Caniza experience crucial for Paraguay
Can Lionel Messi reproduce his Barcelona form for Argentina? Will Wayne Rooney be able to sustain his current level of performance into June and July? Might Cristiano Ronaldo, or even Kaka, be fresher at the end of the club season because Real Madrid are out of the Champions League?
The World Cup is where reputations are confirmed and football fans across the planet are hoping the stars to be firing on all cylinders in South Africa.
But football is a collective activity, with a variety of functions that need to be carried out in order for the team to be successful. Bobby Charlton has spent over 40 years reminding people of the importance of Nobby Stiles to England's World Cup victory in 1966, winning the ball, using it wisely and demanding the best from all around him.
Brazil were first victorious in 1958, a tournament in which Pele and Garrincha made their names - but Didi, the midfield brains of the side, argued that the best player in the campaign was centre-back Orlando Pecanha. Brazil did not concede a goal until the semi-final, and it was this defensive solidity that gave the platform for the attacking players to show their skills.
The World Cup, then, is also the story of the unsung heroes and an excellent current example - an unsung hero in an unsung side - is Denis Caniza of Paraguay.
Caniza battles for the ball with South Korea's Lee Keun-Ho during a friendly in August 2009 - photo: Getty
The chances are that unless you come from Paraguay or Mexico you may never have heard of him, but his team-mates, past and present, and a succession of coaches are well aware of his value.
For an impoverished country with a population of just over 6m, making it to a fourth consecutive World Cup is a remarkable achievement and Caniza has been there from the start. He is the last member of the France '98 squad still in contention for a place in the Paraguay squad, and he has played in every game of their last three World Cup campaigns - with a versatility that pays tribute to his usefulness.
A centre-back by preference, he is, at well under 6ft, probably too short to play there at the highest level, but he can fill other positions effectively. In France, he came off the bench to stiffen the midfield in the opening game against Bulgaria and the epic second round match against the hosts, when Paraguay were just a few minutes away from forcing a penalty shoot-out. In the other two games he featured as a left wing-back.
In Japan and South Korea four years later, he played on the left of a back three against South Africa, as a conventional left-back against Spain and Slovenia, and then at left wing-back when they reverted to 3-5-2 in the second round clash with Germany.
Four years ago in Germany, he was at right-back in all three of Paraguay's games but was denied what would have been only his second goal for Paraguay.
In their final group game, he broke forward from right back, latched on to a chest down from midfielder Edgar Barreto and fired a shot past the Trinidad and Tobago keeper. It was an excellent goal, and would have been a real landmark - the 2000th goal in World Cup history. Perhaps the referee thought that someone more glamorous than Caniza should score it because Barreto was wrongly adjudged to have handled, and the goal was disallowed.
That appeared to be the end of his international career. Caniza was pushing 32 at the end of the tournament and announced that he was no longer interested in representing his country, but the following year coach Gerardo Martino persuaded him to return. He played eight times in the qualification campaign, at both right and left back, and is surely worthy of selection for South Africa, if only for the experience he brings to the squad.
Last year he provided clear evidence of his continuing quality when he spent a few months with Nacional, a traditional but tiny club in Paraguay's capital Asuncion. They have the reputation of being everyone's second club - both because they produced Arsenio Erico, the country's greatest player, and because they never offered a serious threat to anyone else.
But with Caniza captaining the side, Nacional ended the long wait for the club's seventh title, and their first since 1946. He then moved to Mexico, where he has spent much of the last decade, to join Leon in the Second Division. Without him, Nacional are not the same side - back in mid-table and comfortably beaten in all four of their Copa Libertadores games.
So Denis Caniza continues in relative anonymity. But when national team coach Martino says his side's strength is their "collective play" and that teamwork "is a natural characteristic of Paraguayan players", he might well be thinking of the solid and selfless contribution of his veteran defender.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) I saw Messi yesterday and he broke Zargoza but my Latino friend kept talking about 'Cintura.' I am not sure that that means in football terms, its something about the waist, can you tell me a bit more about it?
A) Football is a game of twisting and turning, where players are constantly changing direction, so the idea of having flexibility in the waist ('cintura') is very important, especially in the tradition of the South American game.
When Uruguay amazed everyone with their play in winning the 1924 Olympics contemporary reports compared them favourably with the English professionals - up until then seen as the best in the world. Where the English were seen as strong, in comparison with the Uruguayans they were adjusted inflexible in the waist, and therefore straight line runners.
With greater flexibility - and also I would argue a low centre of gravity - the South Americans were better at changing direction and therefore surprising and confusing their opponents. Maradona and now Messi are fantastic examples.
Q) What are your thoughts on Sandro and his move to Tottenham?
This is what I wrote about him in World Soccer magazine at the start of last year when he captained Brazil to victory in the South American Under-20 Championships: "A tall, powerful central midfielder with fierce tackling and defensive anticipation who organises the team in possession, can distribute off either foot and rumble forward to link up with the attack. His range of passing needs improving, but in a problem area for Brazil it will be interesting to see if he is fast tracked into the senior squad."
I still stand by that. He was indeed fast tracked into the senior squad, and he is a promising, competitive player, though I'm still not particularly impressed by his passing - at times I think he has tunnel vision.
I see him as a good squad addition, as long as he's not weighed down by expectations to produce 'samba soccer,' because that's not his game.