We’re one week away from the opening match of the 2014 World Cup and before you overload your DVR with head to head competitions be sure you know which teams to keep an eye on and which players to expect big things from. Here’s our definitive list of 10 players to watch this summer in Brazil.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo
After winning the Ballon d’Or, awarded by FIFA to the best player in the world, and leading his squad Real Madrid to a win in the Champions League final, you could say Cristiano Ronaldo is having a good year. The Portuguese forward is always in the conversation as a top player to watch in any tournament – but his goal scoring form is especially good at the moment, which could mean an exciting performance to help lead Portugal out of the Group of Death (against the United States, Germany and Ghana.) The only thing that could keep the striker down? Reports of injuries that have kept him out of training sessions may plague his World Cup performance.
2. Lionel Messi
The 26-year-old Argentinian striker is a four-time Ballon d’Or winner and at the peak of his career. While he failed to live up to expectations in South Africa, 2014 is his chance to further cement his name in history. Regardless of how far Argentina progresses in the tournament, watching the king of dribbling and his pure goal scoring talent on the world stage will be a standout of the competition.
Not only are Brazil a constant and dominating force in world play, this year they have the home field advantage and are the heavy favorites to lift the trophy in July. Leading the pack ahead of his countrymen is 22-year-old Neymar who proved his $20 million worth this year by improving his game alongside fellow star Lionel Messi at Barcelona. While he is criticized for his small size at 5-foot-9, he silenced critics by leading Brazil to a 3-0 win over Spain at the Confederations Cup in 2013.
4. Mario Balotelli
Italy has their work cut out for them in Group D against England, Uruguay and Costa Rica and they’ll be relying on their powerful, mowhawked striker Mario Balotelli to help them advance. Not only a player to watch for his talent in the air, on set pieces and penalty shots, the Serie A star is famous for his roller coaster emotions. Known for a hot head, red cards, suspensions and poor attitude it will be just as exciting to watch his possible outburts and meltdowns as his goals.
5. Thomas Müller
It’s tough to pick only one German to watch in this tournament, the side ranked 2nd in the world is absolutely stacked with impressive players – many of whom play together at the difficult to beat Bayern Munich. The team’s style of play relies on their world renown, precision passing and arsenal of players who can land the ball in the net. The young goal scorer who will be the one to watch is the lanky Thomas Muller who rocketed into stardom at the 2010 World Cup when he brought home both the Young Player of the World Cup award and Golden Boot award for leading the tournament in goals. If this team plans to continue their run to the latter stages of the tournament, look for Müller to help them get there.
6. Wayne Rooney
England’s hopes of getting out of a tough Group D against Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica will depend on the form of their star Wayne Rooney. While his past World Cup appearances have always been plagued by injury, this is the first time that Rooney will be at 100% fitness. He has yet to score a goal after three World Cup’s so all eyes will be on the Manchester United man to see if the goals will come in Brazil.
7. Clint Dempsey
The man who will wear the captain’s armband for the United States is forward Clint Dempsey – arguably the most accomplished American soccer player in history. That argument would usually be against Landon Donovan – but he was left off the 23-man squad in a shocking move by coach Jurgen Klinsmann. That leaves Dempsey carrying much of the load for a team of young up and comers hoping to upset the mega-stars of the Group of Death, featuring Ghana, Portugal and Germany. If Dempsey is on form and able to produce goals for the US it will set the tone for their tough road ahead.
8. Diego Costa
The highly sought after striker is making a $60 million plus move to Chelsea on the heels of a highly successful season at Atletico Madrid. The Brazilian born forward chooses to play for the Spanish international team – which will make him a hated star to the fanatical Brazilian fans when Spain takes the pitch. The only thing keeping Costa from dominating the World Cup this summer is an injury that could keep him out of play – at this time he is touch and go.
9. Robin Van Persie
The captain of the Dutch side is looking for revenge after losing in the final to Spain in 2010 and he’ll get his chance this year as the Netherlands face Spain in Group B along with Australia and Chile. Van Persie is a standout striker at Manchester United, but has been fighting off strains and injuries for works. He claims he’ll be fit to lead the Netherlands out of the group stages.
10. Louis Suarez
Top Liverpool striker Louis Suarez had a tremendous season in the Premiere League but is fighting an injury that could leave him on the bench to watch his Uruguayan teammates fight against England, Italy and Costa Rica in group D. If he is fit to play, he will make the difference in helping Uruguay advance to the top 16. Keep an eye out for any controversial moves – in 2010 his blatant handball to keep Ghana from scoring was one of the most talked about moments in South Africa.