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World Cup Rank

June 11,2018 18:19

Lionel Messi. Argentina. Forward. Age: 30. 2014 rank: 1. Messi might be the king of club football, but it's been a different story for his Argentina career. He was sent off after two minutes of his debut in 2005 and famously quit international football ...



Lionel Messi
Argentina
Forward
Age: 30
2014 rank: 1
Messi might be the king of club football, but it's been a different story for his Argentina career. He was sent off after two minutes of his debut in 2005 and famously quit international football in 2016 after losing three finals in three years. Happily, he changed his mind, and Argentina would surely not have qualified for Russia without him; they are no "one-man" team, but do depend greatly on Messi. At least he should be fresh for this World Cup after Barcelona's early Champions League exit. — Tim Vickery

Cristiano Ronaldo
Portugal
Forward
Age: 33
2014 Rank: 2
At 33 and some 12 years after he was a semifinalist, the Real Madrid forward and Ballon d'Or holder is likely to be facing his last best chance of winning the World Cup, even though he has said he can play until he is 40. Ronaldo helped guide his country to unexpected glory at Euro 2016 and travels to Russia for his fourth World Cup appearance as Portugal's all-time leading scorer with 81 goals, 15 of which were scored in qualifying. — Mark Ogden

Neymar
Brazil
Forward
Age: 26
2014 rank: 6
His World Player of the Year award hopes rest entirely on performances in Russia. With a team that is better tactically and, it is hoped, superior emotionally to the previous World Cup, Neymar should have the platform to display his immense talent. Can coach Tite integrate his star's individual ambition with the needs of the team? And can Neymar control the excesses of temperament that brought him six yellow cards in qualification? — Tim Vickery

Kevin De Bruyne
Belgium
Midfielder
Age: 26
2014 rank: N/A
When Belgium beat Estonia 8-1 in November 2016, manager Roberto Martinez fielded the Manchester City midfielder, previously used on one side of the attack, in a deeper, central position. The move has proved just as effective against stronger opponents, with De Bruyne's change of gear and passing range galvanising his side's tempo and fluency. Having completed a wonderful club season and won the Premier League, he can help Belgium achieve great things in Russia. — Nick Ames

Harry Kane
England
Forward
Age: 24
2014 rank: N/A
The Tottenham forward heads into his first World Cup carrying England's goal-scoring hopes on his shoulders. Kane struggled to impress during Euro 2016, but he has become the first name on Gareth Southgate's team sheet and will aim to become England's first World Cup Golden Boot winner since Gary Lineker topped the charts with six goals at the 1986 tournament in Mexico. If Kane does hit form -- he scored 41 goals in all competitions for Tottenham this season -- England can go far. — Mark Ogden

Luis Suarez
Uruguay
Forward
Age: 31
2014 rank: 4
Suarez and the World Cup have had a rocky history. He was suspended from the 2010 semifinal after a blatant handball vs. Ghana and kicked out of the knockout stages four years later after biting Italy's Giorgio Chiellini. As such, Uruguay's high hopes in Russia depend greatly on whether one of the best centre-forwards around -- and the country's all-time leading scorer, with 50 goals -- can manage to stay on the pitch all the way through the campaign. — Tim Vickery

Mohamed Salah
Egypt
Forward
Age: 25
2014 rank: N/A
After scoring the goal in October that returned Egypt to the World Cup after a 28-year absence, Salah politely declined former Zamalek president Mamdouh Abbas' offer of a new home and, instead, requested a donation to one of his charitable causes. It is one example of why the player of the year in England is so highly regarded at home, to the extent that many see him running the place; in recent Egyptian presidential elections, Salah received write-in votes. — Colin Udoh

Antoine Griezmann
France
Forward
Age: 27
2014 rank: N/A
It is rare nowadays for a player to become a superstar without having played club football in his own country, but that is the case for Griezmann. Labelled too small when he was trialing for French club academies between the ages of 11 and 14, he had to go across the Pyrenees. Real Sociedad gave him his chance and never regretted it. When he won the Europa League this season in Lyon, only 70 kilometers from his hometown of Macon, there was an element of showing Ligue 1 teams what they had missed. — Julien Laurens

Eden Hazard
Belgium
Forward
Age: 27
2014 rank: 10
Could this be Hazard's World Cup? He flickered in 2014 and sparkled intermittently at Euro 2016, but Belgium fell short, and it would feel like a waste if that trend repeated itself in Russia. He has taken the bit between his teeth under manager Roberto Martinez, enjoying himself from a left-sided position behind Romelu Lukaku, and feels he and his teammates have learned from past disappointment. "Now we have experience," Hazard said. "We know what to do to be ready. We have one target, which is to reach the final." — Nick Ames

Robert Lewandowski
Poland
Forward
Age: 29
2014 rank: N/A
Already the top scorer in national team history with 52 goals -- 16 of which came during qualifying for Russia -- Lewandowski is viewed as Poland's greatest player by many, even if those who remember Kazimierz Deyna, Grzegorz Lato and Zbigniew Boniek gracing the pitch in the 1970s and 1980s have other ideas. Lewandowski scored just once in each of his two European Championship appearances; he can boost his status by impressing at his first World Cup. — Michael Yokhin

Toni Kroos
Germany
Midfielder
Age: 28
2014 rank: 34
Kroos might represent the worst couple of million euros Bayern Munich never spent. The German giants refused to raise his pay grade to that of Mario Gotze, then sold him to Real Madrid in 2014. Since then, Kroos has won multiple Champions Leagues while Bayern's quest for a sixth European Cup triumph remains unfulfilled. He'll be the first name on Joachim Low's team sheet in Russia and the single most important player if Germany are to retain their crown. — Raphael Honigstein

David De Gea
Spain
Goalkeeper
Age: 27
2014 rank: N/A
La Roja were stingy winners in 2010 -- two goals conceded in seven games, five clean sheets -- but, as vital as Iker Casillas was in goal, Spain controlled games ruthlessly through possession. That era has passed, meaning De Gea will have more to do. His World Cup debut in 2014? A pain in the butt, literally; a strained muscle meant Pepe Reina replaced the rested Casillas in the third group match. Now De Gea is arguably the world's best. Time to show it. — Graham Hunter

Luka Modric
Croatia
Midfielder
Age: 32
2014 rank: 32
The brightest star of his generation, three-time Champions League winner and midfield maestro Modric has an image problem in his homeland, where he's been charged with perjury after allegedly lying at the trial of former Dinamo Zagreb director Zdravko Mamic. Some Croatian fans expected Modric to speak out against the country's unpopular football association, but he did not and needs a stunning tournament to regain the backing of those who voiced disdain toward the federation by disrupting a Euro 2016 game against Czech Republic. — Michael Yokhin

Sergio Aguero
Argentina
Forward
Age: 30
2014 rank: 11
Only Lionel Messi and Gabriel Batistuta have scored more goals for Argentina, but Aguero has consistently come up short in tournaments, a frequent casualty of season-ending burnout. So the knee surgery he underwent in April poses a key question: Will he -- again -- be less than 100 percent at the World Cup? Or might he be better rested and finally able to translate his friendship with Messi into a devastating partnership? — Tim Vickery

Kylian Mbappe
France
Forward
Age: 19
2014 rank: N/A
Records are there to be beaten, and it is proof of Mbappe's incredible talent that he has set so many new marks since bursting onto the scene some 18 months ago. He succeeded Thierry Henry as Monaco's youngest-ever player (16 years, 347 days) and goal scorer (17 years, 62 days). In March, at 19 and three months, he became the youngest player to score twice for France. No teenager has more Champions League goals than the 10 Mbappe has managed, either. The kid is good. — Julien Laurens

Philippe Coutinho
Brazil
Midfielder
Age: 25
2014 rank: N/A
After a timid start to his international career -- Coutinho made little impression when it mattered in the Copa America tournaments of 2015 and 2016 -- the recent Barcelona signing benefited greatly from the arrival of Tite as national-team coach. Filled with confidence, Coutinho has become an important deadlock-breaker who is able to float across from either wing or support the striker from a central position. — Tim Vickery

David Silva
Spain
Midfielder
Age: 32
2014 rank: 26
He's a World Cup champion but, individually, Silva has not starred in his two tournament appearances. In 2010, he started just once and got four more minutes as a substitute for Spain's winners. Four years later, he missed a chance to make it 2-0 vs. Netherlands, who went on to score five without reply and start the holders on the road to a group-stage exit. Nonetheless, Silva is utterly vital to La Roja's progress as he seeks a definitive performance. — Graham Hunter

Sergio Ramos
Spain
Defender
Age: 32
2014 rank: N/A
As events following Real Madrid's Champions League final victory against Liverpool show, barely a week goes past without Ramos doing or saying something that separates him from others; his "winner" mentality can take him to the boundaries of competitiveness, though he has never been sent off for Spain. He prepares psychologically for the big stage, hence his four goals in Champions League semifinals and finals. Ramos also "Panenka'd" his way past Portugal in a Euro 2012 shootout; he will try for another big moment in Russia. — Graham Hunter

Christian Eriksen
Denmark
Midfielder
Age: 26
2014 rank: N/A
"Look at the players who play centrally for Real Madrid and Barcelona; none of them are better than Christian." That is how highly Denmark coach Age Hareide rates Eriksen, whose hat trick vs. Republic of Ireland propelled Denmark to Russia 2018. His longer-term influence on a side that is otherwise short of guile cannot be overestimated and, Eriksen having never played at a World Cup before, can turn an average team into one capable of threatening anybody. — Nick Ames

Paul Pogba
France
Midfielder
Age: 25
2014 rank: 30
On La Renardiere council estate in the city of Roissy to the north of Paris, where Pogba grew up, four artists painted a huge fresco of him just after Euro 2016. He is a hero where he comes from; the last player to have a similar impact in France was Zinedine Zidane in Marseille. The country hopes Pogba can achieve something similar this summer -- minus any head-butts -- after a testing club season at Manchester United. — Julien Laurens

Paulo Dybala
Argentina
Forward
Age: 24
2014 rank: N/A
What should have been a dream day ended in tears and disappointment for Dybala: In 2015, making his first Argentina start, he was sent off. First to comfort him was Lionel Messi, who was red-carded himself on his international debut vs. Hungary. "The Jewel" has admitted that it is "difficult" for him to play with Messi because their styles are similar, but Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli saw enough in the Juventus forward to include him in his squad for Russia. — Nicolas Baier

Andres Iniesta
Spain
Midfielder
Age: 34
2014 rank: 3
There were things beyond his winning goal in 2010 that sum up Iniesta -- who is set for his international farewell after leaving Barcelona -- and the feeling in the Spain squad, then and now. Don Andres went to South Africa with an inspirational DVD provided by physio and friend Emili Ricart and then, upon scoring vs. Netherlands, paid tribute to close friend Dani Jarque, the Espanyol captain who had died suddenly 11 months earlier. The gesture was planned by several Spain players and, back home, Jarque's wife was moved beyond words. — Graham Hunter

Edinson Cavani
Uruguay
Forward
Age: 31
2014 rank: 18
Whatever the strains of his relationship with Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain, with the national team Cavani seems to have no problem being the second member of a potent strike force behind Luis Suarez. Approaching his third World Cup, Cavani works so hard that he could accurately be described as a "box-to-box centre-forward," though he does his best work in front of goal: Cavani was the top scorer, with 10, in South American qualification. — Tim Vickery

N'Golo Kante
France
Midfielder
Age: 27
2014 rank: N/A
His is a fairy-tale story that could inspire Hollywood. Eight years ago, Kante was playing in the French eighth division at Suresnes in the west suburbs of Paris. At 19, it looked as though he had no future in professional football -- at the same age, Kylian Mbappe had won two Ligue 1 titles -- yet Kante kept working and eventually made it. He went through lower leagues and tiny, obscure stadiums before finding success and fame with Leicester, Chelsea and France. — Julien Laurens

Manuel Neuer
Germany
Goalkeeper
Age: 32
2014 rank: 27
Growing up in Gelsenkirchen, Neuer didn't want to go in goal; the kids in his neighbourhood played on concrete, which is not the ideal surface to be diving on. His first coach at Schalke 04 put him between the sticks when he was 5, and he's since fulfilled the job with a certain reluctance. Neuer is happiest when he can clear up with his head or feet, sweeper-keeper style. Due to a complicated fracture in his foot, he has missed almost all of the club season. — Raphael Honigstein

Marcelo
Brazil
Defender
Age: 30
2014 rank: N/A
The left-back, who is set to appear in his second World Cup, will broadcast his daily routine during the tournament on his official YouTube channel, which has more than 670,000 subscribers and features videos from his life in Madrid, as well moments of relaxation around his family, his sons and his wife, Brazilian actress Clarice Alves. Marcelo has also launched an official app. But it's on the pitch in Russia where the world's best left-back will leave a lasting impression. — Vladimir Bianchini

Isco
Spain
Midfielder
Age: 26
2014 rank: N/A
Under the tutelage of now-national team coach Julen Lopetegui, Isco was part of the Spain under-21 squad that became European champions in 2013. The then-21-year-old, who scored three times in Israel and was included in the team of the tournament, counted among his teammates David De Gea, Thiago Alcantara, Koke, Nacho and Rodrigo. Spain won't emulate their 2010 World Cup win unless some -- or all -- of those find top form in Russia. — Graham Hunter

Thomas Muller
Germany
Forward
Age: 28
2014 rank: 28
The 2010 World Cup's Golden Boot winner once scored 120 goals in a season. Muller was 8 at the time and playing for TSV Pahl, south of Munich. He has been less prolific in his most recent seasons, during which he has primarily operated on the right wing or as a box-to-box player providing service to a more orthodox centre-forward. His leadership qualities and ingenuity ensure he will remain in Germany's starting XI, but his role has somewhat diminished. — Raphael Honigstein

Gerard Pique
Spain
Defender
Age: 31
2014 rank: 47
On the wall of Pique's office at his video games company is a large, imposing picture of the handsome, rich, successful, bright, world-famous centre-half ... crying like a baby while hugging his mother. The scene is the main tribune at Soccer City in Johannesburg, the moment just seconds after Spain won the 2010 World Cup. For much of the next 90 minutes, following the release of tension brought by such a surge of overwhelming emotion, Pique scoured the stadium for its goal nets to mark the most momentous of occasions. — Graham Hunter

Sergio Busquets
Spain
Midfielder
Age: 29
2014 rank: 40
After a win vs. Honduras in 2010, I asked Busquets for a comment. "Why always me? Is it because I'm friendly and polite that I have to be asked all the time?" he replied fiercely. He was upset about being blamed for a defeat to Switzerland, and it took then-manager Vicente Del Bosque admitting "if I had to be reincarnated as a current footballer, it would be Sergio Busquets" to restore calm. Busquets, who turns 30 the day after this World Cup ends, will be key in Spain's midfield. — Graham Hunter

Sadio Mane
Senegal
Forward
Age: 26
2014 rank: N/A
There was anguish across Senegal when Mane suffered a hamstring injury vs. Cape Verde that threatened to keep him out of decisive World Cup qualifiers against South Africa the following month. However, he not only recovered but also delivered a virtuoso performance in the first match by setting up the two goals that helped Senegal clinch a place in Russia. If they are to make a similar impact to their quarterfinal run of the 2002 World Cup, Mane will surely be a key player. — Colin Udoh

Ivan Rakitic
Croatia
Midfielder
Age: 30
2014 rank: N/A
While undoubtedly a magnificent player, Rakitic has missed becoming a superstar. He never surpassed Xavi Hernandez at Barcelona; with the national team, Luka Modric has always been a couple of steps ahead. In fact, Croatian pundits still discuss finding balance between the duo -- think of them as the Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard of Croatia -- even though both are into their 30s and have played together for more than a decade. Rakitic has never disappointed, but rarely stands out. — Michael Yokhin

Romelu Lukaku
Belgium
Forward
Age: 25
2014 rank: N/A
Lukaku has not always felt comfortable at international level -- "I didn't enjoy being a part of it; I didn't like being selected," he said of life under previous coach Marc Wilmots -- but he has stepped up under Roberto Martinez, his old manager at Everton, and looks secure as the spearhead of a team that must deliver on long-held promise. Nobody has scored more for Belgium; Lukaku can cut an ungainly figure up front when things are not going well, but is one of the world's best strikers when firing. — Nick Ames

James Rodriguez
Colombia
Midfielder
Age: 26
2014 rank: N/A
He was a breakout star at the previous World Cup, but the subsequent four years have been dogged by frustration at club level: He was signed by Real Madrid before being loaned to Bayern Munich. By contrast, James loves playing for the national team because his importance is unchallenged -- he is given freedom to roam in search of the space from which he can do most damage. He will look at Russia as a moment to re-emphasise his status among the global elite. — Tim Vickery

Gonzalo Higuain
Argentina
Forward
Age: 30
2014 rank: 41
The virtual world has turned him into an object of ridicule after his misses in finals for Argentina, but that is a gross lack of respect for Higuain's superb career. Pipita scored at will with River Plate, Real Madrid, Napoli and Juventus and has long been a key member of the Albiceleste squad. However, to quiet his critics he still needs to pass an important test, and the World Cup will give him a chance to do just that. — Nicolas Baier

Gabriel Jesus
Brazil
Forward
Age: 21
2014 rank: N/A
Four years ago, Gabriel Jesus was a 17-year-old fan of the Brazil national team, cheering on his country during the World Cup it hosted. Indeed, he joined the festivities by painting the walls and streets around his neighborhood -- Jardim Peri, north of Sao Paulo -- with Canarinho colors. Four years on and having made his mark in the club game with Manchester City, he is the starting striker in Tite's lineup, finally realising his dream of playing in a World Cup. — Vladimir Bianchini

Son Heung-Min
South Korea
Forward
Age: 25
2014 rank: N/A
To get an idea how important Son is to South Korea, consider what coach Shin Tae-yong said in April when asked his plan to get the best from the attacker: "We're trying to implement the 4-4-2 formation that Tottenham uses." If South Korea have any hope to getting out of a group with Germany, Mexico and Sweden, Son has to be decisive. He left the 2014 World Cup in tears but can be more influential this time. — John Duerden

Mesut Ozil
Germany
Midfielder
Age: 29
2014 rank: 29
Having started at age 6 at DJK Westfalen Gelsenkirchen, Ozil played for two more clubs in the next five years, searching for a big break. In 2000, his father, Mustafa, asked (fourth-division) Rot-Weiss Essen youth director Walter Kik to look at the boy juggling the ball outside. Kik needed five minutes to decide and, weeks later, sanctioned a monthly payment for the 12-year-old. Schalke 04 then became aware of Ozil, whose career took off when he signed for the Royal Blues in 2005. — Raphael Honigstein

Willian
Brazil
Midfielder
Age: 29
2014 rank: N/A
He will arrive in Russia in good shape for his second World Cup, literally. The former Corinthians, Shakhtar Donetsk and Anzhi Makhachkala midfielder has changed his diet in recent years, cutting foods that were affecting his physique. What happened? More goals, more assists and better all-around play. Willian captained Brazil for the first time in a November friendly vs. Japan, becoming the 14th player to wear the armband under Tite. — Vladimir Bianchini

Mats Hummels
Germany
Defender
Age: 29
2014 rank: N/A
Ulla Holthoff was the first woman to commentate on football in Germany and created the country's first football-focused talk show. She also happens to be the mother of Hummels, who is the most cultured, opinionated and (arguably) handsome centre-back to ever represent the national team. No wonder Die Welt called Holthoff "the mother of modern football": Germany would be less progressive without her, on and off the pitch. — Raphael Honigstein

Dele Alli
England
Midfielder
Age: 22
2014 rank: N/A
The Tottenham midfielder is the player with X factor in Gareth Southgate's England squad. Alli scores goals but also creates them. It is his fiery temperament that is a concern, with indiscipline and reckless challenges always threatening to prove costly and Alli sometimes appearing like a petulant red card waiting to happen. His partnership with Harry Kane is crucial for Tottenham, but we are still waiting to see the pair click together successfully on the international stage. — Mark Ogden

Raheem Sterling
England
Forward
Age: 23
2014 rank: N/A
One of only five survivors from England's ill-fated 2014 World Cup campaign, the Manchester City forward has matured as a player and, in the buildup to Russia, has brushed off criticism over a gun tattoo. Working under Pep Guardiola has enabled Sterling to iron out his flaws and develop into a more dangerous, all-round forward; his national-team manager, Gareth Southgate, will expect the winger to carry on his club form. — Mark Ogden

Thibaut Courtois
Belgium
Goalkeeper
Age: 26
2014 rank: 36
Courtois was no fan of former coach Marc Wilmots. The goalkeeper pointedly said Belgium had been "tactically outclassed" by Italy in a 2-0 defeat at Euro 2016 and, with his father, recently began legal action against the ex-manager for "libel and defamation" after Wilmots allegedly suggested the elder Courtois had leaked team information. Things are more settled under Roberto Martinez, and Courtois, who conceded only six goals during qualifying, remains a world-class last line of defence for his country. — Nick Ames

Dries Mertens
Belgium
Forward
Age: 31
2014 rank: N/A
Napoli's self-styled "street dog" made one of Belgium's more memorable contributions at Brazil 2014, scoring a late winner against Algeria in the group stage. It won him a bet with his father, whose moustache he then shaved off. Similar scoring heroics would go down well in Russia, but Mertens has only found the net against relatively weak nations in recent times, despite revelatory form for his club. He should start on the right side of attack. — Nick Ames

Diego Godin
Uruguay
Defender
Age: 32
2014 rank: N/A
Uruguay's centre-back, captain and leader has been present throughout the 12-year reign of coach Oscar Washington Tabarez. As intelligent as he is ferocious, Godin organises the defensive line and is a forceful, thoughtful voice on off-the-field questions. Moreover, he has a habit of weighing in with vital goals, such as the group-stage winner vs. Italy in 2014. He confessed recently that "there isn't a day goes by that I stop thinking about the World Cup. I dream of lifting the trophy." — Tim Vickery

Angel Di Maria
Argentina
Midfielder
Age: 30
2014 rank: 23
It seems like a curse keeps hunting Di Maria whenever he is on national-team duty. Because of injuries, he could not play the semifinals and final of the 2014 World Cup, while he also had to be substituted due to physical discomfort in a pair of Copa America finals against Chile. Fideo admitted that international setbacks have taken a physical and psychological toll but, in Russia, he has an opportunity to put those behind him. — Nicolas Baier

Marco Asensio
Spain
Midfielder
Age: 22
2014 rank: N/A
Spain manager Julen Lopetegui might decide that talent is paramount and that Asensio must start, but what looks likely is that he begins the World Cup as the first replacement off the bench, for Andres Iniesta. Fortunately for his country, just one of the remarkable things about this talented attacking midfielder is that Asensio remains as intensely focused and likely to affect whether he starts or comes on. Russia offers a stage upon which he could propel himself from super player to all-out superstar. — Graham Hunter

Radamel Falcao
Colombia
Forward
Age: 32
2014 rank: 19
A dynamic, predatory centre-forward, Falcao was so desperate to recover from injury in time for the previous World Cup that it might have had a detrimental effect on his performances in the following two years. This, then, is a big moment, perhaps the most important of his career. The headache for coach Jose Pekerman is that Falcao's lack of back-to-goal skills makes it hard for him to play up front on his own. — Tim Vickery

Ousmane Dembele
France
Forward
Age: 21
2014 rank: N/A
In March 2016, Dembele was asked which foot he favoured. The then-Rennes player replied that he preferred his left, to which the puzzled journalist replied, "But you score a lot of goals with your right foot." "That's true. But I'm still more left-footed," Dembele said. "Why do you take penalties with your right foot, though?" the interviewer continued. The young star's response was priceless: "Ha, that's because I shoot better with my right foot!" — Julien Laurens

Raphael Varane
France
Defender
Age: 25
2014 rank: N/A
While many would-be players choose between education and football at a relatively young age, Varane is one of the exceptions. School was always important to him and his parents, and in June 2011, at the age of 18, he passed his Baccalaureat (specialising in economics). As if studying for exams was not hard enough, he did so while also fielding calls from Zinedine Zidane and Jose Mourinho, who wanted him to sign for Real Madrid. Which he eventually did that same summer. — Julien Laurens

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