Since its inception in 1930, the FIFA World Cup has made Pele, Diego Maradona, Romario, Zinedine Zidane and Franz Beckenbauer household names. At this year’s competition, there will be no shortage of world class players looking to also etch their names in football history. DEEPANRAJ GANESAN takes a look at 10 key men who will be aiming to guide their countries to secure the coveted gold trophy.
10. Mario Balotelli
Italy had a disastrous campaign at the last World Cup in South Africa, crashing out in the group stage. Much has changed since then, with Italy’s head coach Cesare Prandelli investing in a youthful attack, putting faith particularly in Mario Balotelli. Nicknamed Super Mario, the forward was in the mood for goals this season, finishing as the top scorer for his club side AC Milan. But the Milan giant’s disappointing eighth-place finish told another tale of the forward’s inconsistency.
The striker of Ghanaian parentage has garnered criticism for being ineffective and wilting under adversity while his tantrums on the pitch have often left his team at a numerical disadvantage. Known for being hot headed, he has courted controversy off the pitch throughout his career. Fans of the Azzurri will be counting on their temperamental goal machine to produce the kind of fireworks on the pitch just like he does off it when Italy face Uruguay, England and Costa Rica in a tough group.
9. Eden Hazard
Belgium will make a return to the biggest competition in international football after a 12-year absence, with a squad hailed by many as the best the nation has produced. Spearheading their attack will be mercurial forward Eden Hazard. The player’s stunning performances for his club side, Chelsea, during the season resulted in him being awarded the prestigious Professional Footballers’ Association Young Player of the Year award. It’s only natural then, that the Red Devils will be counting on Hazard’s creativity and speed to unlock opposition defences in Brazil.
However, there has been criticism of the winger’s poor work rate. In the aftermath of Chelsea’s defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League semi-final, Chelsea’s head coach said of Hazard: “He’s not the kind of player who is ready to sacrifice himself 100 per cent for the team and his mates.” If Belgium are to live up to their dark horses tag, then Hazard will have to be in the mood for sacrifices and goals.
8. Paul Pogba
France laboured to the 2014 World Cup, needing a last-gasp playoff win against Ukraine to secure their spot on the plane to Brazil. Hit with the news that their most influential player and UEFA Best Player in Europe recipient, Franck Ribery, will be out of the tournament with a back injury, France could not be at a greater disadvantage. All eyes will now shift towards up and coming superstar, Paul Pogba. The 21-year-old central midfielder who won the Italian Serie A with Juventus this season also has a knack for scoring beautiful long range strikes. Definitely a starter in France’s engine room, Pogba will be tasked with not just breaking down the opponent’s attack but also to burst forward and wreak havoc in the opposition half.
A youth player at Manchester United, Pogba left for Juventus after growing frustrated at a lack of first-team opportunities. Learning from the best at Juventus, namely Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal, Pogba has gone from strength to strength. Having won the FIFA U-20 World Cup with the junior side, Pogba will be hoping to replicate that success with the senior team in Brazil especially since he was awarded the Golden Ball at the youth tournament, a recognition given to the best performer at the competition. As France look to make up for the debacle of the 2010 World Cup where they finished bottom in their group, much will be expected of Pogba to turn on the style when it matters most in Brazil.
7. Wayne Rooney
Manchester United made history yet again this season, but not in a good way. The club finished 7th in the table for the first time in the club’s English Premier League history. In the squad that underachieved so massively, only Spanish custodian David De Gea and English forward Wayne Rooney can claim to have had good individual seasons. Despite being curtailed with injuries throughout the season, Rooney helped himself to 17 goals and 10 assists in the league. The 2014 edition will be Rooney’s third World Cup and by his own admission, the previous two had not gone the way he would have preferred to; the player went into both the 2006 and 2010 tournaments nursing injuries.
Looking heavy at times, it is no secret that the Wazza struggles with fitness issues. With Rooney now fit for the World Cup, England manager Roy Hodgson will need Rooney and fellow striker Daniel Sturridge firing on all cylinders as a tough group comprising of Italy and Uruguay await. If England were to progress from their group and make a case for themselves, the onus will be on Rooney to be hungry, not for burgers and fries but for plenty of goals.
6. Robin Van Persie
Much was made of Manchester United’s fall from grace this season, with most fingers pointedly directed at a certain David Moyes, the since departed manager. But it must be said that the side rued the absence of prolific forward Robin Van Persie, who only mustered 21 appearances for the Red Devils due to injuries that ruled him out for the majority of the season. Van Persie’s magnificence could be seen from the way he single-handedly led Manchester United to their 20th league title last season.
The captain of the Dutch national team, Van Persie will be hoping that an extended break from domestic football can only ensure his sharpness when the Netherlands kick off their World Cup campaign against defending champions Spain. The forward, who has a menacing left foot, also enjoys a close relationship with incoming Manchester United boss and current Dutch head coach, Louis Van Gaal. Speaking to The Blizzard, Van Persie said: “I will walk on fire for him if I have to – like the rest of the team.” To make his mark in Brazil, the Oranje will be hoping Van Persie will indeed be on fire.
5. Diego Costa
Spain conquered the world in 2010, emerging as the FIFA World Cup champions in South Africa. La Roja then went on to win the UEFA Euro 2012. Two years on, Spain will be looking to be the first non- South American nation to win the World Cup in the continent. To aid them in that task will be Brazil-born Diego Costa. Having been granted Spanish nationality in September 2013, the Atletico Madrid striker made the controversial decision to reject the advances of his home country and instead don the red shirt of Spain, much to the ire of Brazilians. 2014 has been an incredible year for Diego Costa, whose 27 goals in the league helped Atletico Madrid leapfrog giants Real Madrid and Barcelona to win a league title after an 18-year wait. With Spain needing a finisher to put chances away, Diego Costa seems to be the perfect man to step in. But the striker will be far from peak condition, especially after limping off in the Champions League final with a tear in his hamstring. Included in the final squad, the responsibility of converting chances into goals falls on Diego Costa as the forward will be, ironically, looking to make his mark for Spain in the country of his birth – Brazil.
4. Luis Suarez
Uruguay were rocked by news in late May that striker Luis Suarez had to undergo knee surgery for an injury sustained while in action for Liverpool. Such is the form of Suarez this season that Uruguayans will be praying right up till the opening week of the World Cup for their nation’s top striker to recover and play an integral part in the team’s attack.
Suarez swept all there was before him in terms of individual honours this season in the English Premier League. The Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year, Professional Footballers’ Association Players’ Player of the Year and the Premier League Player of the Season were just some of the awards given to the Uruguayan for his phenomenal performances in the league. To add to that, his whopping tally of 31 goals in the league resulted in him being awarded the European Golden Shoe as well as the Premier League Golden Boot. Regarded by many as a complete forward, Suarez is not only a clinical striker but also possesses the ability to ghost past defenders with ease. A tough group of England and Italy only adds on to the importance of Suarez’s recovery. Despite having another top striker in Edinson Cavani, Uruguay will be desperate to have El Pistolero back in time to shoot down their opponents.
3. Lionel Messi
Regarded by many as the best footballer to have played the sport, it is perhaps a surprise that Lionel Messi has never once won the biggest prize football has to offer. Like his famous predecessor Diego Maradona, Messi has similarly set the world ablaze with his touch and trickery. Still only 26, the fact that audiences around the world feel Messi has been around forever is a telling sign of the Argentinian’s pedigree. The all-time leading scorer for his club side Barcelona, with 354 goals in 425 matches, four consecutive World Player of the Year awards, six La Liga titles and three Champions League trophies, Messi has done it all at club level. In Brazil, Messi will have to stand up and be counted for his country, in a continent where Argentina are viewed as second favourites behind Brazil to lift the trophy. A trophy-less season for La Pulga at club level this season means the magician will be desperate to ensure Argentina go all the way in Brazil. With the otherworldly party tricks that Messi brings to the pitch, no one will be betting against the little magician to slay whoever comes in his or Argentina’s way in Brazil.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo
A list of key men will never be complete without the showman of all showmen, Cristiano Ronaldo. The last European team to sneak into the 2014 World Cup were Portugal and they had their captain Ronaldo to thank for. After netting all four goals over the two-legged play-offs against Sweden, the reigning FIFA Ballon d’Or winner will be motivated to win the coveted trophy, especially after guiding his club side Real Madrid to a Champions League victory. His array of trickery, power and pace will be crucial in a tricky group involving the likes of Germany, USA and Ghana.
At 28, Ronaldo is at the peak of his powers and it will take some doing to stop him. Similarly to Messi, critics have sounded out about Ronaldo failing to transform his club form onto the international stage but the latter’s performances in the playoff victory would have gone a long way in silencing the critics. That performance was a definitive example of a “one-man show”, convincing many that the world’s best was finally a genuine leader. Having borne the burden of carrying Real Madrid this season en route to their Champions League victory, time will tell if Portugal are too heavy a burden for Ronaldo to handle.
1. Neymar Da Silva
At the tender age of 21, no player has had to deal with as much pressure as Neymar going into the 2014 World Cup. The whole nation will be pinning their hopes on the Brazilian superstar to guide the team to a sixth World Cup victory, especially with the tournament being on home soil. A truly gifted player, Neymar is always up to his usual tricks and flicks to bamboozle and terrify his opposing defenders.
Able to play as a forward or winger, the hotshot did not have the best of seasons with Barcelona. As each game passed in Barcelona’s season, Neymar appeared more and more invisible in games. But the fleet-footed forward will be aiming to put behind his club struggles when he dons the famous yellow strip of Brazil at the World Cup. In the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, Neymar steered Brazil to the title, including a 3-0 win over Spain in the final. Neymar also picked up a trophy for being the best player. The hope-bearer for a football-mad nation, Neymar will need to shed his “YouTube player” tag and produce performances worthy of the hype.