With the World Cup 2018 underway, let’s take a look at the 20 most likely international football stars who’ll dazzle with skills, exquisite flicks and ultimately grab the headlines for any number of reasons in Russia.
Mohamed Salah, Egypt
Will Egypt win the World Cup? Absolutely not. But in Mohamed Salah, they have arguably the post-Messi/Ronaldo Ballon d’Or winner. Salah is arguably chief among the fastest-rising talent in world football, having lit up the English Premier League with Liverpool this season with his electric pace and finishing to the tune of 32 goals. Having already ripped up many of Europe’s top defenses, expect Salah to turn the heads of journalists and pundits in Russia, despite nursing a shoulder injury.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
Arguably the biggest superstar in the sport, the Portuguese forward who takes as much pride in his looks as his professionalism always has a headline moment. Despite his ever-increasing years, Ronaldo’s goal-scoring prowess for Champions League trophy holder Real Madrid hasn’t diminished. So expect a wonder-goal or two helping Portugal progress but don’t expect another shock victory like at Euro 2016.
Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium
Belgium has a team that is second to none on paper, but the same was said in Euro 2016 before a shocking collapse despite their status as dark-horse favorites. Kevin De Bruyne is considered one of the world’s best midfielders and is likely as key to Belgium’s success as Ronaldo is for Portugal or Messi is for Argentina due to his impact on both ends of the pitch. Can this creative maestro showcase that talent with 30-yard shots and pinpoint through-balls? If Belgium coach Roberto Martinez gets his team properly motivated, expect De Bruyne and Co. to once again become darling favorites and a pseudo-underdog to challenge the perennial powers in Germany, Spain and Brazil.
Christian Eriksen, Denmark
There’s big transfer talk surrounding Christian Eriksen and it’s unlikely such rumors will fade before the World Cup. With PSG looking at the Danish creative midfielder and a whopping $130-million for his services allegedly on the table, Eriksen’s English Premier League club Tottenham may just give in. The good thing for us football fans is Eriksen is fantastic and will likely be putting his numerous skills on show for however little time Denmark is in the World Cup, bolstering his value on the transfer market. Expect many superlatives and strong form in Russia to ratchet up that $130-million price tag before the Dane goes home, or to PSG to play alongside Neymar.
Raheem Sterling, England
What do you get when you cross the speed of the Roadrunner with the initial putting accuracy of Happy Gilmore? Raheem Sterling. The English lightning bolt has the skill and speed to rip apart a defense, but when it comes to composure, expect the poor guy to put it into row Z of the stadium. Sterling is likely to end up as the poster-child punchline for England’s inability to score and failure at the World Cup.
Paul Pogba, France
The talented French midfielder’s Instagram and hairstyles get more limelight than his current performances with Manchester United deserve. Expect his brand of showreel-style football to catch the camera’s lens whether it be a mistake, flashes of brilliance, wacky dance moves or, eventually, a shock transfer away from United.
Antoine Griezmann, France
With everyone chasing the signature of the Atletico forward, expect much fuss about Antoine Griezmann during the World Cup. It will likely be the usual soap opera with the “will he, won’t he” storyline. Thankfully, Griezmann can back up this off-field soap with bags of talent on the field. Expect him to be towards the top of the scoring charts by the end of the World Cup—making the likely transfer to Barcelona all the more costly. Especially as he’s likely the future replacement for the aging Lionel Messi. Barca has been the believed destination for Griezmann, but as Daily Star‘s Owen Fulda reported on Wednesday, the 27-year-old has decided his future team, but won’t yet reveal which club he’ll play for next season. That drama and speculation will only continue until Griezmann reveals his decision.
Sergio Ramos, Spain
This Real Madrid defender is famed for three reasons. The first, he seems to love a selfie. The second, he’s a no-nonsense, full-throttle bone-breaking centre-back. The third is that Ramos holds a very impressive record—albeit one of dubious pride and merit—having been sent off 24 times in La Liga action. All three reasons are equally endearing in their own way, and eager anticipation and joy will accompany the celebrity Instagram snaps and limping opponents in equal measure.
Edinson Cavani, Uruguay
All eyes will be on the more skillful and unpredictable Luis Suarez, but we know it will be the big guy Edinson Cavani who’ll brutalize opponents into submission during Uruguay’s World Cup efforts. The big forward is famed for throwing his rattle out the pram and slapping Chilean defenders but no one can deny he’s capable of turning nothing into goals. Likely to endure a blitz of formidable foes in the group phase, Uruguay will need a dynamic Cavani to advance further, and with Neymar rumored to be leaving PSG, Edinson could end up their main man next season. It could be a good summer all around for Cavani.
The player aiming to take Ronaldo’s crown as the sport’s biggest star had a good first year for PSG after that mind-blowing FIFA Fair Play-mangling transfer from Barcelona. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Brazil in the final come July 15th, so it’s equally likely the talent that is Neymar will end up the primary marquee name in lights for the championship showdown.
Son Heung-min, South Korea
For the majority of Tottenham’s Premier League season, Son Heung-min was a sensation. It’s not just his non-stop running and eclectic collection of goals that engages plaudits but the fact he does it constantly with a big, beaming smile on his face. If the South Korean team play with the same enthusiasm and energy as Son, expect Swedish and Mexican blushes in the group phase. Can South Korea win the World Cup? Nope, but they’ll make us all fans trying, with Son leading the way.
Toni Kroos, Germany
Germany wins trophies, Toni Kroos wins trophies and Germany will be a surefire contender at this year’s World Cup. The difference between Germany winning and losing will come down to how tired Kroos is after a long Spanish and European season. If the real-Real Madrid star shows up with his trademark passing that makes other midfielders sulk in shame, then Germany will tick like a well-oiled machine. If he turns up exhausted or injured, Germany will go home. If only Germany had a superstar striker like Ronaldo or Messi. More on that in due time.
Harry Kane, England
Harry Kane is apparently England’s big World Cup hope and regularly has his name connected to Real Madrid as a likely long-term replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s easy to see why the striker is highly coveted after another impressive season for his club Tottenham in the EPL, where he scored 30 goals in 37 games. Not to mention, Kane netted seven goals in as many Champions League caps. Where Raheem Sterling can’t hit the side of a barn, Kane somehow manages to score from all the angles a geometry major would have a hard time imagining. Even with a talented goalscorer, England will be inevitably underwhelming and barely squeak through into the knockout stages. Not even Mr. Kane will help them get further.
Romelu Lukaku, Belgium
Romelu Lukaku enters the World Cup in form for club and country. He was a talisman for Manchester United in the Premier League for most of the season and has become Belgium’s all-time top goalscorer at the tender age of 25. If Kevin De Bruyne can make it happen from midfield for Belgium, Lukaku will make it happen on the attack.
Luka Modric, Croatia
Real Madrid is a really lucky bunch of so-and-so’s with Kroos and Modric in their midfield. Amid the twilight of his career, Modric has simplified his game while keeping his impressive range of passing. He’s a marvel to behold in the Real Madrid midfield. For Croatia, the talented Modric will no doubt do the spectacular in the group stage of the competition and then jump on a jet back home to Madrid because Croatia will be going home early.
Sergej Milinković-Savić, Serbia
The Serie A star has been a constant performer for Lazio this season in Italy. Sergej has scored, created and bossed the midfield regularly and will be taking such performances into the World Cup alongside Manchester United midfielder Nemanja Matić, who has done the same in the Premier League. The big news here is that by the end of the World Cup, these two midfielders will likely team up for club and country as Manchester United look to splash a big bid on Sergej for a summer transfer, per Callum Vurley of the Daily Star.
Kylian Mbappe, France
PSG made a splash last season when forking out a fortune to acquire Neymar from Barcelona. At the same time, they picked up Monaco forward Kylian Mbappe on a loan deal where after the World Cup, PSG would have to pay $210-million to sign the Frenchman long-term. Have PSG proven that FIFA’s Fair Play rules don’t apply to the super-rich, or will they be forced to sell off prized assets this summer? This is arguably the biggest reason Mbappe will make headlines. He’s a talented player but will ultimately be the focal point of questions asked about PSG’s compliance with rules.
Timo Werner, Germany
Here’s the payoff for the aforementioned anecdote regarding the implication of a top-flight striker for the DFB Eleven. German Bundesliga has always had talented youngsters coming through, and RB Leipzig forward Timo Werner is at the top of this new wave. Having already scored at an impressive pace for club and country, the youngster will be going to the World Cup as Germany’s main man up front. This should mean a huge amount of pressure considering how successful Germany normally are at international tournaments but for Werner, expect goals, expect acclaim and expect a semi-final berth at the very least for his team.
Lionel Messi, Argentina
For as dazzling and imperious as Lionel Messi is for Barcelona, he has been lackluster at times for Argentina. That all changed during this World Cup qualification, as he regularly stole the show and almost single-handedly got Argentina to Russia. Expect big things from Messi this summer as it’s likely his last chance at World Cup glory.