Beauty in the Beasts

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 defenses when Bayern Munich teammate Ballack's game has been off. (He seems to think little of defense in general: when German defenders found themselves at Australia's mercy in June, he helped salvage a 4-3 win, and boldly declared, "If we give up seven goals, and shoot eight, then it doesn't really matter to me.") Expect the 21-year-old to do the same in 2006, when all the current media hype surrounding Ballack and striker Lukas Podolski translates into triple coverage and hacked shins for both of them.

Of course, with the exuberance of youth often comes a penchant for petulance. And at the World Cup, opposing players will do their best to provoke these headstrong youngsters. Schweinsteiger's weakness for cheeky fouls has already earned him several yellow cards. While Messi is generally regarded as calm and collected--at least in Argentina, where such terms are relative--he did receive a red card in his debut after trying to shake a defender who had attached himself to his shirt. He's also picked up several yellows at Barcelona, and if the ref isn't on Messi's side in Germany, he could find himself on the receiving end of a few more, at a much higher cost to his team. And Rooney's reputation for rage is already legendary. His frustration during England's appalling September loss to Northern Ireland earned him a yellow card, a one-match ban, howling headlines (wind him up, watch him go, read one) and a much-publicized locker-room spat with captain Beckham.

Still, if their elders respect anything, it's talent. The once petulant Beckham, now a footballing elder at 30, recognizes the upside to Rooney's volatility. "At the end of the day, in a way it is good that you see players react like that," said Beckham after the Northern Ireland match. "You know they have a lot of passion, and Wayne plays with a lot of passion." A wiser, more clearheaded 45-year-old Maradona has asked the Argentine football association to allow Messi--whom the international press has actually taken to comparing to El Diego--to wear his retired No. 10 shirt in Germany. And Schweinsteiger has garnered tremendous praise from German legend Franz Beckenbauer. He may have a name that literally means "pig mounter." But expect him and his fellow tyros to prove in Germany that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.