The World Cup risks being diminished by a number of high-profile absentees. Could the amount of games played in a season threaten the prestige of future Cups? Would a compulsory winter break ensure more stars are fit?
Another one bites the dust: Lionel Messi pays the price for Barcelona's hectic schedule
It would be a coach's dream to field such a team: Portugal's Jorge Andrade marshalling the defense with Germany's Robert Huth beside him and compatriot Philipp Lahm speeding up the wing from left back; England's Ledley King ahead of the back four feeding a midfield featuring Australia's Harry Kewell, Argentinean prodigy Lionel Messi and team captain Michael Ballack.
The attacking force of Italy's Christian Vieri and England's striking duo Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney would complete the world class line-up.
Unfortunately, for the international coaches who count these players as integral members of their squads, it is currently more of a nightmare. Because these stars, who would light up any team and were due to shine for their countries at the World Cup in Germany, are either out of the tournament through injury or are facing a race against time to get fit before it begins on June 9.
The curse of the metatarsal: Wayne broke his foot again
Andrade, Vieri and King will definitely not be there this summer. Rooney, Messi and Kewell are all sweating over medical results which could rule them out of the tournament while Ballack, Huth and Lahm -- crocked in post season warm-ups -- are expected to recover from their minor injuries in time. Michael Owen has yet to play a full game since breaking his foot on Jan. 1.
World Cup at the mercy of modern soccer
The World Cup's positioning in the soccer calendar exposes it to the modern game's injury curse. Coming in the summer after a full domestic and European itinerary, interspersed with international qualifying games and friendlies, the World Cup finds itself at the mercy of an increasingly strenuous schedule. Soccer in the new millennium seems to demand more and more of its players.
Take England's Steven Gerrard for example. The Liverpool captain has already played 62 games in a season which began for him in July 2005. If England reach the World Cup final on July 9 and Gerrard features in all of their games in Germany, he will have played in 71 matches.
While not as dangerous as more obvious contact sports such as American football and rugby, soccer still has one of the highest rates of athlete injury; a rate many experts associate with the amount of games players are expected to take part in.
Risk of injury increases with number of games played
The more you play, the greater the risk
Medical studies have shown that injuries are more likely to take place during competitive matches than in practice and training sessions. A recent study carried out by the American Journal of Sports Medicine showed that the rate of injuries in soccer games was 16.9 injuries per 1000 hours, while the rate of injuries in practice was 7.6 per 1000 hours.
For Gerrard and other England-based stars, the huge number of games played in the pursuit of major domestic, European and international trophies increases the likelihood of an injury being sustained. As a result, players in the Premiership face the prospect of coming into a summer tournament carrying injuries.
In contrast, Germany-based stars are less likely to become injured towards the end of a season due to the fact that the Bundesliga takes a winter break. German clubs suffer from fewer long-term injuries heading towards the finish line than at any stage of the season. At the same time, English clubs, which have no mid-season break, have more serious injuries at the end of the campaign than at any other period in the calendar.
Mid-season break results in fewer long-term injuries
The mid-season break means Bundesliga clubs start the season again in January with rested players after a period of time where those injured before Christmas have had sufficient time to recover.
This means the number of players missing through long-term injuries dramatically dips just when all the major trophies are being handed out in May.
While the effects of a mid-season break are evident at the end of the campaign in the form of the number of players from the Bundesliga being fit in comparison to those playing elsewhere in Europe, results also show a break benefits teams later in the year.
Beckham played despite an injury at the 2002 World Cup
In September 2001, England beat Germany 5-1 in Munich in a qualifier for the 2002 tournament. Come the World Cup itself in Japan/Korea the following June, England limped out of the championship in the quarter-final after having to leave a number of star players at home injured and playing an unfit David Beckham throughout. Germany progressed to the final where they were narrowly beaten by England's conquerors Brazil.
Help future World Cups; reduce players' workload
In reality, it would take a lot to diminish the World Cup. It would take an injury wave of pandemic proportions to wipe out enough players to make a dent in the tournament's prestige.
But as the globe's pre-eminent soccer championship, the World Cup requires the best players in the game to be there. Surely a reduction in the number of matches played in leagues where there is no mid-season break would not only be beneficial for the players but for the game as a whole.