7 Unappreciated Countries Loaded with Footballing Talent
Throughout its history, the game of football has expanded into new areas and regions with little pause for thought. Its simplicity and the passion it generates make it a wonderfully transferable sport across cultural, linguistic and even political divides.
It is an ever-shifting landscape. There are traditional powers who seemingly always manage to produce a team capable of challenging at the top level, others who have risen to the top of the game and, of course, those who have fallen.
This article, then, looks at some of those outside of the footballing elite. "Unappreciated" is a difficult word to define, but for the purposes of this piece, we will take it to mean those countries not regularly challenging in the latter stages of competitions.
The focus is on defining, of these nations, which seven are building sides with the potential to greatly improve upon recent performances.
Let's, then, look at seven sides who currently possess an unexpected quantity of elite footballing talent.
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Since the retirement of the 1992 European Championship winning generation that featured the likes of Peter Schmeichel and the Laudrup brothers, Danish football has struggled to compete with the European elite.
That, though, could be about to change, with a new generation of incredible potential beginning to emerge through the ranks of clubs Europe-wide.
The pin-up boy of Danish football is without doubt Christian Eriksen who, at just 21 years old, already has over 30 international appearances to his name. It is unlikely that the classy attacking midfielder will remain at Ajax much longer, and the list of potential suitors is sizable.
While it had looked like he would be leading the Danish charge for years to come, it is now clearly evident that he will be well supported in his task.
At Ajax alone, two more young Danes of some repute are emerging.
Viktor Fischer, 18, has been mightily impressive in his first season of first-team action for the Amsterdam side and has a reputation as a fine goalscorer. Attacking midfielder Lucas Andersen, also 18, is another tipped to rise to the very top after making his debut earlier this season.
In coming campaigns they will no doubt be led in attack by towering centre-forward Andreas Cornelius, 20, who has managed 16 goals in 23 appearances for FC Copenhagen this season.
Aab's 21-year-old forward Nicklas Helenius is also building himself a considerable reputation, while it should be remembered that Nicklas Bendtner is still just 25 years of age.
Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel should eventually seize the No. 1 shirt and has plenty of years ahead of him, while Daniel Agger has a potential long-term defensive partner of great potential in Nordsjaelland's Jores Okore.
Daniel Wass looks to be a nailed on bet for the right-back position, while PSV'S Mathias Jorgensen and Ajax's Nolai Boilesen will be hoped to progress and challenge for defensive spaces long-term.
If a Schmeichel in goal wasn't enough for you, 22-year-old playmaker Andreas Laudrup may also have a long term future with the side if he continues his progression with new side Saint Etienne.
Chile have been an improving footballing nation for some time, and the good news for fans of La Roja is that there is plenty more talent to come.
The likes of Matias Fernandez, Mauricio Isla, Arturo Vidal and Gary Medel are still all in their mid-20s, meaning that much of the core of the current side still has plenty of years ahead of them. However, is there an even better generation on the way?
Chile may not have won the South American Youth Championship in January, but they certainly showed signs that they should have performed better in the latter stages. Of course, that was in the absence of Manchester United owned Angelo Henriquez (pictured).
Defensive midfielder Sebastian Martinez, 19, has been playing at first-team level for Universidad de Chile for some time, as has 19-year-old centre-back Igor Lichnovsky. Club colleague and centre-back partner Valber Huerta, also 19, also looks a promising talent.
Sevilla's 18-year-old attacking midfielder Bryan Rabello is a terrifically talented attacking midfielder, speedy forward Diego Rubio is highly rated by club side Sporting Lisbon and centre-forward Nico Castillo will be heavily monitored following a series of fine displays at the event.
Watch out also for 17-year-old left winger Cristian Cuevas who will join Chelsea this summer (Daily Mail) and 23-year-old midfielder Charles Aranguiz who is set for Udinese according to reports. (Spanish)
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Japan are another rapidly improving footballing side, with investment in grass roots football coaching paying dividends with a crop of technically gifted players.
That is not to say that the Blue Samurai will be challenging for World Cup titles anytime soon, but there is a good chance that they could be regulars in the knockout stages of international tournaments in coming years.
The natural stars of the side are 26-year-old CSKA Moscow midfielder Keisuke Honda and Manchester United's supremely gifted attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa. Both have several years ahead of them at the top level.
There are plenty more talented players beyond that, though, with Stuttgart striker Shinji Okazaki, for example, a regular goalscorer at international level.
Attacking midfielders Hiroshi Kiyotake and Takashi Inui, too, look set for bigger things after impressing in the Bundesliga with Nurnberg and Eintracht Frankfurt.
Centre-back Maya Yoshida has been playing well for Southampton this season, while full-backs Hiroki Sakai, Atsuto Uchida and Gotoku Sakai are all Bundesliga regulars. They, of course, compete with Inter Milan's Yuto Nagatomo for selection.
Arsenal fans will no doubt hope also that 20-year-old Ryo Miyaichi can come to grips with the English game to show his clear talents on a more regular basis, while fellow 20-year-old Takashi Usami of Hoffenheim is another tipped for the top.
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Cameroon were once leading the way for African football after their stunning showings at the World Cup in Italia '90, but have somewhat lost their way in recent years. The good news is, though, that there is plenty of talent emerging.
The Central Africans have, for many years, been heavily reliant on the performances of striker Samuel Eto'o. However, with the former Barcelona forward heading towards retirement, they will soon need to look elsewhere.
In defenders Jean-Armel Kana-Biyik, Nicolas N'koulou and Sebastien Bassong, they have three centre-backs in their early to mid-20s who all hold the potential to achieve major success in football. N'koulou, in particular, has been linked with a move to the great and good of European football. (Daily Mail)
Behind them, Cameroon can call upon a reliable goalkeeper in Carlos Kameni but he needs to move away from Malaga for game time.
In midfield, it is a similar story. Stephane Mbia will no doubt earn himself a big move should his QPR side meet relegation this season, Alex Song is remarkably still just 25 years old and Schalke's Joel Matip is an excellent player at 21 years old.
Forwards Jean-Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting of Mainz and Leonard Kweuke of Sparta Prague may not be elite strikers, but both offer sizeable threats. Beyond them, 16-year-old Fabrice Olinga of Malaga also boasts a considerable reputation.
Indeed, it may be in Spain cultivated youngsters that Cameroon's future lies with Barcelona's B-side and academy boasting several major talents.
Forward Jean-Marie Dongou, 17, is seen as one of La Masia's biggest prospects, while goalkeeper Joseph Ondoa and defender Macky Bagnack are also excellent players with bright futures.
Special attention, though, should be paid to 17-year-old winger Alain Ebwelle who has shown signs of being a truly special talent.
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Are Colombia finally realising their footballing potential? Maybe. The senior national side are flying at the moment, while their Under-20 squad were recently crowned champions of South America, suggesting that Los Cafeteros are truly on the rise.
Atletico Madrid striker Radamel Falcao is, of course, central to the teams hopes in the coming years as he continues to score goals at will in Spain's top flight. He has, though, plenty of willing backup.
So good is Falcao that one of Europe's leading marksmen this season is unable to get a start for his country. Jackson Martinez, 26, has scored 23 in 23 in the Liga Sagres for Porto this season and looks set to make his stay at the club a swift one.
Indeed, Porto have done very well in the Colombian market of late, with 21-year-old attacking midfielder James Rodriguez also among their ranks. A glorious player to watch, James is heavily tipped to make a summer move to Manchester United this year. (Express)
He is not the only young, left-footed playmaker of some repute to earn a link with the Red Devils, though, with Pescara's Juan Fernando Quintero also mentioned.
Quintero was the star of Colombia's recent Under-20 success, although there is much more to come from that generation, including midfielders Jose Leudo and Cristian Higuita, winger Brayan Perea and striker Jhon Cordoba.
Moving back to the senior side, it should not be forgotten that core players Cristian Zapata, Pablo Armero, Abel Aguilar, Carlos Sanchez and Juan Zuniga are all in their mid-20s.
The wonderfully talented Fredy Guarin also has many years ahead of him, while the relatively young Juan Cuadrado and Luis Muriel will both be hoping for regular inclusion before long.
The only major worry for Colombia moving forward is an ageing centre of defence, which will need a major refurbishment post-2014.
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Current Under-17 World Cup and Olympic champions Mexico are another football team very much heading in the right direction, despite the senior side's initial struggles in the current stage of 2014 World Cup qualifying.
The impressive thing about the current El Tri side is that, with the odd exception, it is a team based largely upon players who are yet to reach their footballing prime.
Interestingly, much of the side that achieved success at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London are yet to heavily feature at senior level.
The likes of Hiram Mier, Jorge Enriquez, Nestor Araujo Marco Fabian and Israel Jimenez are all on the fringes of the national side, but not yet regular picks. It surely cannot be long until more of the very talented Under-23 group are afforded time at senior level.
At centre-back, 20-year-old Diego Reyes is one of those who has made the step up and, from this summer, it has been confirmed (Spanish) that both he and highly rated midfielder Hector Herrera will ply their trade in Europe with Porto.
Reyes will no doubt be eyeing a long-term centre-back role with the national team alongside the superb Hector Moreno, 25, of Espanyol. Wingers Javier Aquino, 23, and Andres Guardado, 26, are also both playing in Spain and should play a big part in any future national team success.
Their job will surely be, for many years to come, to supply goals for Manchester United forward Javier Hernandez, whose fine goalscoring record continues at international level. Behind him, 23-year-old Giovani dos Santos is a potential match winner when on form.
The likes of attacking players Erick Torres, Julio Gomez and Carlos Fierro are hopes for the future but are still finding their feet at club level. All have talent in abundance should they make the step up.
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Led by Chelsea magician Eden Hazard, it is no secret that Belgium are currently enjoying a golden generation of footballing talent that has seemingly come from nowhere.
What is quite incredible is that the talent appears to be unceasing in its production, with several more talents coming through at youth level who are tipped to become top level footballers in the future.
Much talk in England this year has been of the remarkable scoring feats of strikers Romelu Lukaku, 19, and Christian Benteke, 22. Both players, sadly, occupy a very similar role in a team, and thus are unlikely to ever be used together. Both, though, are truly potent weapons.
It should not be forgotten, also, that Everton-owned second striker Kevin Mirallas was turning heads early season and is another player still under the age of 25.
In midfield, the depth of talent is extraordinary.
Hazard leads the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Dries Mertens and Nacer Chadli for the attacking midfield roles, while Mark Wilmots can choose from Marouane Fellaini, Axel Witsel, Mousa Dembele and Steven Defore, among others, for deeper deployment.
In defence it is a similar story. Manchester City's Vincent Kompany is the standout star, but Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Nicolas Lombaerts, Sebastien Pocognoli and Toby Alderweireld are also looking to secure their places for years to come.
Selecting a side is an unenviable task, before even considering that, in Thibault Courtois and Simon Mignolet, Belgium possess two of Europe's best young goalkeepers.
Looking further ahead, Anderlecht's exciting duo of central midfielder Denis Praet and right winger Massimo Bruno are two who will be looking to step up in the near future.
Beyond that, Zulte-Waregem duo of defender Bernard Malanda and his attacking midfielder colleague Thorgan Hazard, owned by Chelsea, are ones to watch. Mischievous striker Michy Batshuayi is another with incredible talent, if he can keep on the straight and narrow.
Chelsea fans will no doubt point to 16-year-old central midfielder Charly Musonda Jr. as one of the best in Europe at his age level, while Manchester United's Adnan Januzaj and Andreas Pereira are also interesting prospects.
There's also another highly rated Hazard on the scene, in the shape of 16-year-old Kylian at Lille. The French club also own 17-year-old Divock Origi, an attacking midfielder who recently scored his first Ligue 1 goal.