No event captures the world’s attention like the FIFA World Cup and while England may lay claim to being the home of the world’s most played and talked about code, few could question Brazil’s standing as its heartland.
As we cast our eyes over the enormous array of talent set to take centre stage (Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar and co. we’re looking at you) there will be those conspicuous by their absence – put it down to politics, unfortunate birth origins or just sheer anomaly.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic cheekily declared no World Cup without him was worth watching but with his eccentricities and native Sweden set to miss the samba party spare a thought too for Gareth Bale, Carlos Tevez and Samir Nasri, who will also have to settle for watching on from the couch.
Then there are those right on the cusp. Unbeknown to them, their showing in Brazil for country will have clubs clamouring for their services on the evidence of a handful of games in a context where performances are magnified and subsequent transfer fees inflated.
El Hadji Diouf was one of those. The Senegalese winger led the African nation to the quarter-finals with wins over Champions France and Sweden at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea/Japan, earning selection in the All-Star team as well as capturing the attention of Liverpool manager Gerrard Houllier, who promptly signed him for £10 million.
Other ‘slightly’ more high profile exemplars include England’s Michael Owen and Argentinian legend Diego Maradona.
Owen announced himself as a fresh-faced 18-year-old with a superb tournament and stunning individual goal against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup in France.
You could hardly say Maradona ‘announced’ himself at the 1986 tournament in Mexico, but with five goals and as many assists as he captained Argentina to victory, plus his infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal in their quarter-final win over England, he certainly cemented his legendary status and tag as the world’s best player.
Now to the current crop of hopefuls – we take a look at those set to shine in Brazil.
Weight of the world – Diego Costa (Spain)
The Atletico Madrid forward has plenty to prove in Brazil, the reasons are many. Clubs coming in left, right and centre for the hamstrung centre forward just one, the 25-year-old spurning his native Brazil at a home world cup to play for Spain, another. There’s no doubting Costa is one of the hottest properties in the world right now with Chelsea among a number of suitors for his services and, after sitting out Atletico’s losing Champions League final to Real Madrid, the player labelled ‘dirty’ by Australian midfielder James Holland, if fit, will come out like a bull at a gate in Brazil. Be warned Socceroos.
Flag-bearer – Adam Lallana (England)
The spritely Southampton midfielder headlines a refreshingly youthful England squad with the likes of Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson and Luke Shaw. What is perhaps most striking about the 26-year-old is a distinctly un-British like dynamism and flair. Equally adept on either side, Lallana’s quick-thinking, ability to score and create the play could be just what England’s pessimistic fans and negative media need. If England can forget the past and embrace the future in the form of Lallana, Sterling, Barkley and co. they could pull themselves clear of perennial underachievement.
Carrying a minnow – Mat Ryan (Australia)
Perhaps not the recognition we’re after but as the lowest ranked nation at the tournament (59th) sadly the Socceroos will undoubtedly be classified a minnow in Brazil. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, the good news is Ryan was recently crowned the best shot-stopper in Belgium after a superb season between the sticks for Club Brugge. The bad news is the likes of Spain, Chile and the Netherlands will be only too happy to scrunch up that mantle and give it the Diouf treatment. A pie-in-the-sky rumour suggested Real Madrid were monitoring Ryan but I’d venture to suggest they will revisit their transfer targets if Ryan is picking the ball out of the back of the net as often as many expect.
On the cusp – Adnan Januzaj (Belgium)
The Belgian prodigy showed glimpses of brilliance in an otherwise forgettable season for Manchester United and after sifting through the overtures of as many as five other countries (including England) with his folks, the 19-year-old sensibly pledged his allegiance to Belgium just in time. He was duly rewarded with selection among a ridiculously talented Belgian crop that is scarcely hard to believe. Expectations in Belgium are high having not appeared at the World Cup since 2002 and the buzz around Januzaj is just as big. He may not start every match but he has the X-factor to give Belgium a spark when he does come on.
Also keep an eye on …
Romelu Lukaku (Belgium), Oscar (Brazil), Jackson Martinez (Colombia), Joel Campbell (Costa Rica), Sardar Azmoun (Iran), Paul Pogba, Rafael Varane (France), Alessio Cerci (Italy), Hiroshi Kiyotake (Japan), Jordy Clasie (Netherlands), Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland) and Luis Suarez (Uruguay)