What is the World Cup without superstars! It’s their presence that makes the marquee tournament a spectacle to behold. Here are five who ensure that watching the match is the only option when their teams are in action...
A debate erupted in Argentina in 2017 regarding what Paulo Dybala brings to the national team. He was considered an inferior version of Lionel Messi so he was either not picked or didn’t come on until late in the second half (this explains why he is yet to open his account after 12 matches). That debate has fed into whether Dybala even deserves to go to Russia but Jorge Sampaoli has warmed to the Juventus man of late, if nothing else as a Plan B. But one coach, privy to Sampaoli’s thoughts, was tongue in cheek when he addressed the debate during the friendlies in March.
“... if Messi goes down, we are f***** anyway.” It’s amazing to think that has been the mentality since 2006, when Messi went to his first World Cup. However, there is a feeling that 2018 could finally be his year. The Barca ace has, even by his own high standards, had an extraordinary club season. This is also, perhaps, his final chance to set right a flawed narrative. He is often portrayed as a stooge when turning out for Sky Blues completely forgetting that he has single-handedly dragged them into the final of the last three international tournaments (7 goals, 10 assists in 19 matches). Throw in the fact that he can finally bank on a capable coach to turn the match from the dugout, don’t rule out Messi winning the only thing his greatest rival — Cristiano Ronaldo — hasn’t. A World Cup.
- Swaroop Swaminathan
What is left to be written about him that has not been spoken about? “The most gifted player” as referred to by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, arguably the greatest manager in the game. The Portuguese is a freak of nature and despite his advancing years, has not lost the primary quality that makes him the biggest superstar in the world of football: innate ability to find the back of the net. The five-time Balon d’Or winner played the least minutes for Real Madrid in the La Liga this season since his arrival in Spain in 2009, but still netted 25 times — the same tally as last year.
What is most impressive is his count in the Champions League — 15 goals in 13 games as he again inspired the Los Blancos to the title. His bicycle kick against Juventus showed to the world to never write off the superstar. Coming to Russia, this will be the former Manchester United star’s fourth World Cup. Since it might be his last, he will be looking to bow out on a high. After clinching the European Championship in 2016, he now has only one frontier left to conquer. One thing that you can guarantee with Ronaldo is that he will deliver when it matters. Portugal are the highest profile one-man team and the entire nation will be hoping for their prodigal son to deliver on the biggest stage.
- Ayantan Chowdhury
One needs to be extra special to wear No 10 for Brazil. Pele, Zico, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka to name a few, were among those who had that privilege. All of them had a certain panache to their game and did things that made people smile. They all played the beautiful game. However, since Kaka — the last Brazilian to win the World Player of the Year — the Selecao had been looking for an heir to that throne. And the former Barcelona forward is the perfect choice. He brought back the ‘o jogo bonito’ that Brazil has been missing for a while.
The last two World Cups under Dunga and Luiz Felipe Scolari were disasters for Brazilians. While Neymar played no part in Dunga’s 2010 squad, the team in 2014 was solely dependent on him. Not to forget, the PSG star was only 22 back then. He missed the semifinal against Germany that Brazil lost 7-1 after suffering a back injury against Colombia in the quarterfinals. Whether his presence would have made an impact is a different story. But Brazil are a balanced side with more quality players this time. It means the attacker will have more space and freedom. It is known that a player like Neymar can wreck havoc out of half a chance. For further proof, YouTube his goal against Villarreal for Barcelona in 2016.
_ TN Vimal Sankar
KEVIN DE BRUYNE
A complete player! That was how Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola described his midfield talisman. “Kevin is exuberant. He is not a controller, he is more dynamic, coming from behind, finishing, crossing, appearing here then there, attacking and defending.” Coming from one of the best coaches in the world, that’s high praise indeed. Given Kevin de Bruyne’s displays over the last year and-a-half, Guardiola’s words are anything but an exaggeration.
Ever since he started his City stint — a second coming after a torrid time with Chelsea — he has been involved in a goal roughly every game and-a-half. City have an embarrassment of riches in attack, but he is what makes them tick, the tireless engine to their rather expensive car. Like it was with the Premier League, this is his second coming to the World Cup. In Brazil, neither he nor Belgium were ready. The Red Devils had qualified for their first major tournament in 12 years and De Bruyne was just 21.
He still managed to leave his mark, creating Marouane Fellaini’s goal in the first game against Algeria, then scoring in the last 16 as Belgium downed US. But both De Bruyne and Belgium have travelled a lot in the last four years. The pretender is now prince and De Bruyne heads into the World Cup as one of the best players in the world. Russia could be where he is crowned king.
- Vishnu Prasad
Barring the disappointment of the Champions League final, it’s been a dream season for him. When Liverpool shelled out a record transfer fee (£36.9m, before Virgil van Dijk was signed), eyebrows were raised. He had a fair share of doubters, calling him a Chelsea flop. But his timeline since joining the Merseyside team has been mind-boggling. Goal on debut, first Egyptian to score in the Champions League for two clubs, first Egyptian to win Player of the Month, 20 goals before Christmas, the list goes on. With that consistent a run, doubts had not only been put to bed but he also started drawing comparisons with Messi and Ronaldo.
He eventually finished with 32 goals in the EPL, the highest in a 38-game campaign. It was unimaginable when he kicked the ball for the first time for the Reds. He is not your outand- out striker, but such has been Salah’s tale that he has also managed to put Egypt on the global map. It was his penalty (during the qualifiers) that helped his country qualify for World Cup in October 2017. But now his World Cup fate hangs in the balance, having suffered a shoulder injury in the Champions League final against Real Madrid. After he was forced to quit early in the match, his tearful face said it all. Salah himself has stated that he is confident of recovering on time. The World Cup will be richer by his presence.
- Anmol Gurung