In the months leading up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ you’ll no doubt read, view and hear much about the event’s pageantry, tradition, stadiums, coaches and qualified countries.
All of those elements add up to promise a sensational South American summer, but, in the end, the FIFA World Cup™ is about exceptional teams and the otherworldly players that can transcend the tournament.
Among the elites, there are your “been there done that,” types, such as Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who lifted the cup at 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany, surrendering only two goals, none from open play.
There are players still with a point to prove—Lionel Messi has achieved almost everything one can on a soccer field except for success on at this stage and wants to silence his few remaining critics—and players eager to make their name’s known worldwide, such as rising star Mario Götze.
Learn all about the names you need to know as June 12 beckons.
Been there, done that: Gianluigi Buffon, Italy, PUMA evoPOWER 1
Pelé listed him as one of the 125 greatest living soccer players. The Italian Footballers’ Association has named him Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year a record nine times, six straight from 2001 to 2006. UEFA awarded him Footballer of the Year honors in 2003, making him the only goalkeeper to earn the distinction.
The International Federation of Football History and Statistics recognized him as the best goalkeeper of the 21st century. At 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ he produced one of the single greatest tournaments ever, conceding only two goals, none from open play, and helped Italy win the final via penalty shootout.
No matter how you say it, or what size and shape trophy you attach to it, Gianluigi Buffon sets the standard for soccer shot-stoppers. He captains Italy and Serie A champions Juventus, and his prowess at protecting the net and leading from the back makes him one of the best to ever grace the field, gloves or not.
Point to prove: Joe Hart, England, Umbro Geometra II Pro
Joe Hart finally brought some consistency to the role of Three Lions goalkeeper (Rob Green, David James, Paul Robinson, anyone?) since making his initial bow in 2010.
He’s had his glory-filled moments like saving a penalty from Ronaldinho to help England beat Brazil for the first time in two decades, but there was also that Zlatan Ibrahimovic overhead and Andrea Pirlo’s panenka penalty, as well.
Hart’s wont for taking chances and a few key calamities saw him dropped from Manchester City’s Starting XI for a month earlier this season. In Brazil he needs to prove he’s still the same player who won the Premier League Golden Glove Award two straight years and set the record for most clean sheets in a season for the Sky Blues.
Breakout candidate: Thibaut Courtois, Belgium, Nike CTR360 Maestri III
Chelsea’s heir apparent to Petr Cech and Atletico Madrid’s star man between the posts, Thibaut Courtois is part of Belgium’s Golden Generation. Just 21 years old, Courtois is first choice for the Red Devils ahead of Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
At 6’6 he can reach shots most goalkeepers would give up on. He’s outstretching dives gained such acclaim in Belgium that “Thibauting,” became not only an Internet craze but “the best new sports word of the year,” there, too. Soon the world will catch the fever, as well.
Been there, done that: Sergio Ramos, Spain, Nike Tiempo Legend V
Sergio Ramos has been a La Furia Roja regular since he was 18, when he became the youngest player in 55 years to play for Spain. Since then, the Real Madrid man has shined as a steady starter among an uber-talented pool of players.
In 2010, he was the best player at the FIFA World Cup™ according to the Castrol Performance Index, starting every game and helping keep five clean sheets, including one in the final.
Able to play anywhere along the back line and already able to boast 115 caps at just 27 years old, Ramos has been there, done that, and he’ll keep right on doing it, too.
Point to prove: Giorgio Chiellini, Italy, PUMA evoPOWER 1
Giorgio Chiellini’s senior international career with Italy got off to a dubious start when he collided with then captain Fabio Cannavaro in training and knocked him out of the 2008 UEFA Euro. After taking over for Cannavoro in the starting lineup, though, Chiellini distinguished himself as a rock at the back, essentially shutting out Spainish strikers David Villa and Fernando Torres in the finals.
He was a starter at 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, where as defending champions Italy crashed out of the Group Stage with a whimper. Oft-injured but always elite, Chiellini now has a chance to deliver what he couldn’t four years ago. He stars for Juventus, but can he do it for country as well? He’s eager to answer.
Breakout candidate: Mats Hummels, Germany, adidas Predator LZ TRX
With Holger Badstuber spot in the center of Germany’s defense in jeopardy as he battles injury, Arsenal’s Per Mertesacker and Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels each have a chance to step up and shine. Hummels is a big hulking presence at 6’4 but has more than brute force in his game.
He is technically gifted enough to play in midfield and has a penchant for not only quelling opposition attacks, but starting ones of his own for Germany. Often compared to Franz Beckenbauer, Hummels is wanted by the biggest clubs in the world and has a chance to prove to a wider audience what Germany Bundesliga fans already know; he is among the game’s greatest defenders and is only getting better.
Been there, done that: Andrés Iniesta, Xavi, Spain, Nike CTR360 Maestri III, adidas Predator LZ TRX
What haven’t they won? To save you some time: nothing. Teammates at club (Barcelona) and country (Spain), Iniesta and Xavi, swap numbers 6 and 8, and dictate the pace and play of a game with expert passing, vision and movement.
This duo is simply a marvel to watch. Take for instance, at 2012 UEFA Euro against Ireland, they combined for 229 passes, more than the entire Irish team.
Together they are at the heart of Spain’s tiki-taka style that has made La Furia Roja one of the greatest international teams ever to take the field. They enter this tournament as defending champions and undergirded their dominance by winning back-to-back Euro crowns, as well.
Point to prove: Yaya Touré, Ivory Coast, PUMA evoPOWER 1
The fact that Yaya Touré is among the best midfielders in the game today is beyond reproach. The long, lanky and dominant Ivorian has won African Footballer of the Year honors for three years running and is ever-present in the center of the park for Manchester City and Les Éléphants.
The former Barcelona man is decorated, to be sure, but, be it because of difficult draws or failing to perform under the brightest lights, his Ivory Coast team and its Golden Generation is yet to produce at the FIFA World Cup™. If they are to do it this time, and they have a huge chance having been drawn in with Colombia, Greece and Japan, it will be because Touré rises to the occasion.
Breakout candidate: Mario Götze, Germany, Nike Mercurial Vapor IX
The German wonderkid helped lead Borussia Dortmund to back-to-back German Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012 before moving to Bayern Munich in the summer of 2013 on a record deal to join manager Pep Guardiola. It’s no wonder why as he’s slid right into the Bavarians lineup with ease, scoring or assisting at nearly every turn.
Götze is bursting with talent on the ball, and keen to make incisive runs off of it. He is capable of making the key pass to unlock a defense, strike a thunderbolt or dart past the opposition. He faces a challenge to break into the German starting XI, but once he does, he won’t give up his spot. Joachim Low could deploy this 21-year-old prodigy as a false nine.
Been there, done that: Luis Suárez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Forlán, Uruguay, adidas Samba Primeknit, adidas F50 adizero TRX, adidas Nitrocharge 1.0 TRX
There isn’t a side in the world—Spain, Germany, Brazil, you name it—who wouldn’t trade their forwards for Uruguay’s unbelievably talented trio. Suárez, Cavani and Forlan set La Celeste on a magical run at 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, reaching the semifinals.
Forlan was in the form of his life and netted five times to earn the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player.
Suárez, the top scorer in CONMEBOL qualification for Brazil, scored twice to defeat South Korea 2-1 in the Round of 16 and controversially blocked Stephan Appiah’s would-be winner with his hands in the dying embers of the quarterfinals.
Cavani scored against Germany in the third place game and helped form a deadly three-headed attack.
They backed it up the next year, winning the Copa America for the first time in 16 years.
Suárez has a record 39 goals for his country in just 76 apperances while Forlan has more caps than any other Uruguayan, 107, and 36 tallies. All Cavani has done, meanwhile, is lead Serie A in scoring with Napoli before moving on and excelling at Paris Saint-Germain.
These guys are established stars who will shine as bright as anyone this summer.
Point to prove: Lionel Messi, Argentina, adidas F50 adizero TRX Messi
Messi is as prolific of talent as we have in our game, 1A or 1B depending on your views on Cristiano Ronaldo. The attacking Argentine harbors impeccable ball control, quick dribbling and expert finishing abilities.
Name a record and it’s most likely Messi’s: most goals in a club season, most hat-tricks in a La Liga campaign, most goals for Argentina in a year, etc. He has won the last four Ballon d’Or (Golden Ball) awards, given annually to the planet’s finest footballer. He’s the first to accomplish that feat. Players don’t come better than Messi.
Still, he has yet to push Argentina past the quarterfinals having lost out to Germany in 2006 and 2010. He’s trying to make good, desperate to deliver a crown for his country, and scored 10 times in qualification, second best in South America. When a player of Messi’s class competes with a chip on his shoulder, defenders quiver, rightly so. Look out, world.
Breakout candidate: Neymar, Brazil, Nike Hypervenom Phantom
He’s the prototypical Brazilian wonder-talent. He has the ball tricks, the speed and the flamboyance that make fans cheer and defenders lose sleep. A nation’s hope rests on his young, 22-year-old, shoulders.
He delivered in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, leading Brazil past Spain in the final and has settled comfortably at the Camp Nou playing alongside Messi.
Already a star among the soccer community, Neymar has a chance to become a global icon who transcends the field if he can rise to the challenge of defending home turf this summer.
What do you think of our list? Will the players we listed prove their points? Will our rising stars break out? Who should we have named that we didn’t? Comment away below.