By RYAN TOLMICH
The World Cup is all about celebrating the game’s stars. The tournament represents a collection of the sport’s best players showcasing their abilities with the hopes of bringing home the honor of winning the game’s biggest trophy for their home nation.
While global icons like Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Cristiano Ronaldo are sure to dominate headlines, many of the game’s young up-and-comers will use the tournament as a springboard to launch themselves into contention to be called a superstar.
Here’s a look at some of the players this tournament who are expected to turn in performances well beyond their years:
The rise of French sensation Paul Pogba has been almost as spectacular as the long-distance volleys he’s become famous for.
Since departing Manchester United due to a lack of playing time, the 21-year-old midfielder has become a fixture in the Juventus starting XI by scoring 14 goals in his 89 appearances, many of the spectacular variety.
Pogba has already netted twice in just 11 games with the French National Team and, if past history is to be believed, Pogba might display his knack for breathtaking goals during his time in Brazil.
England midfielder Ross Barkley burst onto the scene this past season for Everton with a campaign that saw him score seven goals, but few were prepared for the magic he created in the Toffee’s May 3 contest against Manchester City.
The 20-year-old midfielder’s started the season with a man-of-the-match performance on opening day against Norwich City, and never looked back on his way to a nomination for PFA Young Player of the Year, as well as a spot on the England World Cup roster.
England face a tall task with Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica in their path and they may just need Barkley to create the same type of magic he conjured that day against Manchester City.
Atletico Madrid’s 2013-14 campaign was one of the most special in recent memory. With a highly unheralded roster to fend off domestic and European giants, Atletico played the role of underdog all the way to their crowning of champions of La Liga.
Atleti’s backbone was 22-year-old goalkeeper Thibault Courtois, who will join up with Belgium after a season that has many hailing him as one of the world’s top keepers. The young Belgian stood tall throughout the season, earning him the Ricardo Zamora Trophy for best goals allowed-to-games ratio in La Liga for the second straight season.
On the international side, Courtois was in goal for every minute of Belgium’s World Cup qualifying campaign, registering six clean sheets in 10 matches. If Belgium are going to ride their golden generation to a 2014 trophy, it will have to be on the back of their young goalkeeper, Courtois.
Despite Courtois’ heroic efforts in goal, it is impossible to win a game of soccer without putting the ball in the back of the net, and few created more opportunities for that to happen for Atletico than Koke.
The 22-year-old Spaniard finished second in La Liga with 14 league assists as the young Atletico midfielder vaulted himself into the company of the league’s best playmakers. On the goalscoring side, Koke also contributed seven in all competitions, including the guillotine in Atletico’s triumph over Barcelona in the quarterfinals.
Koke will now face the task of breaking into an absolutely overloaded Spain midfield as he looks to join such names as Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Xabi Alonso.
To be 21-years-old and to go a full 120 minutes in a Champions League final, you have to be doing something right.
That is exactly what French centerback Raphael Varane did last month in Real Madrid’s 4-1 triumph over Atletico Madrid, demonstrating once again why so many around the game have such high hopes for the 21-year-old.
Varane proved all season long that he is reliable beyond his years, as the young defender featured in 23 games for the European Champions. Varane will now be charged with raising his play alongside more experienced centerbacks like Mamadou Sakho and Laurent Koscielny.
Despite being only 23-years-of-age, Italian winger Lorenzo Insigne has already received the highest of praise with Napoli teammate Goran Pandev going so far as to call him “the Italian Messi”.
Messi or not, the young Italian star has impressed with his creativity and speed, earning a place in Cesare Prandelli’s veteran Italy World Cup squad despite having only five caps and one goal to his name.
The 23-year-old is coming off of a big year at Napoli, having scored eight goals in all competitions. In order for Italy to advance out of their group of death, they may need the speed and grace of Insigne to make a major contribution.
Despite being only 19-years-old, England’s Raheem Sterling has already turned into one of the Premier League’s most feared attacking weapons.
The young Liverpool speedster proved to be constant threat for the Reds throughout the season, scoring 10 goals in all competitions. Sterlings combination of pure speed and technical ability is a handful for even the most experienced defender.
Sterling will now join Liverpool teammates Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge and Glen Johnson on the Three Lions World Cup roster. Look for Sterling to add a new element to an England attack as he brings a level of pace and skill that few in this world can match.
With stars Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic leading the way, Croatia enters the 2014 World Cup with one of the tournament’s more highly touted midfield combos. However, despite not being as highly regarded as his two compatriots, Internazionale star Matteo Kovacic could prove to be just as important to Croatia’s tournament chances.
The 20-year-old Inter man brings the type of versatility required to be a star at this level, as Kovacic can slot in in the central midfield, as a deep-lying playmaker, out wide or even in a traditional number 10 role. The young Croatian has even drawn the praise of teammate and club legend Javier Zanetti, who compared his youthful skill with that of the Brazilian Ronaldo.
Kovacic may not be much of a goalscorer, but paired with the midfield duo of Modric and Rakitic, he may just be a part of one of the tournament’s most talented midfield trios.
After spending years bouncing from loan move to loan move, Costa Rican forward Joel Campbell finally had his moment to shine on the big stage.
After spending the past few seasons as Arsenal’s loanee project, the 21-year-old’s breakthrough came in February, when his latest team, Olympiacos, took it to Manchester United in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 clash. The Costa Rican’s long distance curler was one of the goals of the tournament and, while its impact may have been slightly diminished by the end result, it announced Campbell’s presence as one to watch.
Campbell will now take his talents to a Costa Rican side facing a tall task in facing a group populated by Italy, England and Uruguay. While Los Ticos are in no way favored to make it out of the group, they may be able to provide a few surprised if Campbell has anything to say about it.
Despite being only 22-years-of-age, Swiss winger Xerdan Shaqiri has already learned plenty about bringing home trophies.
With three Swiss Super League titles with Basel and two Bundesliga titles and a Champions League trophy with Bayern Munich already on his resume, Shaqiri will look to carry his clubs’ successes with him into his national side, who enter the World Cup as one of the seeded nations.
Shaqiri has already netted eight times for the Swiss and with his combination of pace, flair and a skillful left foot, the Swiss have a real weapon on their hands as they head to Brazil.
When Mario Gotze made his debut for Germany back in 2010, he became the youngest player to appear for the senior team since 1954. Nine international goals and 28 games later, Gotze enters the upcoming World Cup with the versatility to feature for the Germans in the midfield or in more of a ‘false nine’ role.
The 22-year-old has scored a combined 31 goals in all competitions the past two seasons and head coach Joachim Loew may turn to Gotze to provide that goalscoring spark after naming one true forward, the aging Miroslav Klose, to the final squad.
With an overloaded midfield and a lack of true strikers on the roster, it might just be up to Gotze to find the back of the net on a consistent basis for the heavily favored German side.
With hulking forward Radamel Falcao receiving most of the praise for both club and country, Colombia’s James Rodriguez has become one of the sports best sidekicks. However, due to the injury of Falcao, the AS Monaco winger will now be looked upon to lead a Colombia team that has the potential to do damage despite the absence of their superstar target man.
Rodriguez repaid Monaco for his big-money transfer by rewarding the French club with nine goals in his first Ligue 1 campaign. Rodriguez also bolstered his resume by leading the league in assists, leading to his naming in the league’s best XI.
Rodriguez’s plaudits don’t end on the club level as Colombian legend Carlos Valderama has gone so far as to say that Rodriguez “has the potential to be the greatest Colombian player to have ever lived”.
The 22-year-old has a ways to go before achieving that title, but in the short term, he has a chance to cement his nation’s status as one of the world’s top sides.
With his September 2013 transfer to Chelsea, Ghanian winger Christian Atsu came into the public eye and was recognized as one of the game’s future African talents.
The 22-year-old was immediately loaned to Dutch side Vitesse, where he cemented his status as a big-time up-and-comer by being voted as the club’s player of the year. As for the national side of things, Atsu has impressed throughout his first few years with the Ghanian National Team, having scored five times in 26 games.
Ghana have the talent to provide a few surprises in Group G action, especially due to the pace and technical ability of a young winger named Christian Atsu.
Regardless of how those at Chelsea feel about him, Belgian star Romelu Lukaku has emerged as one the Premier League’s most feared target men over the past few seasons.
The 21-year-old forward has been loaned out to West Brom and Everton the past two campaigns, which have seen him score 32 goals in all competitions. The 6-foot-3 forward brings a level of physicality and speed matched by few in this summer’s tournament and the injury to compatriot Christian Benteke means Lukaku will be charged with shouldering the Belgians’ goalscoring load.
However, those are big shoulders for a big player and all signs point to Lukaku spearheading a Belgian attack in both the present and the future.
Until the start of the 2013 season, even the game’s most dedicated fans would most likely struggle with pronouncing the name of Adnan Januzaj, let alone describing his playing abilities. However, after a breakthrough season with Manchester United, the 19-year-old Belgian is ready to make his mark on the world’s stage.
The young midfielder picked up his first international cap just last month after a lengthy process of deciding his national team allegiance, but an already stacked Belgium side is sure to be pleased with his choice.
Belgian is overloaded with young talent, but Januzaj’s big-game experience and national skill give the young Belgian the potential to impress at this summer’s tournament.
What do you think of the players mentioned above? What other young players do you expect to make in impact? Who do you see as the game’s best young star?
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