Byline: Malcolm Beith
It's difficult to spot a diamond in the rough. It's even harder to see the beauty in, say, a pig. But football--known as the beautiful game--has, on occasion, transformed what some might consider rather ordinary beasts into priceless gems. A short, stout and cocky Diego Maradona emerged from the Buenos Aires slums to become a god on the pitch, his ability to sweep defenders aside truly Biblical. Zinedine Zidane, born to Algerian immigrants in the rough banlieues of Marseille, led France to World Cup and European championship glory. Even megacelebrity David Beckham was once just a shy, mild-mannered kid from a working-class neighborhood in Essex.
Next summer's World Cup in Germany is guaranteed to usher forth a host of new heroes. And while the pretournament hype will likely focus on Brazil's exceptionally graceful Kaka and Portuguese pretty-boy Cristiano Ronaldo, it may well be a trio of hardworking, hard-nosed ugly ducklings who emerge as the swans: England's Wayne Rooney, Germany's Bastian Schweinsteiger and Argentina's Lionel Messi.
None older than 21, all three possess the same vigor as the young Maradona of the late ' 70s and early ' 80s who took our breath away, before cocaine and the temptations of fame took his. And when the legs of older teammates like Beckham, Michael Ballack and Juan Roman Riquelme grow weary during this summer's grueling, monthlong tournament, these youngsters will be expected to carry their teams.
They've already proved more than capable. In leading Argentina's youth side to this summer's world championship, 18-year-old Messi, a midfielder with a gift for the piercing pass, stepped into the shoes of his team's lagging strikers to emerge as the tournament's leading scorer. During Euro 2004, England's Michael Owen found himself cornered by defenders at every turn. Enter 18-year-old striker Rooney, who lifted the team--and an entire nation's hopes--onto his shoulders and into the quarterfinals with his fearless, darting runs into the box and crisp finishing touch. After he hobbled off with a broken foot, the England team lost its confidence and limped to a loss at the hands of Portugal.
And time and time again, the raw, explosive and uber -fit Schweinsteiger--a midfielder like Messi--has penetrated …