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Soccer's 10 people to watch in 2009

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Roman Abramovich
The bad economy could cause Roman Abramovich to end Chelsea's big spending.
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The new year promises to be one of uncertainty in soccer. There are no major international tournaments to look forward to in 2009 – just concern and confusion at how the global economic crisis could affect the world game.

At the international level, it will be a year of World Cup qualifiers and a stepping up of the bidding process for the 2018 tournament.

On the domestic scene, big European clubs will be under greater scrutiny than ever before to see who copes best with fiscal factors.

In North America, Major League Soccer must decide whether to press ahead with its ambitious expansion plans or to scale back due to monetary issues.

Here are some of the characters you can expect to be in the headlines over the next 12 months.

1. Roman Abramovich: Reports suggest the Chelsea owner's multibillion bank balance has taken a sizeable hit and that the big-spending days of yesteryear are coming to an end. If Abramovich tires of his Chelsea plaything and implements a dramatic scaling-back process, the repercussions could change the face of the English Premier League power struggle.

2. Don Garber: Major League Soccer's commissioner is facing the biggest test of his decade in charge. With right-hand man Ivan Gazidis having headed off to become CEO of Arsenal, Garber must safely negotiate the league's passage through murky economic waters. The temptation to move forward with expansion is great, with multiple high-profile bids on the table. But would a more cautious approach be a prudent option?

3. Diego Maradona: Many thought Maradona's appointment as Argentina coach was a desperate move that was doomed to failure. However, in the space of a few weeks he has once again got a proud nation feeling good about its soccer team. With South American World Cup qualifying reaching its most critical point, expect plenty of controversy and excitement as one of soccer's iconic figures seeks to bury his personal demons.

4. Jose Mourinho: Do you remember back when Mourinho joined Chelsea and everyone loved him for a while? The signs are that the Special One is ready to start antagonizing opponents again, the media and anyone else who crosses his path now he is nicely settled in at Inter Milan. The pressure is on with Inter's hierarchy demanding nothing less than Champions League glory. Sparks will fly.

5. Ashley Young: Young began 2006 by being sent off for Watford in the second-tier English Championship. He comes into 2009 as one of the hottest prospects in the game after a run of remarkable form for Aston Villa. With England boss Fabio Capello a confirmed admirer and Villa pressing hard for a Champions League spot, we will be hearing a lot more about the talented 23-year-old.

6. Joan Oliver: Oliver was brought in as Barcelona CEO with the task of turning the Catalan giants into as much of a force off the field as they are on it. He is in the process of implementing an expansive globalization program which, if successful, could dramatically increase Barca's wealth. Also, he is determined to compile a winning bid for an MLS franchise in Miami.

7. Sunil Gulati: U.S. Soccer's president has played a clever waiting game in regards to America's bid to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cup. But 2009 will be the year that Gulati really cranks into action. With favorable FIFA bidding regulations and positive publicity from the election of President Barack Obama and a likely withdrawal of troops from Iraq, Gulati looks to have timed his run to perfection.

8. David Beckham: The next couple of months with AC Milan will tell us more about whether Beckham still has the goods at the elite level. Evidence suggests time is running out on the England midfielder, but be sure that he will still get plenty of attention. The increasing uncertainty over his Los Angeles Galaxy future will keep the rumor mill churning, as well the argument over the worth of his international career.

9. Sergio Aguero: Aguero just seems to get better and better for Atletico Madrid and looks poised to challenge the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi for the title of world's best player. Atletico is determined to hold on to its prized asset and the 20-year-old Argentinean has declared he wants to stay. However, he will be the subject of intense transfer speculation next summer.

10. Sven-Goran Eriksson: CONCACAF World Cup qualifying will once again center around the rivalry between the United States and Mexico. Mexico boss Eriksson enters the final phase under intense pressure, and the U.S. would love nothing more than to make his job even tougher with a victory in Columbus next month.


Weekend First XI

1. Get him an Advil

Bruce Arena. The Galaxy coach wasn't happy with the way Beckham's loan move to AC Milan was worked out and he will be looking on nervously now the temporary switch has officially begun.

To add to Arena's headache, a Milan injury crisis means Beckham is likely to get substantial playing time in Italy. If he is unfortunate enough to sustain a serious injury after effectively engineering the move himself, the fallout could be spectacular.

2. Get him a beer

Arjen Robben frustrated supporters of Chelsea and he has done the same to fans of Real Madrid since joining the club in 2007.

At his best the Dutch winger is one of the most dangerous players in the world, but he has often suffered from injury and inconsistency. Thankfully for Real, he was inspired this weekend, clinching a vital 1-0 victory over Villarreal with a sensational run and curling strike.

Robben is one of the stars Real will need to excel if it has any chance of clawing its way back into the Spanish title race.

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Jermain Defoe
Portsmouth's Jermain Defoe, incredulously, has been the target of death threats.
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3. Get him some earplugs (and a bodyguard)

Portsmouth fans have got an excuse to get themselves worked up again, with striker Jermain Defoe reportedly receiving death threats over his seemingly set transfer to Tottenham Hotspur.

Defoe has often been his own worst enemy, like when he requested a transfer from West Ham just 24 hours after the club was relegated in 2003. But the disgraceful response of a minority of Portsmouth supporters is completely unjustified.

The money Spurs splashes out for Defoe will go some way toward easing Portsmouth's financial troubles and it's sad that some morons can't face reality.

4. Four corners

• Do you think we will see Landon Donovan back in Los Angeles in March?

Eighteen million dollars for Wayne Bridge? Really?

• Which big club is going to get sought-after Croatia coach Slaven Bilic when he quits his current post?

• Does Henrik Larsson still have what it takes at the top level, even at 37 years of age?

5. Catch a flight to …

Liverpool. The draw for the fourth round of the FA Cup set up a fascinating local derby clash between the English Premier League leaders and their fierce city rivals Everton. Just pack a warm coat.

6. A round of applause for …

Hugo Sanchez. The former Mexico coach made a perfect start as he tries to rebuild his career, leading Almeria to a 1-0 derby victory over Real Betis in La Liga. Sanchez is unpredictable and temperamental, but he is a colorful character and it would be nice to see him succeed.

7. Get him a Kleenex

Adriano. The Brazilian is in trouble at Inter Milan, facing a $200,000 fine for missing the first training session of the year because he returned late from a vacation in Brazil.

8. Get ready to say hello to …

Chris Birchall. Birchall, the first white player in 60 years to play for Trinidad and Tobago, is close to completing a move to the San Jose Earthquakes. The 24-year-old has seen his career in England stall since the 2006 World Cup and is ready for a fresh challenge.

9. Get ready to say goodbye to …

Ante Razov. The Chivas USA striker is reportedly attracting attention from Mexican league side Leon, which is prepared to offer him a lucrative contract.

10. Get excited about …

Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swedish striker's ability has never been questioned, yet for years he has reeked of unfulfilled potential. No longer. His performances for Inter Milan this season have prompted coach Jose Mourinho to proclaim him as currently the best player in the world.

That might be a slight exaggeration, but there is no doubt Ibrahimovic is in form, feeling confident and set for a big 2009.

11. Why it's good to be a soccer player

Because, even after you retire, you can still have a stunning 21-year-old supermodel hanging off your arm. Here is German legend Lothar Matthaus' fourth wife, Ukranian beauty Kristina Liliana.