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13 players to watch at the 2018 World Cup

Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Salah, and many more.

Portugal Cristiano Ronaldo, Argentina’s Lionel Messi, and Brazil’s Neymar are just three of the 13 players to watch for at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
Portugal Cristiano Ronaldo, Argentina’s Lionel Messi, and Brazil’s Neymar are just three of the 13 players to watch for at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
Pedro Fiúza/NurPhoto via Getty Images; Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images; Clive Rose/Getty Images

The world’s best soccer players will descend on Russia for the 2018 World Cup beginning on June 14.

That means some of the planet’s most recognizable names — like Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo — will be joined by superstars from six continents hoping to lift the famous trophy.

From Costa Rica to South Korea, many teams feature at least one player of transcendent quality — which means every moment of the tournament is must-see TV.

While it’s impossible to list all the great players at the World Cup this year, here’s a list of 13 you should definitely make time to watch play.

1) Lionel Messi, Argentina

Lionel Messi is arguably the best player in the world, and has been named so five times since 2008. (He received the second-best player in the world honor the other five years.)

But one title has eluded him on his quest to become the best player ever: the World Cup trophy. He led Argentina to the 2014 World Cup finals against Germany but lost 1-0. That’s a trend for Argentina: La Albiceleste (“the white and sky blue”), as they are known to loyal fans, have lost four straight finals in major competitions, including that World Cup final defeat.

All eyes will be on La Pulga (“the flea”), as fans lovingly call him because he can be a pest to defenders in games. A creative genius with attacking flair, he will carry the weight of a nation on his shoulders. Now at 30 years old, Messi has his last, best chance to shine at the peak of his talents on the world’s greatest stage.

2) Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo is Messi’s nemesis, for lack of a better word. Since 2008, Ronaldo was named the world’s best soccer player the other five times Messi didn’t win the award (and came in second the times Messi won).

Ronaldo also wants to stake his claim as the best player ever, and he has an advantage in that he captained Portugal to the European championship in 2016. But Portugal has a tough draw against Spain early on and a difficult road to the final, should the team progress out of the group stage.

That means Ronaldo’s dazzling tricks, lightning-quick feet, and penchant for scoring huge goals may not be enough to lead his team to ultimate glory. But he’ll be fun to watch in what might be the 33-year-old’s last World Cup.

3) Neymar, Brazil

Brazil is one of the favorites to lift the World Cup trophy — and Neymar is the key man who may lead the Seleção to the promised land.

There is already talk that the 26-year-old striker is better than Messi and Ronaldo, and leading Brazil to the 2018 World Cup title could confirm that his star is ascending as the others’ dim. He became the world’s most expensive player last year after Barcelona sold him to Paris-Saint Germain for around $262 million. Neymar wanted to leave, in part, to get out of Messi’s shadow in Barcelona.

The problem is Neymar was part of the Brazil squad that lost 7-1 — yes, 7-1 — to Germany in the semifinals at the last tournament (which took place in Brazil). Neymar and his team will try to exorcize those demons in Russia.

4) Mo Salah, Egypt

Egypt’s Mo Salah took the soccer world by storm in 2017 and seemingly came out of nowhere to become one of the planet’s best players.

He’ll cap off a remarkable year by leading his country to its first World Cup in 28 years. Salah has fantastic speed, pinpoint passing ability, and unnatural coolness in front of goal. If Egypt is to have any success, Salah must carry the team on his shoulders.

But Salah actually injured his shoulder just a few weeks before the tournament, which means he may miss a game or not be at full fitness. That’s a big blow for a long-shot Egyptian side that relies so heavily on Salah’s brilliance. Still, Salah will be a sight to see whenever he steps on the field.

5) Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium

Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne will look to make an immediate impact for Belgium.

Belgium is chock-full of talent, but De Bruyne stands out among them all. A pure attacking midfielder who consistently makes passes that lead to a goal, the 26-year-old will orchestrate Belgium’s attack. Basically, if De Bruyne doesn’t play well, Belgium will struggle to advance beyond the group stages, despite the team’s depth.

De Bruyne is already a well-known player among soccer fans, but the World Cup is where he could take the next step to become a globally recognized superstar.

6) Son Heung-min, South Korea

South Korea doesn’t have a great chance of going deep at the World Cup, but Son Heung-min is reason enough to watch “the Reds” play in Russia.

Lovingly referred to as “Sonaldo” by his fans, the 25-year-old is arguably the best player to come out of Asia in years. He is quick and has a penchant for scoring, which is good since South Korea will look to him for the majority of its goals.

He’s also known for playing his heart out while always smiling. That’s endeared him to many who’ve seen him play. As Deadspin’s Billy Haisley put in March, “you can’t help but root for a guy who clearly takes so much joy from the act of playing.” Perhaps he will rack up more fans — and hopefully some wins — for his country at the World Cup.

7) Sadio Mane, Senegal

If Senegal is to have any chance of competing for the World Cup title, it’ll need amazing performances from Sadio Mane. Luckily, Mane churns out amazing performances on a consistent basis.

He almost singlehandedly brought Senegal to the tournament with myriad goals and assists. His team will once again look to get him the ball in attack once the World Cup starts. He has lightning-quick speed and reflexes, and he seemingly always puts himself in a position to score.

While soccer fans agree that Mane is a superb talent, few would consider him among the game’s truly elite. But if he continues his excellent play in Russia, Mane may finally take that step into soccer superstardom.

8) Thomas Müller, Germany

The numbers speak for themselves: Germany’s Thomas Müller has scored 10 World Cup goals in his career. That ties him for eighth most in history. If he scores two more, he’ll tie Brazil’s Pele, and if he scores six more, he’ll tie for first.

Müller is an outstanding player and goal scorer, but he kicks it into hyperdrive during the World Cup. He scored five goals in both 2010 and 2014, making him only the third player in history to score that many goals in two World Cups.

He isn’t a flashy player but he’s cool in attack and serves as an engine for the team. He was a huge reason why Germany won its fourth World Cup title in 2014, and Germany has a good chance of repeating as champions. If the country lifts the famous trophy in July, undoubtedly the 28-year-old’s goal-scoring abilities will have something to do with it.

9) Alex Iwobi, Nigeria

One of the most exciting young players to watch at the World Cup will be Nigeria’s Alex Iwobi.

The 21-year-old forward has only improved since he scored in his first senior professional game two years ago. Iwobi may not be the most important player for Nigeria, but he’ll certainly remain a key one nonetheless.

However, Nigeria is stuck in a group with Argentina, Croatia, and Iceland. It’s a long shot for the “Super Eagles” to go deep in the tournament. But if they do, it’s conceivable that Iwobi made some brilliant plays to get them there — including one of his patented rainbow kicks.

10) Keylor Navas, Costa Rica

Don’t forget the goalies! Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas has already proven he can play on the biggest stage: He was one of the breakout performers in the 2014 World Cup and has reliably played for Real Madrid since.

He’s quick to meet attackers off the line, has blazing-fast reflexes, and consistently makes impossible-looking saves. However, he’s somewhat unreliable on corner kicks, occasionally missing the ball when he tries to catch a cross in the air. Still, many World Cup teams would kill to have Navas in net, and he could solidify his place as one of the world’s best in 2018.

Simply put, if Costa Rica is to do well in Russia, Navas will have to play lights out.

11) Antoine Griezmann, France

Don’t let Antoine Griezmann’s 5-foot-9 stature fool you: He stands tall on the soccer field. Griezmann was named the world’s third-best player in 2016, in part because he led France to the finals of the 2016 European championship.

His success stems from just how good he is with his feet and head. With the ball at his feet, he can easily dribble around players, find the right pass, or slide the ball into the corner of the goal. With his head, Griezmann puts himself in the right place to power a cross beyond the goalkeeper.

That makes the 27-year-old one of the best players on a supremely talented French squad. if Griezmann has a good tournament, expect France to contend for the title.

12) Andres Iniesta, Spain

The 2018 World Cup will be a bittersweet moment for soccer fans because it’ll be the last time they’ll see Spain’s Andres Iniesta play.

The 34-year-old, widely regarded as the best midfielder of his generation, will put his dazzling skills on display one last time. He’s known for coolly making passes that lead to goals, floating by defenders, and keeping possession under immense pressure. In the words of one of his former coaches: “Iniesta’s the most inventive player in Spanish football at the moment. He’s like Harry Potter. One, two, three and whoosh … he’s past the player. It’s like he has a magic wand.”

Iniesta became a national hero when he scored the championship-winning goal for Spain in the 2010 World Cup. He’ll certainly hope to help his team in his final tournament — further ensconcing himself in the pantheon of world soccer.

13) Luis Suarez, Uruguay

Always one of the most controversial players, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez will try to keep his head above water in Russia.

There’s no denying Suarez’s talent: He is a natural-born goal scorer and a game changer. Uruguay will always be a threat anytime he’s on the field. The problem is he has a hot temper and makes ill-advised decisions (like shouting racist insults or literally biting opponents).

And in 2010, Suarez cynically stopped a certain goal with his hands, denying Ghana. He received a red card for that act, but Ghana failed to convert a penalty kick. That, in part, allowed Uruguay to proceed while eliminating the African side.

Suarez could silence his critics by simply playing at his usual high level and minimizing his on-field antics. It’d be better if he did more of his talking with his feet than with his mouth.

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