The World Cup will feature some of the world’s most talented men’s soccer players, including some historic greats vying for the sport’s greatest prize. Although these big names will take center stage, it takes more than individual brilliance to become world champions, as the likes of Argentina, Portugal and Belgium have known all too well in recent years. But the availability of world-class talent gives teams someone they can rely on to deliver a game-changing performance — and a psychological boost. Here are seven of the world’s best players to watch in Qatar.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo
Arguably the greatest men’s soccer players in history are competing in what may be their last World Cups. Both are captains of their national teams and hold their respective country’s records for appearances and goals. Both have won nearly every major team and individual prize, some multiple times, but the aging legends have a world championship-sized hole in their trophy cabinets.
Ronaldo, 37, led Portugal to a European Championship in 2016, the country’s long-awaited first international title. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner as the best player in the world is known for his outstanding goals, excellent fitness and will to win. He is playing in his fifth World Championship and will try one last time in 2006 to beat fourth place. Instagram’s most-followed person, his global fan base will be eager to see if he can lead Portugal into the later rounds in Qatar.
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Paris St-Germain’s Messi, 35, just won last year’s Copa America, the first major international title of his career. The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner has an unfathomable ability to score as well as provide assists and can turn a game on its head with a magical moment. The Barcelona legend has endured a frustrating international career filled with hope and bitter disappointment, including losing four major finals in nine years, which led to his brief retirement from the national team in 2016. He was eventually convinced to come back and will be looking to repeat his 2014 final appearance in his fifth World Cup in December.
The Paris St-Germain star is the heir apparent to Ronaldo and Messi’s attacking dominance – and the 23-year-old already has a World Cup title. Joining PSG from Monaco in 2017, he became the second most expensive signing in history and continues to hold the record for a teenager. He was a rising star at his first World Cup in 2018, scoring four goals including one in the final to help France win their fourth international title. His combination of dribbling, speed, and finishing make him a nearly unstoppable attacking threat. Mbappé, along with a long list of stars including Hugo Lloris, Raphaël Varane, Aurélien Tchouaméni and Antoine Griezmann, will be looking to win a second consecutive championship for France.
Already at the tender age of 22, the Brazilian has established himself as one of the best strikers in the world. A product of Flamengo’s academy, the Real Madrid star made his debut as a 16-year-old and quickly secured a transfer to Spain’s biggest club. He ended last season as the team’s top scorer with 22 goals and scored the winner of Real’s 14th Champions League title. Despite being record champions and all-time favourites, Brazil have not won the World Cup since 2002. Going into the tournament as world No. 1, Vinicius, Neymar and company are all hoping to end that wait in Qatar.
Virgil van Dyke
The Liverpool defender will lead the Netherlands, who are returning to the World Cup after missing out four years ago. The 31-year-old is a strong centre-back known for his strength and aerial prowess – both in defense and attack. He was at the heart of Liverpool’s defence, which turned the tide of the club and helped the team win the Champions League in 2019 and their first league title in 30 years in 2020. His individual brilliance was recognized with second place for the Ballon d’Or and FIFA’s Best Player and became the only defender to be voted UEFA’s Player of the Year. Competing in his first World Cup, Van Dijk becomes captain of the Netherlands as the small country once again tries to be a big force in the tournament.
The Senegalese star is traveling to the World Cup for the second time and is hoping to lead Africa’s giants to the knockout rounds. Mané, 30, plays for German Bayern Munich after six top seasons in Liverpool. He won the Premier League’s Golden Boot award in 2019 and has been consistently ranked as one of the best players in the world. He helped Senegal to their first Africa Cup of Nations title last year, scoring the winning goal on penalties in the final and being named player of the tournament. With 34 career goals, he is his country’s top scorer and he is hoping to increase that to lead his side to the knockout rounds for the second time.
Kevin De Bruyne
De Bruyne, who has guided Manchester City to consecutive league titles, is keen to repeat that success with the second-placed Belgium squad. He is considered one of the best midfielders to play the game, with his on-field vision, two-footed skills and passing range making him a dangerous attacking threat and providing an amazing array of assists. The highly gifted 31-year-old is completing his third World Cup appearance. After achieving the country’s best result of third place in 2018, he is hoping to give Belgium’s golden generation, including Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen and Eden Hazard, a chance to play for the trophy this year.
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