The football eyes of the world will shift to Brazil in under three weeks time as the 2014 World Cup gets under way in earnest. We are all well aware of the likes of Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar et al. However, it is often the case that the public’s attention is drawn to the performances of a young starlet who perhaps was not considered to be among the upper echelons of football’s elite prior to the tournament.
Michael Owen and his wonder goal against Argentina was one of the highlights of France ’98. In 2002 Miroslav Klose announced himself onto the international stage with his goals in Japan and Korea. And most recently, in South Africa, a 20-year-old Thomas Muller claimed the Golden Boot and Best Young Player awards. We decided to look at the top five young players that should have a big tournament.
1. Paul Pogba (Age: 21, Club: Juventus, Intl Caps: 8)
The name Paul Pogba is a painful one for many Manchester United fans to hear. In a season where the Old Trafford faithful have had to endure the inept midfield performances of Messrs Carrick, Cleverley and Fellaini; Pogba has won his second Scudetto with Juventus, while forming a formidable partnership with Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal at the heart of the Old Lady’s midfield.
Though his performances have garnered huge praise, as well as persistent transfer speculation among Italian circles, Juve’s relatively poor form at Champions League level over the last two seasons means that he has not reached an international audience as of yet. All of that could change this Summer as Pogba, rather unimaginatively dubbed the “new Patrick Vieira”, leads a new look French team to Brazil. There are some familiar faces in the squad with the old guard of Ribery, Benzema and Evra still present, but it is the new breed of players coming through that could promise a brighter future for Les Bleus.
Among this new breed are Varane, Mangala, and Griezmann but it is unquestionably Pogba who the French public are most excited about. The draw has been relatively kind to the French, with Honduras, Ecuador and Switzerland unlikely to pose too much of a problem. The French are renowned as being quite an erratic bunch so it is near impossible to predict how their tournament will play out. One thing they should be able to count on however is the performance of their gangly midfield maestro.
2. James Rodriguez (Age: 22, Club: Monaco, Intl Caps: 21)
With the ongoing doubts over the fitness of Colombia’s talisman, Radamel Falcao, in the build up to the World Cup, much of the attacking threat for the South American side may fall on the young shoulders of his club mate James Rodriguez.
The Monaco attacker is already quite a sensation in his native country, being compared to the iconic Carlos Valderrama, and he has scored some hugely important goals in qualifying, notably game winners against Peru and Ecuador. However, the fact that Rodriguez’ club career in Europe has seen him play in Portugal (Porto) and France (Monaco) means that his talents have gone relatively unseen by the majority of the football watching public. Not that he is an unknown talent, Monaco did splash out €45 million on him after all.
That being said, this summer could be where Rodriguez truly establishes himself as a top class international footballer. Given that the tournament is on in South America, and given that only South American teams have won the World Cup when it has been held in their home continent, it is understandable that Colombia were signalled out from a relatively early stage as being tournament dark horses. Falcao’s injury may have dulled some of that early enthusiasm, but there is no doubting that this is Colombia’s best team in 20 years, and James Rodriguez could be crucial to how successful the tournament is for them.
3. Romelu Lukaku (Age: 21, Club: Chelsea, Intl Caps: 27)
In the space of a short couple of years, Belgium have gone from everyone’s favourite outside pick, to perhaps the most overhyped team heading into this year’s World Cup. It has been remarkable that, for such a small country, all of this talent has emerged in the space of a few years, with the likes of Kompany, Hazard and Courtois making a name for themselves across Europe. However, one name that may be slipping under the public’s radar somewhat is that of Romelu Lukaku.
Granted, in this part of the world he may not be so much a hidden gem as a gleaming diamond, but if the Premier League is not your primary focus when it comes to football (Gasp!!) then the name Romelu Lukaku may not have made all that much of an impression.
In the past two seasons, Lukaku has tormented defences while at West Brom and Everton and his remarkable strike rate has provoked one of football’s great mysteries – why did Chelsea send him out on loan?
This Belgium side is full of quality, Courtois and Mignolet in goal, Kompany, Vertonghen and Vermaelen in defence, Witsel and Dembele in midfield and Hazard, Mirallas and the recently declared Januzaj in attack. However, with the injury to Christian Benteke, goal scoring strikers are at a premium within the squad. For this reason Lukaku will be relied upon on to provide a large proportion of Belgium’s goals if they are to deliver on their label as tournament dark horses (though can a team be considered a dark horse, if everyone is picking them as such?!).
4. Bernard (Age: 21, Club: Shakhtar Donetsk, Intl Caps: 10)
Much has been made of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Brazil squad since it was announced, with the majority of the focus being on the host’s and favourite’s apparent emphasis on strong and athletic players. Apart from Neymar, and Oscar to a certain degree, there is a distinct lack of the pace and attacking flair which has for so long been synonymous with the five-time world champions.
This is where the inclusion of the diminutive Bernard could prove crucial. The energetic winger last season followed in the footsteps of his fellow countrymen Willian and Fernandinho by making the move from Brazil to Ukraine when he joined big spenders Shakhtar Donetsk.
Though he hasn’t quite excelled as of yet in his new surroundings, Ukraine’s ongoing political turmoil being an obvious and persistent distraction, it is clear he has made an impression on Scolari, being chosen ahead of many more familiar names, in particular PSG’s Lucas Moura.
While much of the attention will understandably be on Neymar, Bernard could be an important asset, and his mazy and incisive runs may well prove crucial in unlocking the tougher defences which the host nation will inevitably face in the latter stages of the competition.
5. William Carvalho (Age: 22, Club: Sporting Lisbon, Intl Caps: 2)
Most of the footballing world had never heard of William Carvalho at this time last year. However, persistent transfer rumours linking the combative midfielder with a move to Old Trafford, coupled with some stand out performances for Sporting have led to more than a few people beginning to admire his talents.
One such admirer, fortunately for Carvalho, is Portugal head coach Paulo Bento, who recently included him in their World Cup squad. Though Carvalho has only won a couple of caps at the time of writing, it is notable that he was handed his first cap in Portugal’s recent playoff second-leg victory away to Sweden, coming on as a second half substitute. Making his debut in such high pressure circumstances speaks volumes for the massive faith Bento obviously holds in Carvalho’s footballing ability and mental toughness. Such mental toughness is crucial in an environment as tense and nerve-racking as the World Cup, and Carvalho’s tenacity and assuredness in possession may well prove to be key if Ronaldo and company are to prosper.
Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar are sure to have their say in Brazil this summer but come the tournaments end it could very well be one of the above mentioned young starlets who is the name etched on the consciousness of football fans and pundits alike.
Brian Bowler, Pundit Arena.