The World Cup will feature some of the world’s most talented men’s soccer players, including a few historic greats vying for the biggest prize in the sport. While a lot of the focus will be on these big names, it takes more than individual brilliance to become world champions, as teams such as Argentina, Portugal and Belgium know all too well in recent years. But having world-class talent available gives teams someone to rely on for a game-changing performance – and a psychological lift. Here are seven of the world’s best players to watch in Qatar.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo
Arguably the two greatest men’s soccer players in history are appearing at what could be their last World Cups. They both captain their national teams and hold their respective country’s record for appearances and goals. Both have won nearly every major team and individual award, in some cases multiple times, but the aging legends have a World Cup-sized hole in their trophy cabinets.
Ronaldo, 37, led Portugal to a European championship in 2016, the country’s long-awaited first international title. The five-time winner of the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player is well known for his prodigious goalscoring, elite fitness and drive to win. Playing in his fifth World Cup, he will be making a final bid to best a fourth-place finish in 2006. Instagram’s most-followed person, his worldwide fan base will be eager to see if he can get Portugal to the later rounds in Qatar.
Paris St-Germain’s Messi, 35, is fresh off winning last year’s Copa America, the first major international title of his career. The seven-time winner of the Ballon d’Or has an unfathomable ability both to score and assist, and can turn a match on its head with a moment of magic. The Barcelona legend has had a frustrating international career, full of hope and bitter disappointment, including losing four major finals in nine years leading him to retire briefly from the national team in 2016. He was eventually convinced to come back and he’ll be looking to replicate 2014′s run to the final again in December at his fifth World Cup.
The Paris St-Germain star is the heir apparent to Ronaldo and Messi’s attacking dominance – and the 23-year-old already has a World Cup title. With his move to PSG from Monaco in 2017, he became the second-most expensive signing in history and continues to hold the record for a teenager. He was a burgeoning star in his debut World Cup in 2018, scoring four goals, including one in the final to help France claim its fourth international trophy. His combination of dribbling, speed and finishing makes him a nearly unstoppable attacking threat. Mbappé, along with a deep roster of stars including Hugo Lloris, Raphaël Varane, Aurélien Tchouaméni and Antoine Griezmann, will be looking to claim a second consecutive championship for France.
At the tender age of 22, the Brazilian has already established himself as one of the best strikers in the world. The Real Madrid star was a product of the Flamengo academy, making his debut as a 16-year-old and quickly securing a transfer to Spain’s biggest club. He finished last season as the team’s goal-scoring list with 22 goals and scored the winning goal to clinch Real’s 14th Champions League title. Although it is the record title holder and a perennial favourite, Brazil hasn’t won the World Cup since 2002. It goes into the tournament ranked as the world’s No. 1 team and Vinicius, Neymar and Co. will be hoping to end that wait in Qatar.
Virgil van Dijk
The Liverpool defender will lead the Netherlands, which is returning to the World Cup after missing out four years ago. The 31-year-old is a powerhouse central defender known for his strength and aerial ability – both in defence and attack. He’s been the heart of a Liverpool defence that has led to a turnaround in the club’s fortunes, helping the team win the Champions League in 2019 and its first league title in 30 years in 2020. His individual brilliance has been recognized with runner-up finishes for the Ballon d’Or and for FIFA’s best men’s player, and becoming the only defender to win UEFA men’s player of the year. Appearing in his first World Cup, van Dijk will captain the Netherlands as the small country once again seeks to be a major force in the tournament.
The Senegalese star is making his second trip to the World Cup, hoping to lead the top-ranked African team to the knockout rounds. Mané, 30, plays for Germany’s Bayern Munich after six top seasons at Liverpool. He won the Premier League’s Golden Boot award in 2019 and has been consistently rated as among the best players in the world. He helped Senegal to its first Africa Cup of Nations title last year, scoring the winning goal in a penalty shootout in the final, and was named the player of the tournament. He is his country’s top goal scorer with 34 in his career and he’ll be hoping to add to that total to lead his team to its second knockout-round appearance.
Kevin De Bruyne
Having led Manchester City to consecutive league championships, De Bruyne will want to replicate that success with the second-ranked Belgian squad. He is considered one of the best midfielders to play the game, with his vision on the field, two-footed ability and range of passing making him a dangerous attacking threat and producing an astonishing amount of assists. The gifted 31-year-old is making his third World Cup appearance. After achieving the country’s best result with a third-place finish in 2018, he will be hoping to give Belgium’s golden generation, including Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen and Eden Hazard, a chance to play for the trophy this year.