Before any major football tournament, there tends to be fervent conjecture over which players will be the breakout stars of the competition and thrust themselves into the limelight. The imminent World Cup is the grandest stage for any ‘lesser-known’ players to make a name and probably secure a lucrative transfer for themselves. A recent example was the unexpected success of South Korea and Senegal in 2002, leading to a multitude of transfer dealings involving players from these squads. The burning question is which players, outside of the well-known stars (Messi, Rooney, Ronaldo et al), should we be keeping an eye on?
North Korea might be an odd place to start in search for a potential breakout star, but the rank outsiders possess a striker who has taken the Japanese J-League by storm. Jong Tae-se is a fascinating player, full of power, passion and ambition who has made no secret of his desire to move to Europe. Dubbed the ‘People’s Rooney’ for his aggressive, industrious work-ethic and stocky build, the striker sees Didier Drogba as his benchmark. Thus, it should be a great moment for the 26 year-old when he faces off against his idol in the group stages. Playing in an extremely defensive 3-3-2-1-1 formation, he will be isolated, but the striker is capable of some incredible goals – his brace against Greece in a warm-up match is certainly worth a view.
Uruguay has a rich football history – it was the first winner of the World Cup and has won it on two occasions, albeit the last time was 60 years ago. Whilst it is highly unlikely that it will add to its tally, the squad contains plenty of attacking quality, without even looking at the excellent Diego Forlan. The Atletico Madrid’s strike partner is one to watch out for – Ajax’s Luis Suarez is a rapid, clinical striker who comes to the tournament in red-hot form, scoring 49 goals in 48 games this season. Suarez’s club teammate, Nicolas Lodeiro, is in contention to start in the hole behind the front two and he is another player worth keeping an eye on as he provides the team with subtlety and creative flair.
Staying in South America, there are more names worth a mention. Argentina’s Angel di Maria has not been mentioned too much, given the embarrassment of riches that Diego Maradona’s side has at its disposal. However, he is the man to watch, especially since teams will be preoccupied marking his famous teammates Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain. A fleet-footed winger with a keen eye for goal, his direct approach will be triggered by the passing of Juan Sebastian Veron. The man between the sticks for Argentina is a name that is probably unheard of – AZ Alkmaar’s Sergio Romero is likely to be moving on this summer given the Dutch side’s financial problems. With his best years ahead of him, the talented 23-year old keeper has all the tools to catch the eye of the many suitors vying for his signature.
Another Argentinean worth watching out for is Dortmund’s Lucas Barrios. However, ‘the Panther’ will be playing for Paraguay, having gained citizenship just weeks before the squad announcement. It is his form for his club side that has propelled him into the squad, which appears to have excellent strength in depth at the top end of the pitch. Barrios has made a huge impact in the warm-up games, scoring three goals in as many games to give head coach Gerardo Martino a welcome headache over the starting line-up, especially given the loss of Salvador Cabanas, who has unsurprisingly not recovered from a life-threatening shooting in January. Finally, Chile, who has not won a World Cup game since the 1950 tournament, will rely on the attacking flair of Udinese’s Alexis Sanchez – a right winger with blistering pace, excellent vision and a direct manner of play that will suit Marcelo Bielsa’s attacking 3-4-3 system. Chile should correct its dismal record in World Cup tournaments this summer, having been strong in qualifying and possessing the leading scorer in the form of the stocky Humberto Suazo.
One has to feel sorry for the African nations – the World Cup group stage draw is such that it is entirely possible that no African team will qualify for the knockout rounds. Much of the hope for the continent rests with the Ivory Coast, who will have to overcome Brazil and Portugal. Drogba is the side’s obvious talisman but the man to watch is Lille’s Gervinho. A speedy operator with a penchant for delivering an excellent final product, the 23 year-old will undoubtedly trouble the best defences if given the opportunity.
The Netherlands might be some people’s dark horses for the tournament overall, which, on paper, does not look like a bad bet at all. The question mark for Bert van Marwijk is whether he should play his ‘famous-four’ of Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart and Robin van Persie altogether from the start, or should he sacrifice van der Vaart for the defensive discipline of Dirk Kuyt. If it is Kuyt does start, probably on the right, then there is no doubt that the attacking thrust on that side of the pitch will come in the form of Ajax’s young attacking full-back Gregory van der Wiel. His performances suggest that he is the real deal and will probably be highly sought after by the top clubs in Europe, given he is a competent defender who can operate at centre-back and is eager to overlap with relentless energy.
With defenders in mind, it is only right to look at Serbia, who seems to produce a multitude of excellent players in that position. Two to watch out for are Dortmund’s Neven Subotic, an imposing, dominating centre-back, and Lazio’s Aleksandar Kolarov, an all-round quality defender who is more than capable of contributing in the final third. Another player currently plying his trade in Italy for Palermo who will look to shore up his nation’s defence is Denmark’s Simon Kjaer, widely tipped to move away from Sicily. His partnership with Daniel Agger will be key for the Danes to progress further.
Two previous winners, Germany and Italy, arrive to the tournament without much being made of their respective chances. In all fairness, the former has lost its captain, Michael Ballack, to injury, but there is no reason why the perennial penalty shoot-out experts could not do well. With Ballack unavailable, the creative onus will fall to Mesut Ozil of Werder Bremen. An incredibly gifted playmaker, Ozil led Germany’s under-21 side to European Championship success last summer, scoring in the final against England. Italy’s squad has been criticised, especially the attacking selections which have been derided as the worst in the Azzurri’s illustrious history. This is somewhat harsh, given that Serie A’s leading goalscorer Antonio di Natale has been selected. The 32 year-old helped his club side avoid relegation with 29 goals in 39 games and the prospect of him leading the line with better players behind him can only bode well for the defending champions.
There are numerous more players that I could mention – Jesus Navas, Marek Hamsik, Samir Handanovic, Michael Bradley and Peter Odemwingie are just some examples. Whilst it is useful to look at the potential breakout individuals, none of these players will shine without the team functioning cohesively behind them. The best overall team tends to win the cup, but that does not mean that an individual cannot stand out and make a decisive impact. With only seven different winners of the World Cup, will any of these players step forward to continue or change that pattern?