The greatest sporting event in the history of the planet is finally back. The 2014 FIFA World Cup heads back to Brazil, the most successful host country in the tournament’s history who is hoping to win their sixth trophy. Occurring every four years, the World Cup brings the entire planet together as one as the only true way to declare a “world champion.”
The World Cup has brought the globe together with more success than any bureaucrat ever could. Opposing factions of the civil war in the Ivory Coast agreed to a ceasefire when their nation qualified for their first World Cup tournament in 2006. Once mortal enemies, South Korea and Japan successfully co-hosted the 2002 tournament despite their bloody history. Who knows, maybe we’ll see Israel and Palestine find peace through soccer, or even North and South Korea.
For most Americans, the next 31 days will be the only time in the next four years our nation will remotely care about soccer. We tend to forget that the sport is more about the flow of the game rather than the numbers on the scoreboard and what a player does without the ball can be equally as important as what he can do with it. I’ll be the first to admit that soccer can be boring; but when at it’s best, it stays true to its name as “the beautiful game.”
There are 736 players representing the 32 teams at this year’s World Cup. Some of them will be more exciting to watch than others, while others will surprise many who love the sport. Team by team, there will be at least one player from each of them who will leave you mesmerized. Arranged by group and order of appearance, below is a closer examination of a player from each nation you need to pay attention to over the duration of the tournament.
Joga bonito. This translates from Portuguese to “play beautifully.” The Brazilians have coined this phrase as their style of play, and isn’t it fitting. From the strikers to the defenders and even goalkeepers, every player on the Seleçao will leave you in awe with their soccer skills; though no other player can make your jaw drop like Neymar.
Neymar is one of the many reasons why the host nation is favored to win the World Cup. Multiple defenders have proven to be no match for the youngster from FC Barcelona. If Brazil wins its sixth World Cup, much of the credit will be due to Neymar
Croatia: Ivan Rakitic
Ivan Rakitic was instrumental in Sevilla’s Europa campaign. He is a well-balanced midfielder who always seems to be in the right position on the field. At only 26 years old, Rakitic is the conductor of the Croatian orchestra. With a supporting cast of Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic, Croatia could give Brazil a run for their money in the group stage.
Mexico: Giovani dos Santos
Luis Montes was considered as one of Mexico’s top-scoring threats, and then he broke his tibia and fibula in horrific fashion in a recent friendly against Ecuador. El Tri has a plethora of goal scorers on their World Cup Squad, none more exciting to watch than Gio dos Santos.
Dos Santos has great fundamentals, yet provides some flair to keep you engaged. His speed is one of the more threatening aspects of the Mexican attack, you’ll find him breaking towards goal or serving in crosses from out wide. Dos Santos will no doubt create headaches for the toughest of defenses, including Group A opponent Brazil.
Cameroon: Samuel Eto’o
Arguably the greatest striker of all time, Samuel Eto’o will be playing in his third World Cup tournament. The 33-year-old has shrugged off criticism of his age by continually scoring goals. He is a long way away from his form with FC Barcelona, where he scored 108 goals in five years with the club, but he is still effective. Paired with Stephane Mbia up top, Cameroon will no doubt provide some excitement in the attacking third.
Spain: Sergio Ramos
Sergio Ramos is a force to be reckoned with on every square inch of the field. He has scored 36 goals for Real Madrid; not a very high tally for a forward, but he’s a defender. You may remember his equalizer in the Champions League final, Ramos headed home a goal from a corner kick that fueled Real Madrid to their tenth European championship.
Spain is looking for their fourth consecutive major title; they’ve won the last two Euro tournaments as well as the 2010 World Cup. Ramos has been a big help to this cause, both scoring and preventing goals. His speed and size makes him one of the most dynamic central backs in the entire world; all the while paired next to an equally athletic center back, Gerard Pique, Spain is sure to be an intimidating threat in Brazil.
Netherlands: Arjen Robben
The Flying Dutchman earned his nickname from his lightning-fast feet. Arjen Robben has been pestering defenses for as long as he’s been playing the game. Even though his right foot is non-existent, Robben is able to get quality shots off with his left even though you can see it coming from a mile away. Perhaps if he’d attempt a right-footed shot, he’d score even more goals.
If you’re not a fan of soccer because of players diving and screaming bloody murder without even being touched, you might not like this guy. Besides that, Robben’s ability to weave inside the penalty area and break down opposing defenses is unrivaled.
Chile: Arturo Vidal
Arturo Vidal is yet another incredibly dynamic player in Group B. As a crisp passer, tough tackler, fit runner and composed midfielder, there isn’t a whole lot the Juventus man can’t do. For his club, Vidal looks like one of the best center midfielders in the world. He scored five goals in Chile’s qualification for the 2014 tournament, so Vidal is sure to rise to the occasion in Brazil.
Australia: Tim Cahill
This will be the third World Cup for one of Australia’s best players in the history of the Socceroos. Now playing club ball for New York Red Bulls, Tim Cahill isn’t just a proficient goal scorer, he's an intuitive playmaker as well. He may not be as fast as he used to be, but he’s still very good in the air and has an endless appetite for finding the back of the net.
Australia faces three very tough opponents in Group B; if they are hoping to advance to the knockout stages, Cahill will be relied upon to make that happen.
Colombia: Juan Fernando Quintero
What he lacks in size he makes up for in speed, precision passing and an absolute rifle of a left foot. At only 21 years old, Juan Quintero is rising through the ranks very quickly for club and country. Alongside talented midfielders such as James Rodriguez and Juan Guillermo Cuadrado, Colombia’s attack may very well be the biggest surprise of the World Cup tournament.
Goals will have to come from somewhere else besides Colombia’s top striker, Radamel Falcao, who was not able to recover from a knee injury in time for the start of the tournament. Quintero is deadly on set pieces and could be involved in just about every goal-scoring opportunity in Colombia’s run.
Greece: Giorgos Karagounis
It has been 10 years since Greece stunned the world and won Euro 2004. Although the Greek fans are hopeful of their heroes repeating the success from a decade ago, it doesn’t seem at all likely that they’ll win the World Cup. With Colombia being their biggest threat, Greece has a decent chance of advancing to the knockout stages.
This team’s philosophy has been pretty simple: Sit back on defense, disrupt the opponent’s game plan and maximize the goal-scoring opportunities, which Greece usually only needs one for the W. If Greece is to make another run like they did in 2004, they must look to their most experienced player and captain; 37-year-old Georgios Karagounis.
Karagounis leads Greece in caps and is one of the oldest players in the 2014 World Cup. Despite his age, the Greek captain never seems to be running on fumes.
Ivory Coast: Yaya Toure
Yaya Toure was Manchester City’s top scorer in their title run, and he’s a defensive midfielder. He streaks up and down the field with supreme speed and vision. With the ball, Toure is a brilliant playmaker; on defense, opponents rarely get past him. He is one of the most complete players at the 2014 World Cup.
The Ivory Coast has no shortage of scoring threats. They’ve never made it past the group stage in their previous World Cup appearances, though this is the best opportunity they’ll have. With another capable scorer Didier Drogba up top, goals may come in waves for The Elephants.
Japan: Keisuke Honda
The difference of form between club and country is night and day for Keisuke Honda. One of Japan’s premier attacking players, Honda scored the country’s first World Cup goal on foreign soil in the 2010 tournament in South Africa. He scored a few more and helped Japan to the knockout stages, where they lost to Paraguay on penalty kicks.
Honda seems poised to repeat 2010’s success and perhaps go even further. He scored five goals during the qualifying stages, helping Japan to be the first team to qualify (besides the host nation, Brazil) for the 2014 World Cup. He’s got the on-field swagger and is cool under pressure, not to mention an accurate left foot.
Uruguay: Luis Suarez
Luis Suarez does not ever play with less than 100 percent effort. The Premier League’s top goal scorer brings his tenacious style of play to Brazil and he knows he has to score goals in such a difficult group. When Suarez has the ball, he’s going to put a shot on frame; defenders know this yet often fail to stop him from shooting.
Group D is probably the toughest group in the 2014 World Cup, perhaps more so than the USA’s. Faced with such an uphill battle, the Uruguayans can be happy to rely on Suarez for their goal-scoring needs. After all, the best defense is a good offense, right?
Costa Rica: Bryan Ruiz
In this group of death, Costa Rica aren’t being given much of a chance to advance in the World Cup. That said, they’re surely no pushover team. Once they got to the CONCACAF hexagonal, Costa Rica qualified for the World Cup relatively easily. Los Ticos captain Bryan Ruiz was a big help to this cause.
Ruiz has been frustratingly inconsistent for his club teams, but provides a great deal of creativity for his national side. He roams freely throughout the midfield and is able to get past defenders with very good ball control and pace. Ruiz will no doubt be looking for Joel Campbell up top, but he has a tremendous desire to score goals courtesy of his left foot.
England: Daniel Sturridge
Luis Suarez tends to overshadow Daniel Sturridge if you’re watching a Liverpool game, but that doesn’t mean he’s a less capable player. Sturridge is not only a masterful goal scorer, but an excellent dribbler as well. Playing alongside Wayne Rooney with Danny Welbeck and Rickie Lambert coming off the bench, England has one of the best (if not the best) striker corps in this year's World Cup tournament.
Italy: Mario Balotelli
Although his fellow countrymen have hurled waves of racism his way, Mario Balotelli continues to shine for the Azzurri. Sure, he’s quite the head case; he’s also a liability for getting dumb bookings, but man is he good at what he does.
If you were a coach, Super Mario is the epitome of world-class striker that you’d want on your team. He’s fast, physical, a powerful and accurate shooter, good in the air, and a bit of a perfectionist. Balotelli is the kind of guy you’d hate to face, but someone you’d definitely want on your side.
Traditionally speaking, Italy has had the best defense in just about every World Cup. They get one or two goals from the counter attack or set pieces while seldom conceding goals. Coach Cesare Prandelli is a bit more offensive minded than his predecessors and Balotelli thrives in his system. So long as Super Mario is on the pitch, he’s one of the best out there.
Switzerland: Xherdan Shaqiri
Switzerland is ranked 6th in the current FIFA rankings, mostly due to the fact that they do not concede goals. Knowing this, they will not advance past the group stage with three 0-0 draws, goals will have to come from somewhere. Most of their scoring help will come from Xherdan Shaqiri.
The stocky Swiss winger may not have found his place with Bayern Munich quite yet, but is relied upon for his country. Shaqiri’s speed, ball control and vision of the field will be most helpful while the Swiss defense sits back.
Ecuador: Antonio Valencia
Ecuador is relatively new to the World Cup scene, making their debut only in 2002. The South American underdogs may not have qualified for the 2014 tournament if weren’t for their Manchester United export, Antonio Valencia.
Valencia doesn’t score a whole lot, only eight goals for the senior team in 70 caps, but he’s involved on every attack. The right-winger torments defenses out wide, often creating his own space in very dangerous areas. He’s among the best in the world at serving crosses into the penalty area. Valencia is also an equal force on defense and is very good in the air.
France: Karim Benzema
France barely qualified for the 2014 World Cup, but this doesn’t mean you should be ready to rule out Les Bleus. Notorious for their on-again-off-again World Cup performances, the French seem to be on track for another deep run. They’ll need a bit of help though; teams can’t progress through the tournament if they can’t score goals. That’s what Karim Benzema was brought to Brazil for.
Benzema is a big striker who has a knack for scoring goals. In his five seasons with Real Madrid, he scores a goal nearly every other game (72 goals in 159 games). With a quick midfield at his support, Benzema is sure to be the spearhead of the French attack. If all else fails, they’ve got Olivier Giroud to back him up.
Honduras: Roger Espinoza
As the underdogs of Group E, Honduras can play as if they have nothing to lose; this makes them a dangerous opponent. The strength of this team lies in the defense and midfield. Goal-scoring opportunities may seldom be seen for Honduras, so they’ll need to make every opportunity count. The best player to help the Honduran cause is Roger Espinoza.
Espinoza played a lot of soccer in the U.S. before transferring to Wigan last year, helping the Ohio State Buckeyes to an NCAA championship appearance in 2007 and playing in over 100 games for Sporting Kansas City. This playmaker is a very good passer and isn’t afraid to shoot, no matter where he is on the field.
Argentina: Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi is widely considered as the best player in the world that’s currently playing. Some people are tossing his name in the hat as the greatest ever, better than Pele and Maradona. Is he really the greatest soccer player of all time? He’ll have to win the World Cup first.
If anyone has mastered the fundamentals of the game, it’s the 26-year-old Messi. He relies on his quick feet instead of flair to get by his opponents. Messi has quite a small stature, even for a soccer player, though he isn’t intimidated by anyone you throw at him. Even in traffic, Messi keeps hold of the ball with some of the best control the world has ever seen.
Of all his strengths, his ball placement is top class. No matter where he is on the field, Messi can put the ball exactly where it needs to be every time. No wonder why he’s won the Ballon d’Or four consecutive times and broke the record for most goals in a calendar year.
Argentina has a very deep World Cup squad. The entire team is worth watching, but Messi will be the most captivating player to watch by far.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: Edin Dzeko
Without much argument, Edin Dzeko is the best player on the Bosnia and Herzegovina side. With a knack for scoring goals in a variety of manners, Manchester City’s prolific goal scorer will no doubt be the key factor of Bosnia’s tournament.
His 6-foot-4 frame helps him create space in opposing penalty areas; Dzeko is equally dangerous in the air. He has helped his clubs win titles in the Premier League and Bundesliga, making him the highest profile player in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic scored 18 goals between the two of them in the qualifying campaign, making them one of the best yet unknown striker pair in the 2014 tournament.
Iran: All of them
Most players of Iran’s national team have been playing together since before they were professionals. They’ve had great team chemistry since then but haven’t really found that next-level competition, until now.
Iran cruised through their qualifiers, they even beat the heavily-favored South Koreans twice. Their core is a group of veterans but have equally talented youth players on the World Cup squad, including Reza Ghoochannejhad who has scored nine goals in 13 national caps. The Iranians are not expected to advance past the group stage and hold the lowest odds of winning the tournament; but a nation can dream, right?
Nigeria: John Mikel Obi
Nigeria’s man in the middle covers a tremendous amount of space without ever showing much fatigue. It might be a tiny bit premature to call John Mikel Obi the best Nigerian soccer player of all time, though he’s one of the most complete players to wear a Super Eagles’ kit.
Mikel is one of Jose Mourinho’s favorite players at Chelsea; he has played in over 200 games for The Blues since joining the team in 2006. The intensity he brings to his club matches his play at the international level. Mikel scores very few goals, but is instrumental in preventing them. He’s sure to be involved in every play.
Germany: Miroslav Klose
With one of the most complete rosters in the 2014 World Cup, it’s hard to choose just one German player to keep your eye on this tournament. They have an elite goalkeeper, a stout defense, a dynamic midfield, and technical forwards that the rest of the world could emulate. The Germans are one of the few favorites to win the World Cup, this may not be possible if it weren’t for their goal-hungry striker, Miroslav Klose.
When the ball is in the air, it is undoubtedly en route for Klose’s head. He only needs one goal to match, and another to surpass, the World Cup record for all time goals. That record is currently held by Ronaldo (the Brazilian legend, not Cristiano) who has 15 goals in 19 World Cup matches. He is currently Germany’s all time leading goal scorer with 69 goals. At 35 years old, this tournament is the prolific goal scorer’s last chance to enter the record books.
Portugal: Cristiano Ronaldo
The reigning World Player of the Year has only two World Cup goals to his name, but that’s likely about to change. On defense, he’s pretty much a non-factor; on offense though, Cristiano Ronaldo is electrifying. Able to run faster than most people even when he has the ball, Ronaldo has been abusing entire defenses for his entire professional career.
His dribbling skills are in a class of their own, making people who don’t even like soccer spellbound by his talent. On top of all that, Ronaldo has one of the most powerful shots in the entire world. Unless he’s held out of the tournament as a result of a Ghanaian shaman, Cristiano will add much to his legacy in Brazil.
Fun fact: Ronaldo’s father named him after his favorite actor, Ronald Reagan.
Ghana: Kevin-Prince Boateng
Kevin-Prince Boateng plays midfield for his club and striker for his country. His ability to play any position on the pitch has proven to be a nuisance to his opponents. The striker has great endurance and defends very well; Boateng may be Ghana’s key player in such a difficult group.
Ghana has eliminated the United States from the previous two World Cup tournaments, Boateng even scored to go-ahead goal against the Yanks in 2010. With nine of their players playing in Champions League games, the Black Stars just might aid in another early U.S. exit from the World Cup, though it remains to be seen if they can get past Portugal and Germany
Boateng holds dual citizenship with Germany and Ghana. He will play against his half brother, Jerome Boateng of Germany, in their second game on June 21.
USA: Jozy Altidore
In case you haven’t heard, Landon Donovan is not going to Brazil this year. With the United States’ all-time leader in goals out of the equation, someone is going to have to step up and score some goals in the most difficult group of the tournament. This is Jozy Altidore’s moment to shine.
Altidore hadn’t scored a goal for club or country since December until he netted two in a friendly versus Nigeria. Although he’s in a bit of a slump, the 24-year-old striker is most definitely capable of scoring goals. He’s the only American to score goals in five consecutive games for the United States, which he completed that feat last summer. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann is a firm believer of Altidore racking up goals, so long as he’s provided with quality opportunities.
Belgium: Romelu Lukaku
If Romelu Lukaku were comparable to a player of a different sport, it’d be Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks. Always hungry to score, overpowering defenders with his physical prowess and a never-say-die attitude, Lukaku is world soccer’s version of “Beast Mode.”
The 2014 World Cup will be the first major tournament Belgium will compete in since 2002. Although they have been absent from the top tier of the world soccer stage for quite sometime, Belgium’s current squad is now considered as the “Golden Generation.” Understandably so, as Lukaku is the engine that powers Belgium’s locomotive.
Belgium is sure to be a team that sneaks under the radar at this year’s World Cup. They have a relatively easy group compared to the talent on board. Other notable Belgian players to watch out for are goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, defender Vincent Kompany, midfielders Moussa Dembele, Eden Hazard, Adnan Januzaj and striker Kevin Mirallas.
Algeria: Sofiane Feghouli
In only their fourth World Cup appearance, not many people have faith in Algeria to advance. There is one exception though, young midfielder Sofiane Feghouli who is confident that his nation can advance; that’s the kind of motivation a team needs leading up to the big tournament.
Feghouli’s time in La Liga has proved invaluable to his experience. The Valencia winger may not score a ton of goals, but his superb first touch and passing abilities make him a legitimate threat in the attacking third. Feghouli is capable of playing in any midfield position, making him that much more dynamic.
Russia: Alan Dzagoev
Russia is an interesting team at this year’s tournament. You won’t recognize most of these names, likely because they all play their club ball in the Russian league. The Russians are disciplined and technically sound, a match made in heaven for coach Fabio Capello’s system. This doesn’t mean that Russia will be boring to watch, young midfielder Alan Dzagoev will provide plenty of excitement.
At only 23 years old, Dzagoev is a playmaker in every sense of the word. Russia’s number 10 possesses some of the best dribbling and passing on the team. He’s assisted almost as many goals as he has scored. In Euro 2012, Dzagoev finished in a six-way tie as top scorer for the tournament; he will have to return to that form if Russia are to advance to the knockout stages.
South Korea: Kim Bo-kyung
Don’t let the haircut fool you, Kim Bo-Kyung is a very good player. He was one of the few bright spots for Cardiff City, who finished dead last in the Premier League this season. Kim got accustomed to playing behind with Cardiff and showed tremendous heart in many comeback efforts.
This is the attitude you want from young players at the World Cup. The Koreans are underdogs in this tournament, but have a very balanced team in not too difficult of a group to advance to the knockout stages. They may not be headed for a fourth place finish like they did in 2002, but could be one of the surprise teams in the early stages of the 2014 World Cup.