The world’s been waiting four long years for the next couple of weeks and the soccer decks are stacked. Between dominant Brazil’s home-field advantage and an international roster of talent that’s nary been seen at a World Cup before, this year’s event should be one to remember.
Whether you’re a die-hard soccer (ahem, excuse us, “futbol”) fan or you’re a casual watcher who just doesn’t want to sound an idiot at a sports bar, there are a few players you should undoubtedly be watching. Here are 7 players you need to know to make the best of the 2014 World Cup.
If you only know one player’s name during the Cup, it should be Lionel Messi. Argentina’s forward is arguably the best soccer player ever and he’s unequivocally got the best nickname in the tournament (“The Atomic Flea.”) Messi is powerful, showy, and seems like a genuinely nice guy – and his relatively tiny size makes him a fan favorite for all he has to offer. Despite his talent he’s never made it past the quarterfinals of the World Cup – though he’s only 26 – but this year’s likely his best shot yet to make it all the way thanks to a power-packed Argentinian roster behind him.
Full name: Neymar da Silva Santos Junior, winger/forward for home team Brazil and the title holder for the highest selling World Cup player jersey. Neymar is only 22 years old and he’s got an unusually slender frame and a very-famous professional teammate on Barcelona (Lionel Messi.) He’s incredibly fast, has a flashy style of play and will carry a lot of the burden or Brazil’s success or failure. Neymar isn’t afraid of his public figure status, as he rocks a Mohawk, is heavily involved in Brazilian pop music, and sweetly makes little kids’ dreams come true.
Okay, so most people don’t think the U.S. has any shot whatsoever at winning the cup but there’s no argument that Tim Howard is one of the best goaltenders on the planet. Howard’s pretty old for soccer standards at 35, and although he’s got a contract extension with Everton until 2018, there’s a chance this could be his last big World Cup run. Howard’s one of the most openly philanthropic players in the game and speaks often about his life-long battle with Tourette’s Syndrome.
Ah, the Netherlands. The tiny national collective finished second in the last World Cup and they’re certainly a dark horse coming into 2014 thanks in no small part to Arjen Robben. He’s been scoring up a storm lately (55 goals since 2009) and, like Messi, has a sweet nickname in “The Flying Dutchman.” The midfielder is 30, married to his high school sweetheart, and offputtingly intelligent which makes him a fan favorite to watch.
Another Mohawk? Italian-born Ghanaian Balotelli is one of the most outspoken players in the game. He’s young, he’s feisty, and he riles up opposing fans like few other players. He’s talented for sure but is spotty in big international play, but the Italian national team has the second-most World Cup wins of all time, so there’s that. In his spare time he hangs out with known mobsters, flashes pistols in public, and generally gets the international soccer tribunal all up in arms. Fun to watch, is what we’re saying about Balotelli.
Cristiano is the most expensive footballer in the history of the game, and that’s saying a lot. Star of the Portuguese national team, Ronaldo plays for powerhouse Real Madrid when not competing in international thrillers. He’s an attacker and a terrific one at that, becoming his country’s all-time leading scorer earlier this year with 49 goals. He’s been slowed by a thigh injury of late but one thing’s for sure: even if he’s on the sideline he’ll be handsome as ever (and going home to his supermodel girlfriend, Irina Shayk.
Okay, okay, so Donovan isn’t going to make an appearance at the 2014 World Cup. In a huge twist, USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann announced a few weeks back that the most-celebrated player on the US team, Landon Donovan, didn’t make the World Cup roster. While he won’t be playing in the tournament you can count on a lot of people to be talking about Donovan, particularly now that he’s signed on as an ESPN commentator for the duration of the Cup. It’s not Donovan’s style to bite his tongue so things could get interesting.
It doesn’t matter which team you’re rooting for, this year’s World Cup is set to be a spectacle. Between the embarrassment that is sure to be the Brazilian World Cup facilities, a host of 20-something hot shot players, and the hope that this is the year the USA will collectively embrace soccer as a sport, there’s something for everyone. Happy watching!