The 2018 World Cup is finally here!
Over the next month or so, as well as fans from all around the world being glued to their TV screens, scouts from bigger and smaller clubs will also be hooked to the happenings in Russia — not least because the World Cup has a history of unearthing little-known gems who have not yet announced their arrival on the global stage.
Not many outside their native countries had even heard the names of players such as Pele, Ribery, Suarez, Gerd Muller or Arshavin before they lit up the biggest spectacle of international football with their magic. So who are going to be the little-known wonder boys who are set to surprise you during this summer’s edition in Russia?
Here are 10 players to keep your eyes on.
The first game of the 2018 World Cup will see Saudi Arabia battle it out against the host nation. While Russia might just edge the Middle Eastern nation in terms of experience and quality, Saudi Arabia is not just coming to make up the numbers. And one player they have on their roster is the young Abdullah Al-Khaibari, who, astonishingly, is making his World Cup debut just 16 months after making his professional debut.
A midfielder for the Riyadh based club Al-Shabab, expect him to inject pace and energy into his team, provided he gets playing time under the Spanish coach Antonio Pizzi.
Fans who are familiar with European club football will be no stranger to Mbappé’s name. Packing power and pace like the Brazilian Ronaldo, the 19-year-old led Monaco’s attack in the sensational league triumph during the 2016-17 season, becoming the reason that Paris Saint-Germain has decided to splurge close to $212 million on him to secure his services — making him the most expensive teenage transfer in the history of the sport.
Quite possibly the hottest prospect in the world at the moment, expect Mbappé to bang in the goals when he gets the opportunity.
The 22-year-old South Korean is one of Asia’s most promising young talents, having helped German club Red Bull Salzburg reach the semi-finals of the Europa League this summer — something not many were expecting them to do.
A versatile and fast forward, Hee-chan is already being scouted by a number of major clubs, and don’t be surprised if he helps South Korea pull in an upset or two at the World Cup.
The U.S. fans might be disappointed that their team was not been able to make it to Russia, and so neighbors Mexico should be expected to represent North America at the World Cup, alongside tournament regulars Costa Rica.
While Mexico boasts some experienced heads, probably no one is as exciting as the left winger Hirving Lozano, who just finished his first — and quietly spectacular — season in the Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven, getting 17 league goals to his name.
Expect Lozano to face tough opposition with champions Germany, South Korea, and Ibrahimovic’s Sweden being in the same group as Mexico, but big players shine on big occasions now, don’t they?
The Belgian national team is full of mesmerizing talent including the likes of Eden Hazard and De Bruyne, but one player who may have gone under the radar is the young Leander Dendoncker.
While he plays for the Belgian side Anderlecht at the moment, Dendoncker has already been earmarked by several scouts as a possible signing for their respective clubs. Just this January, he came close to signing for English side West Ham before the deal fell through, while French side Lyon is also known to be interested in him.
Probably not the youngest player on this list, 25-year-old Ziyech is nonetheless Morocco’s star playmaker, who can score as well as he can create. Plying his trade in the same Eredivisie as the Mexican Lozano, he was the stand out player in the Netherlands last season, scoring nine goals from midfield and creating 15 assists, garnering him Player of the Year award.
Seeing Ziyech play for Morocco during this World Cup will definitely be hurtful to some Holland fans, especially as the midfielder started his youth career representing the European nation and now they have not qualified for this summer’s edition in Russia.
Having said that, it wouldn’t stop Ziyech from giving his all against Spain and Portugal in what surely is one of the toughest groups in the tournament.
For millions of fans around the world, this will be the first time they see Sardar Azmoun in action, who has long been dubbed as the “Iranian Messi.” A great dribbler of the ball, Azmoun has a further advantage in that he has played his club football in Russia for the last five years, meaning he won’t need any time to acclimatize himself with the settings.
Azmoun could be on the potential list of major clubs in Europe if he lives up to his billing during the World Cup. Hopefully, the weight of his nation on his shoulders won’t prove too much distraction.
Most fans would already be familiar with the mercurial Rashford, who has already made his name playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world — Manchester United.
But if there are a time and place to shine, this must be Rashford’s. Playing in an England team which is replete with talent but have been historical chokers in the game’s biggest tournaments, he will be given plenty of scope to put himself to the test on the greatest stage of them all.
Iwobi, not unlike Rashford, has grown up plying his trade in England. However, unlike Rashford, he represents his home country Nigeria in international competitions. A fast dribbler of the ball who has also shown that he can get goals, Iwobi has shown glimpses of his ability for Arsenal but has not become the mainstay in the team.
Still only 22-years-old, Iwobi is Nigeria’s biggest hope at the World Cup and don’t be surprised if he delivers.
This list lacks in mentioning South American players, but expect Torreira to make up for everyone who has been missed. A no-nonsense midfielder who plays at the base of a three-man midfield for Italian club Sampdoria, Torreira has great vision and ball-winning technique.
With Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani playing in front of him, Torreira will have the responsibility of ticking over the possession, and if he does that for Uruguay as he is expected to do, the South American underdogs can go a long way in this competition.