
Karim Matmour, Algeria: Algeria is the sole representative of North Africa at the 2010 World Cup, and The Desert Foxes are lucky to be there at all, having barely beaten their arch-rivals Egypt in a tense elimination game. Matmour, an energetic and creative forward/midfielder, has earned the nickname Batmour for his frantic play on the pitch. He will most likely play on the right wing for Algeria. His greatest contribution in the World Cup, however, may come as a scout. Matmour plays with American midfielder Michael Bradley at Borussia Monchengladbach of the German Bundesliga, and the Algerian could provide his teammates with some useful information prior to their Group C showdown against the United States.
Michael Essien, Ghana: The Ghanaian midfielder is in a race to get fit for the World Cup. A healthy Essien will be a lift for The Black Stars, who are pitted against Germany, Serbia and Australia in the tough Group D. Essien, who plays alongside Drogba and Mikel at Chelsea, forms a potent midfield troika with Inter's Sully Muntari and Bolgona's Stephen Appiah. Essien was vital to Ghana's 2006 World Cup run, which ended in a Round-of-16 loss to Brazil, and he is always a threat to shoot from distance.