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EDITORIAL: 10 Rising Stars Of The World Cup
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Destined to rise...Ronaldinho (Reuters)
05/30/2002. With the greatest spectacle on the planet literally now just hours from being upon us, we here at SoccerAge have decided to wet your appetites even further with a look at ten rising stars we reckon will capture the collective international imagination like Michael Owen did four years ago.

Everybody already knows that the Figos, Zidanes and Rivaldos of the world are capable of dropping a billion jaws in unison with one flick of the ankle, dip of the shoulder, or swing of the hip, but not nearly as many are aware of the mesmeric magic contained within the frames of the following group of budding superstars.

Roque Santa Cruz (Paraguay and Bayern Munich)

Few clubs around the world have a better reputation for spotting talent than Bayern Munich, so when the Bavarian giants decided to shell out a cool $5 million on a little-known 17-year-old in 1999, people knew that the kid had to be more than just a little bit special. Three years on, and Roque Santa Cruz is on the brink of truly living up to his billing as the "Paraguayan Phenomenon". Discovered by Bayern scout Wolfgang Dremmler, while starring for the Paraguayan Under-20 team during the '99 Youth World Cup, Santa Cruz has what it takes to become the next van Basten. Tall, tricky, quick and lethal, the former Olimpia starlet is everything you would want in a striker and more. Santa Cruz is a defender's nightmare for many reasons, not least of which is his ability to bang the ball home with either his left foot or right foot, from close-range or down-town. What's worse for those unfortunate to mark him, the 20-year-old is just as devastating with his head, and packs a big bag of tricks that elevate him well above the status of a pure box-player.

Joaquin (Spain and Real Betis)

The Real Betis wing wizard has won covetous glances from Madrid and Barcelona after a quite superb debut season in the Primera Liga. The youngster knows every trick in the book and has drawn comparisons with the great Luis Figo. The power of the peseta, though, is likely to prove too much for Betis to resist and if he isn't playing his football elsewhere next season, he will almost certainly have moved on by the time the 2003/04 campaign comes knocking. Following his international debut against Portugal in February he admitted that he slept in Figo's shirt after the match but there are many observers who believe that he could go on to be better than the Real Madrid ace. Time will tell but up to now Joaquin has shown maturity beyond his years.

Pablo Aimar (Argentina and Valencia)

Many a doubting Thomas suggested that former Valencia boss Hector Cuper had wasted his money when signing the pint-sized Argentine from River Plate for ?3 million early last year. How wrong they were. The 21-year-old, together with midfield enforcer Ruben Baraja, was the catalyst behind the Ches' march to their first Liga title in 31 years. Since February Aimar was quite superb, displaying his cultured range of passing, ice cold finish and ability to run at defences with a mix of pace and trickery. Argentine legend Diego Maradona once suggested Aimar was: "The only current footballer I'd pay to watch and is even more talented than Riquelme or Saviola." And this from a Boca man through and through. Together with Javier Saviola, Juan Pablo Angel and Ariel Ortega, Aimar was one of River's 'famous four' and his rapid rise saw him picked for the World Youth Championship in Malaysia ?a tournament in which he excelled. This World Cup will be his first senior tournament with the national team, though, and who'd put it past him to finish a superb second half to the season on a real high?

Julius Aghahowa (Nigeria and Shakhtar Donetsk)

Another youngster that is set to light up the world in June is 20-year-old Nigerian sensation Julius Aghahowa. After catching the eye at the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1999, Aghahowa was named to the Nations Cup team in Mali, where he emerged as the Super Eagles' most lethal scorer with three goals. By the end of 2000, Aghahowa caught the attention of many of the top European clubs, but opted to sign with the Ukrainian outfit Shakhtar Donetsk. He became an instant success in Eastern Europe, evidencing phenomenal speed, skill, goals - and subsequent multiple summersaulting celebrations that would earn the respect of any gymnast. The Swedish scout Tomas Lyth recently admitted that he considers the young striker, who is "blessed with Michael Owen's pace", as Nigeria's biggest threat, while "Aghahowa murdered me" was a decidedly more grudging admission by Senegalese defender Malick Diop after a recent African Nations Cup game spent trying to keep within five feet of the young man. The Shakhtar Donetsk striker is one of the few Nigerian players guaranteed a spot for Japan and Korea and football fans of the world ?barring those of England, Argentina and Sweden ?are bound to be better off for it.

Ronaldinho (Brazil and Paris Saint Germain)

Brazil have at their disposal one of the potential stars of the tournament. The 21-year-old rose to prominence at Gremio and caught the world's attention at the 1999 Copa America where one superb goal against Venezuela won rave reviews and saw him compared with his great namesake Ronaldo. Last summer he moved to Paris Saint-Germain after a long and bitter transfer wrangle. The French club claimed he should move on a free transfer while Gremio argued that the deal had already been superceded, therefore they were entitled to a fee. It would be fair to say that he hardly set Le Championnat alight initially, but in the final three months of the season PSG fans begun to get a glimpse of just why the club were so desperate to get him on board. Despite not being an out-and-out forward, Ronaldinho is an accomplished finisher who seems to have no trouble finding the net for Brazil. His superb control and terrific dribbling skills are also likely to catch the eye in Japan and South Korea.

Owen Hargreaves (England and Bayern Munich)

Just over two years ago the average Englishman wouldn't have heard of Owen Hargreaves, yet he is now set to play a key role in England's World Cup campaign. The versatile midfielder is the only player in Sven Goran Eriksson 's squad that isn't based in the Premiership, however he appears perfect for the English game and has the maturity to cope with what many may seem as being the outsider in the camp. The Bayern Munich star was thrown into the final of the Champions League two years ago after only around a dozen appearances in the German giants first team. Hargreaves filled the role left by Steffen Effenberg superbly and if he can deal with that he can deal with whatever the World Cup can throw at him. Hargreaves was named man of the match in both of England's World Cup warm-ups against South Korea and Cameroon and looks more than capable of playing across the midfield and even at right-back should injuries force that upon him.

Sibusiso Zuma (South Africa and FC Copenhagen)

At the ripe old age of 26, Zuma is very much the granddaddy of the group, but we reckon he is set to be to this World Cup what Nigeria's Jay-Jay Okocha was to France '98. The outrageously-skilled, bleached-blond winger has delighted crowds in Denmark with his fancy footwork and electric pace ever since he arrived in Copenhagen from South African side Orlando Pirates in 1999. Earlier this campaign, the Danish League's Player of the Year in 2001attracted the attention of several of Europe's top clubs ?including Bayern Munich and Arsenal ?with some truly inspired performances in the heart of FC Copenhagen's attack during their brief stint in the Champions League. Zuma then went on to terrorize a whole host of defenders from the Dark Continent during the African Nations Cup. Although it looks like he may stay in the Copenhagen for at least another year ?his contract at the club is good until 2005 ?the Danish champions are predicted to have a real task holding on to him for much longer after the World Cup, where he will be very much a man to watch.

Samuel Etoo (Cameroon and Real Mallorca)

The fact that Real Mallorca stayed in the Primera division was thanks in no small part to the goals of Cameroon's young centre forward. He has been superb for the islanders over the past two seasons, although one wonders just how much longer a club of their financial resources will be able to hold onto him. His strength, pace, skill and deadly finish have won him many admirers, with Valencia just one of a host of clubs said to be interested.

Shinji Ono (Japan and Feyenoord)

Young Shinji Ono, 22, has surpassed Hidetoshi Nakata as the goldenboy of Asian football thanks to some truly inspired performances in the heart of Japan and Feyenoord's midfield. The former Urawa Reds star is thought by some to be a more complete player than Nakata, and has certainly proven himself to be more consistent. Ono compliments his wonderfully refined, two-footed passing ability with a cannon for a shot and terrier-like tenaciousness. He actually made his World Cup debut during France 98 against Jamaica at the tender age of 18, after which he went on to captain Japan's Under-20 team that reached the final of the World Youth Championship - although he missed the 4-0 loss to Spain due to suspension. The shaved-headed midfielder made up for that unfortunate no-show, by becoming the first-ever Japanese player to feature in a Uefa Cup final, when he lifted the trophy with Feyenoord a few months ago.

Joe Cole (England and West Ham)

The precocious talent has been compared to Paul Gascoigne and if he can have half the impact at the 2002 World Cup as Gazza had at Italia '90 England have a lot to look forward to. Gazza, like Cole, was the new kid on the block in the build-up to the finals and left the tournament as the biggest name in World football, and not just because of the tears and plastic breasts. Cole has something that is rare in the English game and that is flair, skill and plenty of technical ability. He may not start all, or even any of England's matches, but as a substitute he could be the man to unlock the tightest of defences.

Honourable mentions: Olisdebe (Poland) Duff (Ireland) Emre (Turkey) Sorin (Argentina) Ogbeche (Nigeria) Diouf (Senegal) Valeron (Spain) Carini (Uruguay) Wanchope (Costa Rica) Pauleta (Portugal) Kaviedes (Ecuador) Tristan (Spain) Doni (Italy) Mathis (USA) Klose (Germany) Titov (Russia) Baraja (Spain) De La Cruz (Ecuador) Sonck (Belgium)

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