This article first appeared in the May/Jun 2014 issue of World Gaming magazine.
It’s the one tournament that brings together the very best players in the world – a unique spectacle of skill where a single moment of genius can raise the hopes of an entire nation. It is where stars are born and legacies are made, although for some it also represents an ever-present danger. For players, managers and even referees alike, careers can be made or broken – heaven help the coach whose highly rated side fails to make it past the group stage or the referee who mistakenly awards a match-deciding penalty.
Still, it is the moments of magic that will live longest in the memory. Who could ever forget Diego Maradona’s weaving run against England in 1986 or Roberto Baggio’s stunning solo effort four years later to answer the prayers of a nation?
By the time this year’s World Cup is over some new legends will have been forged, so let’s take a look at who to watch in Brazil 2014.
Brazil’s newest superstar is also the man they are pinning their hopes on to return this football powerhouse to the top of the mountain. Although his domestic form has been questionable since his high profile move to Spanish giants Barcelona at the start of the season, he has had no such problems at national level with 30 goals and 20 goal assists in 47 appearances. At just 22 years of age, he needs just two more goals to move into Brazil’s top 10 scorers of all time. But the reason he is so adored by the Brazilian fans is that he reminds them of their great players of bygone eras – the likes of Pele, Romario and Zico. Neymar boasts that rare ability to produce a match-winning play be it with his exquisite dribbling or lethal finishing.
LIONEL MESSI (Argentina)
Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? The debate continues to rage as to who is the best player in the world right now but it’s hard to go past the great Argentinian given his tremendous record over a long time. He is a walking highlight reel and so lengthy is his list of achievements it’s remarkable to think he is still only 26! Earlier this year he became Barcelona’s highest ever goal-scorer with his 371st in a 3-0 win over Osasuna – breaking the record it took his predecessor Paulino Alcántara 16 seasons to set between 1912 and 1927. It also took him past 30 goals for the year – the sixth season in a row he had done so. A World Cup win has so far eluded Messi but he will be keen to make amends and has the team around him to do so too.
CRISTIANO RONALDO (Portugal)
Talk about pressure. Although Portugal will be considered a danger side by any who come across them this summer, nobody really expects them to go all the way … except there’s that small problem of Cristiano Ronaldo. As long as the Real Madrid genius is in this Portuguese side, they will always be a chance of producing something special. A rare talent, Ronaldo is Portugal’s all-time leading scorer with 49 goals in 110 appearances but more importantly he is a man for the big occasion. Last November’s play-off between Portugal and Sweden was billed as Ronaldo v Zlatan Ibrahimović, with one destined for the World Cup and the other consigned to watching it all from his lounge room. True to his reputation, Ronaldo scored all four of Portugal’s goals across the two games as they qualified 4-2 on aggregate. In January he won his first Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player.
ANDRÉS INIESTA (Spain)
Thanks to the presence of Lionel Messi up front, Andrés Iniesta doesn’t always receive the plaudits he deserves at club side Barcelona but rest assured Spain’s main conductor is one of the greatest midfielders of all time. He has been at the heart of their incredible success in recent years, having led them to successive European Championships in 2008 and 2012 including being named man of the match in their 4-0 win over Italy in the 2012 final. He also scored the winning goal against the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup final. If Spain is to become the first side in 52 years to win back-to-back World Cups, Iniesta will play a key role.
FRANCK RIBERY (France)
France’s road to the World Cup was far from smooth, but they fired when it mattered most and with the likes of Franck Ribéry in the squad they pose a real threat in Brazil. The talented winger is considered France’s best player of this generation and he has played a leading role in club side Bayern Munich’s rise to the top of world football. Champions League winners in 2013, at the time of writing they were undefeated in 50 Bundesliga games, had won 17 in a row and over the past two seasons their goal difference was a staggering +142!
MARIO BALOTELLI (Italy)
The fact that he is a world class striker and the man Italy will look to more than any other this summer isn’t the only reason to keep an eye on Mario Balotelli. Super Mario, as he is known, is also the most likely to hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. His former manager Roberto Mancini has described him as crazy and his off-field antics have included everything from driving into a women’s prison to take a look around to throwing darts at a teammate. He is renowned as an enigmatic and volatile player on the field and has been known to clash with teammates, but he is also a brilliant goal scorer on his day and could be the man to light up the usually defensive-minded Italians.
EDEN HAZARD (Belgium)
It’s not easy picking just one player from a Belgian side many believe to be the rising force of world football. With the likes of Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku and Vincent Kompany making their presence felt they are not to be taken lightly, but it is Chelsea’s Eden Hazard that looms as their greatest asset. Not short on confidence, he has publicly stated his desire to become the best player in the world and he seems on the right path having helped Chelsea return to the top of the EPL. Hazard also scored his first hattrick for the Blues in a 3-0 win over Newcastle in February.
ARJEN ROBBEN (Netherlands)
In a side blessed with the brilliance of Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder, Dutch maestro Arjen Robben is the man capable of producing the outlandish. A highly talented dribbler with a lethal left foot, he has long been chased by Europe’s biggest clubs and boasts the rare distinction of having won league titles in England with Chelsea, Spain with Real Madrid and Germany with current side Bayern Munich. He also scored the winning goal in Bayern’s Champions League final win over Borussia Dortmund last year. Robben was a member of the Netherlands side that lost the 2010 World Cup final to Spain and will be keen to make amends.
JAMES RODRIGUEZ (Columbia)
With Radamel Falcao unlikely to recover from injury in time for the World Cup, Columbia will be looking to 22-year-old James Rodriquez as their attacking force instead. The fact that coach José Pékerman favors a relentlessly attacking style plays right into Rodriguez’ hands and he will certainly be given every opportunity to make his mark in Brazil. He is renowned for scoring spectacular goals and his performances for French club Monaco have seen the likes of Manchester United and Juventus express an interest in recent months.
MARCO REUS (Germany)
As with the Belgium squad, it’s nearly impossible to pick just one player as a standout in the highly talented German outfit, but we do like the look of youngster Marco Reus. Extremely quick and a brilliant finisher, the Borussia Dortmund star is known for his ability to beat players one-on-one and he will be out to make the left wing position his own. Although he is contracted to Dortmund through to 2017, it recently emerged that he is one of the top targets for English giants Manchester United over the summer as they look to return to the top of the Premier League next season.
MARIO MANDZUKIC (Croatia)
Croatia’s talisman hasn’t been talked up a whole lot ahead of the World Cup – probably because no one is expecting his team to trouble the big guns – but Mario Mandžukić is not to be forgotten. The leading goal scorer in the German Bundesliga in 2013/14, he was equal top scorer at Euro 2012 alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Fernando Torres and there is little doubt that Croatia will build their entire attack around him in Brazil.
Given that it will likely be between Croatia and Mexico as to who progresses alongside the hosts from Group A, expect Mandžukić to be a real focus.
Okay, so those are the players to watch, but there are a couple of other people you might want to keep an eye on as well …
LUIS FELIPE SCOLARI (Brazil – Coach)
Already a national hero in Brazil after coaching them to victory at the 2002 World Cup, we can only imagine the lofty esteem Luis Felipe Scolari will be held in if he can do it again on home soil. Perhaps they will replace Rio’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue with the image of Scolari instead? Tasked with returning Brazil to its rightful place as the world’s best team, he is a vibrant personality who wears his heart on his sleeve so he is worth keeping an eye on whenever Brazil is in action. He also boasts a superb record as a manager, having helped Portugal finally live up to its potential on the international arena before his return to Brazil in late 2012.
HOWARD WEBB (England – Referee)
FIFA’s methodology for selecting their World Cup referees has attracted plenty of criticism given their preference for “spreading the love” to each continent rather than picking only the best. The age limit of 45 has also ruled out some of football’s most respected referees such as Italy’s Pierluigi Collina. The most recognized of the 2014 crew is England’s Howard Webb – he of the 2010 World Cup final where he dished out a whopping 14 yellow cards and a red. Webb has plenty of big match experience, being a regular in the EPL, but he has also been a controversial figure over the years. He is a sworn enemy of Liverpool fans who point to a number of key decisions that have cost them dearly, while he was widely blamed by Polish fans for their early exit from Euro 2008 after awarding a costly penalty to Austria in their group clash. While Poland’s Prime Minister publicly declared that he wanted to kill Webb, the experienced referee was pleased to discover that his next match was in Salzburg, Austria, where upon his arrival the head of police assured him “Mister Webb, you will not be killed in Salzburg”.