Friday, August 22, 2014

The World Cup's 9 most exciting players, in GIFs

Getty Images

In two days, the greatest sporting event in the world will begin. The 2014 World Cup and the four weeks of madness, heartbreak, triumph that come along with it begin on Thursday.

And even though FIFA, the soccer's governing body, is plagued with allegations of corruption and stories about slave-like conditions in Qatar (the 2022 host), millions of fans cannot wait until the frenzy begins: drinks will be had, goals will be scored, and national pride will be at its highest.

But the real story lines and intrigue come from players. Some of the best players might flame out before the knockout rounds begin, others are looking for redemption, a few carry the hopes of a nation, and some, the lucky few, are looking to add to their decorated legacies. With some helpful input from the soccer football editors at SB Nation, we've cultivated a shortlist of nine players to keep an eye on for the next few weeks.

The Superstar: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

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Position: Forward.

His strengths: Ronaldo is widely considered the best player in the world thanks to his lethal combination of speed, power, and skill. A forward's main job is to score or create scoring opportunities, and Ronaldo arguably does this better than anyone.

Why you should watch him: Ronaldo has been suffering from an injury called tendinosis. "It's when a lot of tiny tears to the connective tissue around the tendon start to have a cumulative effect on the strength of the tendon," SB nation's Andi Thomas explains.

While there have been reports of his ailment, no one but the Portuguese team and Ronaldo himself know the extent of his injury how or much (or how little) he will play. Portugal will struggle to get out of the first round without him.

The Magician: Lionel Messi (Argentina)

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Position: Forward

His strengths: Those who don't think Ronaldo is the best player in the game are probably Messi fans. There's no one in the world who is as creative or as quick as Messi is, and what he does with ball is magic.

Messi has had to be better than everyone else on the ball in part because he lacks the physicality other players do. At 5'7" he's often the shortest player on the field and gives up a lot of size to players like Ronaldo (6'1").

Soccer players, like athletes in other sports,  are getting bigger. According to a 2008 study by the International Center for Sport Studies the average height for a footballer in European leagues (widely considered the best in the world) is around 5'11".

And while there have been stellar forwards under 5'9",  players like Ronaldo and Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic (a 6'5" striker) have shown that being 6'0" and over (an advantage when it comes to winning headers and balls in the air) and skilled is the future of the game.

What Messi lacks in size, he makes up for in intelligence, discipline, and skill.

Why you should watch him: There's something fun watching Messi carve up defenses, and seeing the fear creep into the eyes of grown men as this tiny dynamo comes rolling up the field. Messi is in his prime, and Argentina is fielding a very solid team this year. A World Cup win would just cement his legacy.

The New Kid: Neymar (Brazil)

Neymar

Position: Forward

His strengths: Neymar's skills are superb, and he owns a myriad of fakes, feints, and dribbles that can make a defender look foolish. He's a throwback to the classic "Brazilian style of football", which is built on creativity, speed, finesse and dribbling skills rather than the bruising style that some Europeans and Americans employ.

Why you should watch him: The soccer world is looking for its next David Beckham, and Neymar might be it. The 22-year-old will be making his World Cup debut, and is considered by some to be soccer's next cross-over star. However, focusing on his marketability and looks would be selling Neymar short.

Neymar, in his young career, is already one of the best in the world. And he's one of the players whom experts are predicting to be in the hunt for the Golden Boot, the award given to the player with the most goals during World Cup.

The Savior: Sergio Ramos (Spain)

Ramos

Position: Central defender

His strengths: In soccer, there's a lot of glory in putting the ball in the net. Defenders have to do the dirty work, and don't necessarily get the credit they deserve.

Ramos is one of the best defenders in the world, and is the motor for the sturdy Spanish defense. His speed and anticipation make him stand out. And there are times where it's as if he's seeing the play develop ahead of the forwards he's defending.

Ramos's gifts aren't just on the defensive end either. Ramos has been on a goal-scoring tear for Real Madrid, his club team. But with a bevy of talented players, it's unclear as to how much Spain needs him to do that.

Why you should watch him: Spain is the 2010 World Cup champion and is in the hunt again this year. A lot of that will be due to Ramos's skill. But there's an interesting twist here. The Ballon d’Or, the award for the best player in the world, hasn't gone to a defender since 2006. If Ramos plays a big role in helping win the World Cup, he could change that.

The Thinker: Philipp Lahm (Germany)

Lahm

Position: Full back/defensive midfielder

His strengths: Intelligence. He's always in the right place in the right time. He's also very consistent — his last bad game was probably when he was 10. Because of his solid play and reliability, the 30-year-old is a natural choice for the German team captain.

Why you should watch him: Lahm is exciting because he, along with Messi, are part of a lilliputian clique of great, under-sized players. He's 5'7" (the same size as Messi) and is going up and holding his own against midfielders who are in the 6'1" to 6'4" range.

Lahm also means a lot to Germany. The team displayed a boatload of young talent at the 2010 World Cup where they steam-rolled everyone until they ran into eventual champion Spain in the semi-finals. Four years later, most of that talent is back, but the German team is facing some injury issues in the midfield this year (Marco Reus, a talented attacking midfielder, damaged an ankle ligament). Lahm's stability and leadership, as well as his skills as a defender are crucial to Germany's chances.

The Marvel: Paul Pogba (France)

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Courtesy: SB Nation

Position: Midfielder

His strengths: Pogba is physical and athletic specimen, and at 6'2" represents a new breed of football player. He's not just an athlete though, he's very skilled, a disciplined defender and getting better with each game. As a midfielder, you'll see Pogba on all spots of the field, and controlling the pace, tempo, and ball for the French attack.

Why you should watch him: Fans have been watching Pogba since he was a teen and salivating over his combination of skill and physicality. He's 21 now, and one of best midfielders in the world. Everyone is expecting him to break out this tournament and assert his place among the greats.

The Scorer: Luis Suarez (Uruguay)

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Position: Striker

His strengths: Getting the ball into the net.

Why you should watch him: People either love or hate Suarez. The people who love him are usually from Uruguay or Liverpool FC fans. Those who hate him come from all places and from all walks of life.

In 2011, he was banned for eight games after being found guilty of misconduct and using racial insults towards a player.

Suarez is also famous for an incident from a 2010 World Cup game against Ghana when he intentionally denied a goal with his hand. That move, although ethically shady, helped Uruguay eventually pull out a win. "I stick with the feeling of having helped my team," he said. Stopping a goal with my hand I believe did nothing evil to anyone -- it was just stopping a goal."

Despite the controversy he brings, Suarez is one hell of a player. He's a terror for opposing goalies and is able to lash in shots from seemingly anywhere on the field.

The Colossus: Yaya Touré (Ivory Coast)

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Position: Midfielder

His strengths: Touré is one of the strongest players in the game, and is known for his versatility. His job is to control the ball, and make plays.

Why you should watch him: People have called Touré "the colossus", a nickname derived from his physicality and poise. He's also been called the "human train." At 6'3", he he towers over the likes of Messi and Lahm, and, like Pogba, is an imposing presence on the field.

He plays for the Ivory Coast, a team that's been lauded for having oodles of potential but never quite making good on it. If the Ivory Coast wants to get into the Cup's later rounds, Touré will have to play well.

The Stalwart: Michael Bradley (USA)

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Position: Midfielder

His strengths: Bradley is steady, tireless, and a savvy playmaker. He's more efficient and opportunistic than flashy, and he's integral to the U.S.'s success.

Why you should watch him: The U.S. team is in the "group of death", a pod stacked with talented teams, and will face the likes of Ronaldo's Portugal team, Lahm's talented German squad, and Ghana. They'll need to be better than two of those teams in order to advance past the first round and they'll need Bradley's play-making abilities to break through those defenses.

Bradley made some news this year when he was shipped from Roma to Toronto FC, an Major League Soccer team. The best players in the world play in Spain, Italy, Germany and England, and the MLS is considered a lesser league. So it was a bit odd to see Bradley transfer from Europe back to the North American league. Some think it might hurt his development as a player, and this World Cup is his chance to prove those skeptics wrong.

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