Totti leads army of walking wounded

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The Independent Online

Metatarsals, ankles, knees, shoulders, hamstrings, backs, and egos; the list of reasons for potential absenteeism at the World Cup finals grows longer by the day. So, too, does the list of countries threatened by the loss of a star performer or at least a reduction in his capacity. For England and Wayne Rooney, think also of France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Switzerland, Ukraine. Non-appearance of a key player would be a major blow to their squads and the tournament as a whole.

The last week alone has raised doubts about the fitness of the former Manchester United goalkeeper and 1998 World Cup winner Fabien Barthez, widespread Italian angst about their golden boy Francesco Totti, niggling worries about Germany's Michael Ballack and Spanish defensive pair Asier Del Horno and Michel Salgado, fevered brows over the possible loss to Argentina of the brilliant young Barcelona forward Lionel Messi, ongoing debate over the true fitness of Ronaldo, Switzerland's almost certain loss of their own highly rated young striker Johan Vonlanthen and the Czechs' probable loss of Vladimir Smicer.

It is not a new phenomenon, of course. Many previous World Cups have been blighted by the loss of big names. The 2002 tournament had David Beckham struggling for England, Zinedine Zidane battling with a thigh injury that restricted his and France's participation, and Brazil winning the trophy without the services of their captain and principal enforcer Emerson.

So, there is nothing unique about Rooney's predicament. England's Group B rivals Sweden and Paraguay, for example, have their own problems, too, with midfielder Freddie Ljungberg and striker Roque Santa Cruz respectively struggling to overcome foot and knee injuries.

Of the big names mentioned, Ballack is likely to be fit, despite spraining his ankle in Germany's 12-0 victory over Servette Juniors on Wednesday, a setback that ruled him out of the hosts' warm-up game against Luxembourg yesterday. The national coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, who depends heavily on Ballack, has every reason to make nervous daily medical checks on his captain.

Both leading Latin American stars, Messi and Ronaldo, have had races against time. Messi suffered a thigh-muscle pull at Stamford Bridge in March and the Argentina coach, Jose Pekerman, is waiting, à la Eriksson, to see if he pulls through, but he will definitely miss the opening group game against Ivory Coast.

Ronaldo, as always, is surrounded by speculation. According to the Brazil coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, he is slowly recovering from the thigh injury that prevented him playing for the last six weeks of La Liga, but is expected to be picked against Croatia on 13 June and improve his fitness during the tournament. "He seems better, he's been working with the ball and doing exercises of medium intensity," Parreira said.

Totti, Italy's attacking talisman, missed more than three months of last season after breaking an ankle. He returned for Roma's final two games but looked out of touch.

Another seemingly Chelsea-bound, Italy-based player, Andriy Shevchenko, is also struggling. A knee injury in May leaves him doubtful for Ukraine's opener against Spain on 14 June. He will miss today's friendly against Costa Rica in the hope of recovering in time to develop his fitness in Germany. It is a familiar story.

Crocks of gold: One and only is not the only one

ENGLAND Wayne Rooney (fourth metatarsal on right foot).

GERMANY Michael Ballack (light sprain on left ankle).

BRAZIL Ronaldo (thigh muscle).

ARGENTINA Lionel Messi (thigh muscle).

ITALY Francesco Totti (broken left leg, strained ankle ligaments).

SPAIN Asier Del Horno (Achilles tendon in left ankle).

SWEDEN Freddie Ljungberg (right foot).

UKRAINE Andriy Shevchenko (left knee).

AUSTRALIA Harry Kewell (torn groin muscle), Tim Cahill (right knee ligaments).

UNITED STATES Claudio Reyna (right hamstring).

CZECH REPUBLIC Vladimir Smicer (thigh muscle).

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