The 2010 World Cup is seeing genuine interest from American fans like never before.
ESPN is providing extensive coverage of the World Cup and, possibly equally as important, leading up to the tournament in an effort to familiarize the common fan with the enormity of the tournament and its participants.
There are many diehard soccer fans, but for the newcomers to the sport, here are 11 players American fans absolutely need to know.
His production has slowed down a bit, a perfect example being his inability to get onto the field much this season for Spanish league side Barcelona.
And fans of the Irish team must think he’s a villain for his hand ball that went uncalled and directly led not only to a goal, but to the French National Team advancing to the World Cup over Ireland.
To Americans though, Henry is a very important player.
Henry scores a lot of goals, something the casual American fan appreciates. He also is a skilled passer and does a good job setting up teammates.
Now, Henry is at the center of reports that have him signing with the New York Red Bulls of MLS after France’s run in the World Cup.
Henry is an extremely skilled offensive player who would make a huge impact on the league. American soccer fans will get a preview of Henry’s skill set during the World Cup.
Vidic is considered one of the world’s best defenders.
He is the backbone of a strong Manchester United defense and the leader of a traditionally tough and gritty Serbian defense. The 6'2" center back has an exceptional blend of strength and skill.
He was part of the Serbian defense that conceded only one goal in the 2006 World Cup qualifying process. He is a three-time member of the Premier League Team of the Year.
In 2008-2009, he was a major contributor in Manchester United’s streak of 14 consecutive games without allowing a goal, earning him the Barclays Player of the Season Award.
He was also named to the FIFA World XI in 2009.
Serbia is in a challenging group with Germany, Australia, and Ghana, and the team will depend on continued stifling defense from Vidic.
How successful Italy is in defending its 2006 World Cup trophy will depend on goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
A lifetime Serie A player—he’s been named Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year eight times—Buffon has made over 100 appearances for the Italian National Team since 1997.
His most impressive performance came during the 2006 World Cup. En route to winning the championship, Buffon kept opposing teams scoreless for 453 consecutive minutes—a World Cup record—and conceded only two goals the entire tournament (one being an own goal).
Considered a top three goalie in the entire world, Buffon will look to be as unbeatable as he was four years ago.
Many consider this year’s England squad to be one of the deepest and most talented in a long time. Lampard leads the charge in midfield.
Continually one of the best all-around players in the English Premier League, Lampard is coming off his best season with top team Chelsea.
In league play, he scored a career-high 22 goals and dished out a career-high 17 assists.
He scores at the international level as well, netting 20 goals in 78 appearances, including four in 2010 World Cup qualifying.
He has been nominated for the FIFA World Player of the Year award each of the past six consecutive years.
And for those Americans whose interest has grown thanks to the EA Sports video game FIFA, Lampard is one of the cover boys for the 2010 version.
Spain’s roster is really loaded with players you should know: Carles Puyol, Cesc Fabregas, Fernando Torres, Xavi, and Iker Casillas.
It’s why they are the favorites to win the 2010 World Cup. The biggest star on Spain's roster, arguably, is David Villa.
Torres gets more mention in the press, and not that the attention is undeserved, but Villa is Spain’s biggest goal scoring threat.
His 37 goals for the Spanish National Team—in only 57 appearances—ranks him second on Spain’s all-time leading scorer list behind only Raul.
He was the Bronze Shoe winner in the 2009 Confederations Cup and was part of the FIFA.com User’s Top 11.
Villa has spent his entire club career in Spain’s La Liga and in 384 career league games, Villa has scored 202 times. A 20-goal scorer with Valencia the past two seasons, top-La Liga side Barcelona acquired Villa for €40 million and he signed a four-year contract, with an option for a fifth year, with the club.
Brazil’s players are famous for not only their talent on the field, but also for being referred to by only one name: Gilmar, Cafu, Robinho, Dunga, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Pele. Kaka has joined that list.
He signed his first professional contract with Brazilian club Sao Paulo in 2001 at the age of 15.
The 2010 World Cup will be his third. A former Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year, Kaka embodies the image people have of Brazilian soccer players essentially dancing up the field with the ball. He has great footwork and good speed.
The 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup was the first international tournament Kaka played in since the 2006 World Cup, but played exceptionally.
He scored two goals, was named “Man of the Match” against the United States in the final game, was on the FIFA.com User’s Top 11, and was awarded the Golden Ball as the top player in the tournament.
Simply put, he’s the best soccer player in the world.
The Argentine is gifted with fantastic footwork, good pace, and creative dribbling and attacking moves. He also scores at will.
In 44 appearances for Argentina he’s scored 13 goals and in 144 league games for Spanish La Liga superpower Barcelona he’s scored 88 times.
One stretch in 2010 saw him score 11 goals in five games, including the first player to notch back-to-back hat tricks in consecutive La Liga games.
Messi has earned numerous individual accolades, including 2009 FIFA World Player of the Year and 2009 Ballon d’Or (best soccer player in the world judged by a panel of international sports journalists), and is still only 22 years old.
Another popular candidate for best player in the world, Ronaldo is the star and captain of a good Portuguese team.
Fast footwork, a creative mindset, and a blistering shot make Ronaldo an extremely dangerous player. He has youth at only 25 years old as well as top-flight experience, starting not only for the Portugal National Team, but top club teams Manchester United of the English Premier League and Real Madrid of Spain’s La Liga, dating back to 2003.
Ronaldo has also previously won the FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or awards.
Want to know just how valuable Ronaldo is? His transfer fee from Manchester United to Real Madrid in 2009 was a whopping $132 million, making him the most expensive soccer player in the world. His contract is also believed to make him the highest-paid soccer player.
Drogba is arguably the best goal scorer in the world. No one has a nose for goal quite like him.
The Ivory Coast captain is the nation’s all-time leader in goals, with 44 scored in 68 appearances.
His 131 goals in all competitions for Chelsea make him the club’s seventh leading goal scorer of all-time and the top international scorer.
Unfortunately for Drogba, he broke his forearm in a World Cup tuneup against Japan June 4 and originally told teammates he wasn’t going to be playing in the tournament.
That being said, he rejoined his teammates after surgery with arm in cast and has not been listed as out of the tournament just yet.
Whether he plays will play a big role in if the Ivory Coast can get past Brazil and Portugal in group play.
Another reason you should know Drogba though is for his impact off the field.
Ivory Coast had been in a brutal civil war. When the Ivory Coast qualified for the 2006 World Cup, Drogba got on his knees on live television and pleaded that the nation lay down their arms.
He also played a role in getting an African Cup of Nations qualifier in the rebel stronghold city of Bouake.
For his involvement, Drogba is recognized as helping the peace movement in the nation and was listed as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, as named by Time magazine.
American fans need to know the best players on their own team. Donovan and Howard are the class of the United States.
Howard, who plays at the club level for Everton of the English Premier League, has developed into one of the best goalkeepers in the world. He shines in the biggest moments, against the best competition.
Case in point: against Spain in the Confederations Cup, who was then unbeaten in their previous 35 games and ranked No. 1 in the world, Howard made eight saves and was a huge factor in the United States upsetting Spain 2-0.
Howard would go on to win the Golden Glove award as the best keeper in the tournament.
Donovan is the face of American soccer. After so many accolades, he is arguably the best player in Major League Soccer history.
For the national team, he is the all-time leading goal scorer for the United States and is the active leader in caps.
He is a six-time Honda Player of the Year—the only player to ever win the award six times—and was named Honda Player of the Decade.
After a successful winter loan stint with Everton, a good World Cup could get Donovan a transfer back to a top team in Europe.