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Lionel Messi, Argentina
The Argentine maestro does not need a World Cup trophy to validate his greatness. The goals, assists, La Liga titles, Champions League crowns, records, awards and breathtaking highlights are ample evidence of his epic impact on the sport over 13 years.
Nonetheless, there is a missing piece to his incredible body of work: a major championship for his country. The 2005 Under-20 World Cup and 2008 Olympics (U-23s) were age-restrictive competitions. The two tournaments that matters most are the World Cup and Copa America, which decides South America’s best.
The World Cup has left him with two quarterfinal exits and a 2014 championship defeat settled in extra time. Copa America has offered three runners-up medals (two on penalty-kick tiebreakers) and a quarterfinal setback.
And so as he turns 31 this month in what is probably his last World Cup, Messi finds himself in a situation not unlike another legendary figure, LeBron James. Like the Cavaliers, Argentina is not going to go deep in competition without an extraordinary performance by its best player.
Pele won three World Cups. Diego Maradona won one. Is it Messi’s time?
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
If Messi is the best player in the world, Ronaldo, 33, is barely a step behind. Soccer fans of the modern era don’t realize how good they have it watching two of the greatest in history perform weekly — and several times each season against one another in Spain.
While Messi mesmerizes with speed of foot and thought, performing skills with elegance and efficiency, the bigger and stronger Ronaldo obliterates defenders with a combination of cunning and power. He is also a master in the air.
He has won the Champions League title four of the past five seasons with Real Madrid and received FIFA’s top individual honor four of the past five years. Since joining the Spanish titan in 2009, Ronaldo has averaged about a goal per game.
He orchestrated Portugal’s European Championship conquest in 2016, but the World Cup results have declined since his 2006 debut: fourth place, round of 16, group stage.
In 2014, Brazil’s hopes of winning the championship at home all but ended when Neymar fractured a vertebra in the quarterfinals. (Honestly, even with him, Brazil probably wouldn’t have avoided semifinal elimination against Germany.) This summer, his right foot is in focus.
He has sufficiently healed from a fracture suffered in February while performing for Paris Saint-Germain. But without any competitive matches until the World Cup tuneups, Neymar will need to find his fitness and form in a hurry. Brazil has assembled a mighty roster and, with an influential Neymar, a sixth title is well within reach.
Besides physical hurdles, Neymar will face the burden of expectation. He was, after all, the subject of the most expensive club transfer in soccer annals, a $260 million move to PSG from Barcelona last summer. The French club breezed to the French league title but, in a disappointing pursuit of the continent’s grand prize, lost to Real Madrid in the Champions League’s round of 16.
Mohamed Salah, Egypt
The best players in the world come from Europe and South America, occasionally West Africa. They certainly don’t come from North Africa. Until now.
In his first campaign with Liverpool, Salah set the Premier League’s single-season scoring record with 32 goals. He had 12 in nonleague competitions for a total of 44 in 52 appearances — an astounding rate for someone who didn’t play much at Chelsea in 2013-15 and was a modest scorer at Roma. He was also instrumental in Liverpool’s unexpected charge through the Champions League.
Salah’s superlative season ended on a sour note, however, when he suffered a shoulder injury against Real Madrid in the May 26 continental final. It’s a race against time to regain mobility while retaining fitness and form ahead of Egypt’s opener against Uruguay — on Salah’s 26th birthday.
David de Gea, Spain
Goalkeepers tend to peak at ages older than outfield players. At 27, de Gea is just getting started but already finds himself at an exceptional level.
Never mind his blunder in a pre-Cup friendly against Switzerland. De Gea was the best keeper in the Premier League this season, probably the best in Europe and the world. Manchester United supporters voted him their most valuable player. His 18 shutouts in 37 league matches earned him the Premier League Golden Glove award. In December, he equaled a league record by making 14 saves during a 3-1 victory over Arsenal.
After seven seasons at Old Trafford, Real Madrid might come calling this summer.
Eden Hazard, Belgium
With his tight footwork, rapid acceleration and panoramic vision, the Belgian winger’s style has drawn comparisons to Messi’s. Granted, Hazard is not as searing and ruthless, but when he tears into open space or takes on defenders, he raises anticipation like few others in the game.
Since joining Chelsea from Lille in 2012, Hazard has scored 89 goals across all competitions, earned the club’s player of the year award three times and been part of two Premier League championships. In early 2008, he debuted with the national team at age 17. In the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, Hazard scored six goals in eight appearances.
Antoine Griezmann, France
While most of the world stars arrive at the World Cup from famous clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United, Griezmann comes from an organization rich in tradition but lighter in aura. Atletico Madrid has been a wonderful platform for the left-footed attacker, who has averaged 20 goals over four seasons since arriving from Real Sociedad.
His national team debut did not come until March 2014, a few weeks before his 23rd birthday. Three months later, he was starting in the World Cup. At the 2016 European Championship, he won the Golden Boot by scoring six goals and was named player of the tournament.
James Rodriguez, Colombia
In 2014, the Colombian attacker won both the Golden Boot with six goals (plus two assists) and the hearts of Brazilians when the emotions of a quarterfinal defeat to the hosts were too much to control. Rodriguez had played with joy and zest — traits appreciated by audiences on site and around the world.
The sterling World Cup performance led to a mega-transfer to Real Madrid from Monaco, but after a quality first season in Spain, he labored to earn regular starts. This past season, Rodriguez was on loan at Bayern Munich, where he scored seven goals in the Bundesliga and once in the Champions League.
Thomas Mueller, Germany
Although his scoring totals at Bayern Munich have plummeted the past two seasons, the hybrid attacker cannot be ignored in major international events. Mueller is not technically or physically imposing; he simply knows how to pocket goals.
Mueller scored five times at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and five more four years ago in Brazil, including a hat trick against Portugal. His total (which has come in 13 matches) ties him for eighth on the all-time list. (Pele posted 12 goals in 14 games; the all-time leader, Miroslav Klose of Germany, scored 16 in 24.) Mueller has also scored nine times in World Cup qualifying and 12 in European Championship qualifying.
Gabriel Jesus, Brazil
Looking for a young, breakout star? We suggest this 21-year-old striker from Premier League champion Manchester City. Four years ago, he was painting World Cup themes in the streets of his favela in Sao Paulo. These days, the residents of Jardim Peri have honored him with a 112-foot-tall mural depicting his goal celebration.
In his second season in England, Jesus scored 13 goals in 29 league appearances (19 starts) and four in nine Champions League matches. Upon arriving at Brazilian training camp, he held a slight edge over Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino for the starting job in the World Cup opener against Switzerland.
Ten others to watch …
Uruguay F Edinson Cavani (Paris Saint-Germain)
Uruguay F Luis Suarez (Barcelona)
Croatia MF Luka Modric (Real Madrid)
England F Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur)
Spain MF Andres Iniesta (Vissel Kobe, Japan)
Belgium F Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United)
Senegal F Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
Denmark MF Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur)
Belgium MF Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City)
Poland F Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich)
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