As the 2010 World Cup in South Africa prepares to move beyond the group stage and into the unforgiving knockout round, a clearer picture is beginning to develop regarding what to expect from here on out.
The world now knows that perennial powers, 2006's champions and runners up, Italy and France, have bowed to their myriad of issues and failed to progress beyond the initial round of matches. France have been down this disappointing road before, following up their thrilling 1998 World Cup victory on French soil with a severely underwhelming performance that saw them eliminated in the group stage without scoring a single goal.
In addition to the departure of those two former champions, the group stage has also unfortunately witnessed the elimination of most of the Cup's African teams.
Despite high hopes from the home crowd, South Africa, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and Algeria have all seen their World Cup dreams dashed prematurely. Only Ghana survives for now to carry the hopes of an entire continent.
Lesser-heralded nations have proved to be resilient competitors, refusing to yield to their higher profile opponents. Slovakia, South Korea, and Japan have all risen from the lower reaches of the FIFA rankings to claim their spot in the round of 16. After progressing to the knockout round , anything is possible.
We have also seen lesser-known players emerge, thrusting themselves into the world's footballing spotlight through brilliant performances in the group stage.
Germany's Mesut Ozul has been central to his team's play in the absence of captain Michael Ballack, helping Germany to the Group D lead with one of the goals of the tournament against runners up Ghana.
A couple of Japanese players have done what no one else in the Cup have been able to figure out so far: produce quality free kicks with the much-maligned Adidas Jabulani . Midfielder Yasuhito Endo and CSKA Moscow's Keisuke Honda displayed expert touch when they deftly maneuvered their kicks around the defensive wall and into the back of the net.
Honda drew further attention as a player to watch when he made an exquisite move to lose his marking defender and just as the world expected him to unleash a close range shot for another goal, he unselfishly supplied a goal scoring moment for his teammate with a perfectly weighted pass across the box.
Upstarts Slovakia, the homeland of my paternal great grandfather, have shocked the world by slaying current World Cup champions Italy. In their first World Cup as an independent nation, the Slovakians may also boast having a man tied for the tournament scoring lead. Robert Vittek scored two fantastic goals to eliminate the Italians and finds himself atop the leaderboards with three total goals.
Just as we are becoming familiar with new names and potentially rising stars, we have seen established stars struggling to leave much of an impression upon their team's matches. Several world class players have been having difficulty parlaying their club form into international success in South Africa.
Spain's Fernando Torres has so far been a mere shell of the massively talented player we have grown familiar with over the last few years. It seems as if the injuries that have plagued him throughout the 2009-10 season have yet to fully subside and are robbing him of the top notch form that so many have grown to expect from the player known as El Niño.
Another player that many expected to see thrive on the world stage, England's Wayne Rooney, is also finding the World Cup more difficult than predicted. Thus far, England's great hope has been missing in action for great stretches of their matches. Rooney's fitness is also in question as he has been revisited by injuries that hampered his late season run with Manchester United.
Fortunately for these two forwards, their teams have qualified for the round of 16, providing the opportunity for each of them to find their form to potentially lead their nations deeper into the finals. The same cannot be said for such stars as Didier Drogba , Samuel Eto'o, Thierry Henry, and Frank Ribery .
At the dawn of the 2010 World Cup, I took a look at a few of the potential candidates to lead the quest for the Golden Boot , awarded to the tournament's leading scorer.
With the transition from the group stage into the knockout round now underway, I was curious to see how the race to lead all scorers in South Africa is shaping up.
To this point in South Africa, three players share the scoring lead with three goals apiece. David Villa just joined Argentina's Gonzalo Higuain and Slovakia's Vittek with a superb left footed strike into an open goal from significant distance, helping Spain to advance with a victory over Chile.
Villa, one of the pre -Cup favorites for the Golden Boot, may need to be leaned upon further as Fernando Torres is not completely fit, leaving Spain short of their other leading scoring threat.
Although Higuain notched a hat trick against South Korea, his play has yet to match that of Villa's, with his three goals being aided greatly by the incisive play of unlucky teammate Lionel Messi . Despite constant penetration into the opponents' boxes and leading the Cup in shots, Messi still finds himself goalless.
Slovakian Vittek , fresh from his starring role in the elimination of Italy, is awarded the difficult task of continuing his goal quest against the Netherlands. Facing off against the Dutch places a major obstacle in Slovakia's hopes of advancing, but if Vittek is able to continue making dangerous runs in front of the goal, he may have the opportunity to fell another European footballing power with his goal scoring prowess.
Eleven players have as many as two goals, with only eight still having the opportunity to add to their total in future matches. Samuel Eto'o, Nigerian Kalu Uche, and Australia's Brett Holman shall have their tallies frozen at two goals, due to their teams' respective eliminations from competition.
Among the ranks of players with two goals, Brazilian teammates Luis Fabiano and Elano retain possibly the best chance to continue scoring. With a talent laden lineup, scoring chances are hardly rare for Brazil. Due to face off against Chile on June 28, many expect the early favorites to continue deep into the tournament.
Ghana's Asamoah Gyan and Landon Donovan of the United States face off tomorrow, with one of them soon to be eliminated. Gyan hopes to carry the weight of African World Cup dreams, scoring against world superpower USA and ending the dream run that the Americans are currently enjoying.
Donovan, on the other hand , may personally hold the keys to further bolstering the ascension of football in the US. With a dramatic game winner against Algeria, Donovan is helping to bring football out of the shadows of more traditional American sports, raising the profile to a level heretofore unseen in American sports history.
Another matchup tomorrow will see the elimination of one more of the men with two goals. When Uruguay meets South Korea, both Diego Forlan and Lee Jung-Soo will fight valiantly to stave off elimination for their countrymen. A goal from either of them would serve their team well in their efforts to advance to the quarterfinals and keep themselves among the leading scorers.
The remaining owners of two World Cup goals will have to wait until Tuesday, June 29 to attempt to add to their totals. Keisuke Honda will have the opportunity to work more magic for the surprising Japanese squad against Paraguay. Paraguay would do well to minimize free kick opportunities for Japan, as Honda and Endo have both proved adept at manipulating the Jabulani in such situations.
Portugal's Tiago may be the least likely member of this group to continue his scoring ways. Never one to score often, his two goals against North Korea were only the second and third of his international career and he has only scored twice in the last three years in action with Atletico Madrid and Juventus. Though with Cristiano Ronaldo shooting often, and so far not finishing, there may still be scoring chances for the Portuguese midfielder.
Whether any of these first round scoring leaders continues to finish his chances remains to be seen. Clearly though, owning two or three goals at this point counts a man among the favorites to potentially lead all scorers.
Of course, it may be that we simply haven't seen the best of Messi , Ronaldo, Rooney, or any number of other scoring threats. A big game at this stage could vault any one of them directly into this discussion and into World Cup lore.