LIONEL MESSI, Striker, Argentina 26 year old, young, tiny genius seems to have been around forever, such is the scope of his achievement. After suffering a season of injury, uncharacteristic criticism, trouble with the taxman, bickering with media, there are questions being asked.
A poor season by Messi? Is there such a thing? In context … maybe. Now captain of La Albiceleste, if the world’s finest player can lead Argentina to the ultimate glory for the first time in 36 years all the conjecture about a slight drop-off in quality and those perceived troubles at Barcelona will be forgotten.
It remains, of course, the one gaping hole in a virtually unparalleled career, the single missing piece that lifted Diego Maradona from superstar to deity in his home country.
MESUT OZIL, midfielder, Germany Much of the potential lies with the pop-eyed string-puller who conducts the orchestra from the middle of the park. If Bastian Schweinsteiger can be considered his country’s engine room, Ozil is the perfect complement as its brain centre.
There were certainly struggles during Ozil’s first season in England with Arsenal, but his quality is undeniable. During their time together at Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho said: “Ozil is unique. There is no copy of him — not even a bad copy. He is the best No. 10 in the world.’’ He ended the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign as Germany’s top scorer with eight goals.
NEYMAR, striker/winger, Brazil The inherited one. The chosen one. A talent so beguiling, a potential so vast, that 200 million Brazilians are anticipating this summer to be as much a coronation as a football tournament.
For a 22-year-old, the scrutiny on Neymar da Silva Santos Junior has become near-obsessive, the expectations pulverizing. His performances during last summer’s Confederations Cup-winning campaign certainly whetted the appetite for this summer’s main course. Scroll back a dozen years to Yokohama, Japan, when the icon of a previous generation, Ronaldo, laid waste to Germany hopes by scoring twice as Brazil lifted the Cup for the fifth, and last, time.
He is only one of many who thinks young Neymar can scale the heights. “Logically,’’ Ronaldo reasoned recently, “Messi is better right now but Neymar is a great talent who will show the world in time that he will be No. 1.’’
ANDREA PIRLO, midfielder, Italy The parallel between Andrea Pirlo and a lovely glass of Arduo IGP Montenetto is fairly obvious. So it should come as no surprise that the Juventus puppet master also runs his family vineyard, Pratum Coller, just outside his hometown of Brescia, that produces between 15,000-20,000 bottles a year.
If boy lunatic Mario Balotelli is receiving the lion’s share of pre-tournament Azzurri buzz, Pirlo, the man who made the deep playmaking role his own, remains the Azzurri’s beating heart. No one specializes in dead balls like Pirlo. No one — at least outside of Spain — runs the show like Pirlo. Even having just turned 35, that still-hard-to-get-used-to thatch of beard hanging off his chin, he is the Azzurri opponents fear most.
As he wrote in his recently published autobiography: “After the World Cup in Brazil, I’ll retire from international football. I’ll be hanging up my heart.’’ And Italy, its soul.
LUIS SUAREZ, striker, Uruguay That noted opposing Jose Mourinho’s arguments aside, Luis Suarez was indisputably the Barclays Premier League’s player of the year and is quite probably the world’s most in-form striker heading to Brazil.
His 31 goals for Liverpool in 33 matches were 10 more than anyone. And he isn’t even the Merseysiders penalty-taker! Combined with PSG’s prolific Edinson Cavani, the Uruguayans boast arguably the most potent 1-2 attacking punch in the tournament.
“The speed of thought he has,” Norwich ’keeper John Ruddy told ESPN back in February when asked what makes Suarez so special. “He’s taking shots that people wouldn’t take in a million years and he’s pulling them off, making people look stupid. “You sort of stand there and think: ‘What’s just happened?’”
ARJEN ROBBEN, winger, Netherlands Still, at 30, the focal point of the Oranje, beaten finalists four years ago in Johannesburg, the elusive winger will once again be a major player for Louis van Gaal’s ambition to finally bring a World Cup title to the Netherlands.
One of the cornerstones of Bayern Munich’s historic treble-winning side of 2013, Robben is a player capable of creating a moment of brilliance out of virtually nothing, not shy about taking on defenders 1-on-1 and even if he does go to ground a bit easily, his trademark runs — cutting inside from the right — are every bit as vital to the Dutch as Robin van Persie’s poaching ability.
CRISTIANO RONALDO, striker/winger, Portugal CR7- The reigning Ballon d’Or recipient. The most famous footballer on the planet at the moment. And, Leo Messi partisans dissenting, the best. Earned, according to France Football, $55.9 million dollars in salary and endorsements last year.
Dating Russian supermodel Irina Shayk. New holder of the Champions League seasonal goals record. Ronaldo’s stunning four-strike master class in seeing off Sweden in Portugal’s two-legged World Cup playoff qualifier made his intentions for Brazil known to all.
Arguably no nation’s hopes at this tournament are so tied to the form of one player. Power, Precision, Scorer of fantasy goals. Free kicks that dip and swerve like the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland. Destroyer of Bayern Munich’s treble aspirations.
Deliverer of the now legendary line: “Some fans keep booing and whistling at me because I’m handsome, rich and a great player. They envy me.” A touch of arrogance? Certainly. But admit it, the man has a point.
ANDRES INIESTA, midfielder, Spain The nickname El Ilusionista (The Illusionist) simply could not be more suited to him. He is football’s answer to Ordonez or Dominguin — Spain’s pre-eminent torero of the period. Now 30, there is no perceptible drop-off on his influence on Le Roja.
Scorer of the World Cup-winning goal four years ago, Iniesta is the epitome of big-match performer if there ever was one. Nearly as adroit as his collaborator Xavi in spraying the ball around to others, Iniesta also presents.