This article profiles 25 of the most exciting players in World Football today.
Football is one of the world’s finest forms of entertainment, and the drama and the excitement that come with the sport have made it a global phenomenon and a profitable international product.
This piece celebrates the artists, the daredevils and the prodigies of the world’s game.
I have particularly focused on those players who have the capacity to excite, to enthral and to exhilarate, thus, perhaps it is no surprise that dribblers and speed merchants are heavily represented among the 25.
One of the reasons why players such as Maradona, Michael Laudrup and Garrincha are so revered, even today, is in their ability to carry the ball over distances and at speed, to take people on and to beat the opposition.
This quality is valued highly in this list, and therefore, attacking players are represented more frequently than defensive talents.
However, this is not to say that dribbling is the be all and end all. I have also tried to include a nod toward the young, giving space to consider potential, development and the electricity that only youth can harness. I consider some lesser-known talents, rather than purely the names that so frequently populate these pages.
Whilst this collection are all at different stages of their development, and all progressing toward being different types of talent, all have the capacity to enthral and excite at the highest level.
Even with Shinji Kagawa having moved to pastures new, Borussia Dortmund still have a stable of midfielders to rival any across Europe. For the speedy Leonardo Bittencourt to break into the side, he must oust someone of the ilk of Kevin Grosskreutz, Mario Gotze, Nuri Sahin, Marco Reus, Ilkay Gundogan, Kuba Blaszczykowski and Moritz Leitner. It seems like a near-insurmountable challenge.
However, competition can often bring the best from a talented youngster, and Dortmund have at least demonstrated in the past that they are not afraid to put faith in youth.
The Brazilian-German attacking midfielder has the raw materials to suggest he could make it to the top of the game; with footballing intelligence, delightful ball skills and pace to burn, the confident midfielder could well emerge as a major asset for the Schwarzgelben.
This year I have overseen Moses’s transformation from raw attacking talent to established, elite performer. Earlier in the year, the forward’s assets were his clinical finishing and searing pace, but since then, he has added depth and character to his game.
Arriving at Chelsea, from Wigan, his impact was first felt in the Autumn, as crucial goals against Manchester United and Shakhtar Donetsk identified him as a player who could make the difference in major matches.
The African Cup of Nations was a watershed moment, as he single-handedly ensured Nigeria’s progression from their qualifying group after winning—and converting—two penalties against Ethiopia. He took the next step against Mali in the semifinal, as the scorer became the creator—a mature display thrust him right into the hearts of Super Eagles fans.
It remains to be seen quite how far Moses can go in the sport, if he can continue to demonstrate the creative, more cerebral side to his game, then we could be looking at one of the most exciting talents of his generation.
A player at a much earlier stage of his development than the others on this list, Jean Marie Dongou has nonetheless achieved admirable amounts of coverage and praise in his short career to date.
A product of Samuel Eto’o’s Douala academy, Dongou is the finest prospect of the many who have found their way from Cameroon to La Masia in recent years. Since arriving in Catalonia, Dongou, along with teammate Gerard Deulofeu has emerged as the jewel of the youth setup; they are the players who most look like spearheading the Spanish giants into the future.
A former top scorer in the prestigious NextGen Series, the frontman has begun to show that he is about more than mere goals; short, stocky, with impressive upper body strength and explosive speed, the striker manages to score a wide variety of goals.
Bearing in mind the youngster’s abilities, his prodigal rise to date and Barcelona’s capacity and proclivity for bringing through talented products, I would say it is likely that the world will get to see and know Dongou and Deulofeu in the near future.
Have any other central midfielders in the world improved their reputation more than Paul Pogba this season?
At the end of the summer he was merely a prospect—a highly-rated one, sure—but untried and untested. Many were surprised to see Manchester United release a player who has been rated so highly, but in situations like this, the temptation, particularly among the British media, is to concede to Sir Alex Ferguson’s superior experience and extensive triumphs, and imagine that the youngster was worth neither the hype, nor the enormous wage he was demanding.
Today, he is a totally different figure within the world game. A French international, he received enormous plaudits following his debut for the senior side, even despite being sent off during the match.
It is, perhaps understandably, Pogba’s goal-scoring from distance that earns him the most headlines, but beyond the long-range efforts, there is a magnificent midfield talent; his frame and power have naturally prompted comparisons with Patrick Vieira, and while a defensive poise seems to come naturally, I can see Pogba making an all-round contribution in the middle of the park.
Already a terrific player, Pogba could well develop to be one of the world’s finest in his position.
With Pep Guardiola favouring a small squad at Barcelona, numerous La Masia products have been given their chance to shine over the last few years. Tello is one who took his opportunity admirably, and has never looked out of place since taking the step up to the senior side.
A versatile forward, the quick-witted and technically proficient frontman has predominantly been deployed in wide positions, where he has impressed, particularly with his link-up work and the confidence with which he has approached the big stage.
With a new contract tying him to Catalonia until 2016, he is clearly a big part of Tito Vilanova’s plans, and could go on to become a prized asset for the side. Particularly impressive has been his successful introduction to the Champions League, while a recent brace against Zaragoza continues his goal-scoring trend in La Liga.
It took a breathtaking €40 million for Paris Saint-Germain to secure the signing of Brazilian youngster Lucas Moura from Sao Paulo. Already a Brazilian international, it remains to be seen whether Lucas will manage the form and the longevity to begin to justify this gargantuan price. For the moment, however, still only 20, he must be classed among the most exciting talents on the planet.
Despite being eliminated by Barcelona in their Champions League quarterfinal match-up, PSG impressed upon their return to the continental high table. In the crunch game at the Camp Nou, Lucas delivered a particularly intoxicating performance; his power, dribbling and pace continuously got the better of leftback Jordi Alba—all the more impressive considering that the Spaniard is among the world’s finest in his position.
Early signs in Ligue 1 have been hugely promising, and the Brazilian has shone even among the exalted company he now holds in the capital. There is no reason why Lucas can’t rise to the absolute top of his game; he has likened himself to Lionel Messi, and whilst a minute number of players ever achieve close to what the Argentine star has achieved, there are definite parallels between the style and approach of the two men.
Anyone who has kept tabs on the Premier League this season, and more specifically Tottenham Hotspur, will be acutely aware of the excitement that Gareth Bale can infuse into a match.
This season, the Welshman’s progression from swashbuckling left-back to pacy, powerful winger to omnipresent attacking midfielder is nearly complete, and at this point in time, the sky appears to be the limit for the EPL’s most exciting starlet.
This season, Bale has begun to change games on his own, even when those around him are flagging and labouring, the former Southampton man has upped his game and so often driven home the performance for Tottenham Hotspur.
His devastating raw ability has finally found its place within the body of a world class competitor, and the Premier League has reeled as Bale has produced a litany of dazzling contributions to thrust Spurs firmly into the mix for the Champions League.
It remains to be seen whether Bale will remain at Tottenham, and in Britain, following this season. If Spurs fail to achieve the top four, then he may seek a fresh start elsewhere. The EPL would surely be loathe to lose one of the league’s finest assets, but Bale—arguably the world’s most exciting star at the moment—would be a major asset for any side who could accommodate him.
The teenage midfielder cost Internazionale €15 million when they snared him from Dinamo Zagreb back in January, besting Chelsea, Manchester City and Real Madrid to secure his signature. So far in Italy, his impact has been brief, but it has been voluble, and the playmaker seems already to have given the fans indication that he is up for the challenge of resurrecting the Italian giants.
The first sign that he was prepared to revel in the pressure was when he accepted the club’s No. 10 shirt. Previously worn by Champions League winning midfielder Wesley Sniejder, the acceptance was more about the mantle and the responsibility than the number itself—it was a huge gesture for an 18 year old to make
Against Tottenham Hotspur in the Europa League, he was particularly impressive, and earned a standing ovation following a 4-1 victory. With remarkably precise passing ability, delectable craftsmanship and stunning technical prowess for one so young, I am incredibly excited to see how Kovacic can mature and develop over the coming seasons.
Could he finally be Inter’s answer to iconic Italian regista Andrea Pirlo? The Nerazzurri let the deep-lying playmaker slip through their fingers when he was a much younger man…they are unlikely to make the same mistake again.
A terrific left winger with awesome dribbling ability and searing pace, there is a reason why Christian Atsu carries the moniker ‘The Ghanaian Messi.’
Some breathtaking performances while on loan at Rio Ave served to both catapult Atsu into the Ghanaian team, and earn him a chance to demonstrate his wares at parent club Porto. The winger hasn’t quite electrified in the Portuguese top flight quite as some of us had hoped he would, but he has demonstrated, in glimpses, the ability and awareness that has had so many writing and talking about his potential.
Spurs were linked strongly with a move for him in January, while in recent times he has been linked to Everton. A release clause of only £8 million will have alerted clubs across Europe, but it is the Premier League where I expected to see Atsu’s exciting array of attacking talents in the near future.
When a player is likened, at his club side, to none other than Cristiano Ronaldo, and when he is revered in his home nation, as a successor to legendary South American playmaker Carlos Valderrama, you know you are dealing with a very special talent.
Porto’s young attacker James Rodriguez is emerging as one of the most talented and skillful players plying their trade in European football. Most comfortable featuring on the right-side of a front three, Rodriguez excels in menacing opposition fullbacks.
Despite being highly rated for several years, this season has seen him truly rise to another level of status and reputation. Perhaps the ease at which he has linked up with countryman Jackson Martinez has certainly helped things, but you get the impression that Rodriguez’s agility, finishing, dribbling and delightful touch would be a hit whoever he was dovetailing with.
A Colombian frontline featuring Rodriguez, Martinez and Falcao could well be among the most potent at next year’s World Cup. Could that be the stage where Rodriguez announces himself as one of the globe’s finest?
Unlike almost all of the other stars on this list, Raphael Varane is a defensive rather than an offensive talent. However, his nascent talent and career trajectory to date, suggests that this is a player we should all be getting very excited about.
His potential is scary, and I am classing Varane as ‘exciting’ not because of his flair, his creativity or his unpredictability, but because I could name on one hand defenders who have been as accomplished as Varane at such a young age. Indeed, it is a position in which players famously improve with age, which means that before too long, we could be looking at the finest centreback for a generation.
Still a teenager, Varane is already a regular player for Real Madrid, and has recently broken into the French national side, where his two displays to date have been met with a very positive response.
I shall watch this youngster’s progress with great intent, and I advise you all to do the same.
The outstanding player in the English nPower Championship this season, Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha has agreed to move to Manchester United this summer. The initial fee of £10 million is testament to the potential that Sir Alex Ferguson sees in the youngster.
Despite only being 20, Zaha has made a phenomenal impact in the English second tier this season. His influence has been one of the major reasons why Palace are in the midst of a promotion campaign rather than their traditional relegation battle.
His impressive technical ability, outstanding pace and exciting dribbling have won him many plaudits, and after working his way through England’s youth sides, he made his full international debut at the end of last season.
It will be fascinating to watch the progress of the Cote d’Ivoire born youngster at Old Trafford from this summer. Ferguson’s development of young attacking talent has touched everywhere on the spectrum, from Obertan and Bebe to Giggs and Ronaldo. It will be intriguing to see where Zaha will come to belong among these varying degrees of success.
From a very early age, Neymar has been destined for something special. Football loves its circular narratives and its prodigal foreshadowings, and thus far, Neymar’s career has fed this craving.
Few clubs do history and continuity quite like Santos. When Brazlian prodigy Robinho emerged onto the scene at the club, with club icon Pele as his godfather, Santos fans revelled in the presumption that they had finally uncovered the heir to the great man’s crown.
In 2005, it was Neymar whose name was whispered gently around the terraces, and to whom was reserved the latest spot in the Santos succession. With Robinho as his grandfather, and such incredible raw abilities, it seemed like once again, Santos were to claim the jewel of the Brazilian national team.
In truth, any conclusive assessments of Neymar’s progress and status are being held off until next summer; it is likely that this is when he will finally depart South America to test himself in one of Europe’s major leagues, and the World Cup in Brazil—where he is sure to be the hosts’ star attraction—which will allow the watching world to decide exactly how to evaluate this enigmatic superstar.
In principle, Neymar is capable of being whatever he wants to be. He has an almost unrivalled ability among other players his age (21), although recent underwhelming performances for the national side, against bona fide international opposition, suggest there is still great work to be done.
Any one who has ever seen Romelu Lukaku in the flesh will get the mania that has surrounded him ever since he was a young boy. The guy is a physical phenomenon; standing at 6'3", with a hulking frame, yet with the explosive pace and the zip to trouble even the speediest of defenders.
It was always inevitable that he would leave Anderlecht, and the parochial security of the Belgian league, for pastures new, and hindsight, Chelsea were not going to let his emergence pass them by.
The ‘New Drogba’ was bought to replace the…er…’Old Drogba’, and even though that didn’t happen last season, as the veteran Ivorian rolled back the years to guide Chelsea to the Champions League final, Lukaku’s performances this season suggest that the Belgian forward may yet have a long future at Stamford Bridge.
A loan move to West Bromwich Albion has afforded the monster forward both the chance to get to grips with the Premier League, and the opportunity to rediscover the electricity and confidence that made him such a major player in Belgium.
With nine league goals in nine league stars in the West Midlands, Lukaku has certainly endeared himself to Throstles’ fans. If he can continue to deliver performances with the same ferocious power and tenacity as he has done this season, then Chelsea will surely be delighted to reintegrate their man into the first team picture.
Big things await this prodigal frontman.
Mohamed Salah’s impressive pair of performances against Tottenham Hotspur in the Europa League quarterfinal caught the eye of the watching world, freshly alerted to this delightful young prospect.
To those of us who have been tracking Salah for a while however, his daring display and delicious dissection of the Spurs backline, came as little surprise.
The Egyptian has been the chief silver-lining in a desperate few years for his nation and its football side. Following the political upheaval of the Arab Spring and the retirement of many of the country’s dominant triple-Afcon-winning generation, the future looked bleak for Egypt’s football.
Fortunately, a clutch of players are emerging who look primed to rediscover some of the prestige of the last decade. Salah, with his dribbling, movement, touch and finishing, could well be the man to spearhead this new generation.
The Swiss League won’t be able to retain him for much longer, expect to see Salah and his array of exciting manoeuvres on a bigger stage some time soon.
David Alaba is another of the few players on this list who are classed as ‘exciting’ not necessarily because of their attacking prowess or their ability to ignite a crowd. Rather, the likes of Alaba and Varane are included in light of their awesome development to date, the speed at which they have dealt with the challenges ahead of them and the subsequent possibilities of their future progress.
Since arriving on the scene at Bayern Munich as a versatile, energetic central midfielder, Alaba has been re-trained and re-packaged as a left-back. It was a win-win situation for player and club. It took the young Austrian out of the race for a midfield berth; with many talented central players in the squad, and limited game time, this avoided any stagnation in the player. Also, it solved Bayern’s problem at left-back, allowing Philip Lahm to move to the right side, and pushing Jerome Boateng—when fit—back into his favoured central position.
The youngster has all the qualities sought for in a full-back—he is dynamic, fit, understands how to use the ball, tackles well and has an impressive positional awareness. It will be fascinating to see how he develops in his new position, and within the Bayern Munich machine.
Recent reports that have linked Manchester City to AZ Alkmaar wonderkid Adam Maher will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the midfielder’s development over recent months, and even years.
The Morocco-born star has demonstrated excellent technical ability and terrific off the ball movement in the early stages of his career, already a Dutch international, having represented the Netherlands at various youth levels, he is rightly considered among Europe’s hottest prospects at the moment.
The creative player has been earmarked by various major sides, including Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea, and it seems inevitable that his talents will be appreciated on a more exalted stage sometime soon. A fee of over £15 million has been mooted, but the chance to lay hands on a young playmaker of the quality of Maher may be irresistible for EPL holders Manchester City.
In this, arguably Malaga’s finest-ever season, their outstanding player has been young Spanish attacking midfielder Isco. Few expected, considering the turmoil that abounded at the club at the beginning of the season, that they would have prospered so well over the coming months.
After recording a phenomenal start to their maiden Champions League campaign, topping their group and overcoming FC Porto in the round of 16, Malaga played their part in a Hollywood quarterfinal against Dortmund.
Despite being eliminated, the side from the Spanish coast impressed, and demonstrated that this roster of players could well belong among the upper echelons of the European game.
There is no ambiguity as to whether Isco belongs at such a level. With an exceptional range of passing, resiliency that belies his slender years, and prodigal ball control, the youngster has perhaps been the revelation of this La Liga season.
Youth has been accompanied, naturally, by inconsistency, and this is perhaps the key hurdle that Isco needs to overcome to complete his game.
Despite being, nominally, a midfielder, Isco leads Malaga’s scoring charts this year, and has also broken into the Spain team. The depths of quality that La Roja possess means that he will have to retain a high standard of consistent performance in order to retain a spot in the squad, but anyone who has witnessed Isco’s delicious abilities will have a quiet confidence that he will be a star for years to come.
The former-Basle boy wonder may have struggled thus far to nail down a regular starting berth at German giants FC Bayern, but I am quietly confident that within a few years we will be talking about Shaqiri in some pretty exalted terms, and will be classing him among Europe’s finest players.
The Swiss international, of Albanian origin, was a superstar in the Swiss League, earning major plaudits for his electric speed and explosive playing style. Despite being only 21, he already has over 20 caps for the Swiss national side, and has the presence and ability to become one of the nation’s finest ever players.
At Bayern he has gently begun to suggest that he has the charisma and character to become a mainstay at the side. In December he was Man of the Match as the Bavarians battered BATE in the Champions League, and he may be one of the stars to benefit the most from the arrival of Pep Guardiola this summer.
Few players exemplify the merits of their side better than Victor Wanyama. In many ways he encapsulates the qualities that have brought Celtic to such success this season; he is brave and determined, relentless and energetic, he possesses both beauty and a bite, and he is composed enough to orientate himself appropriately to the match in question.
All of these qualities were on show back in 2012, as the Kenyan was one of the key players in Celtic’s unforgettable 2-1 home triumph against Barcelona in the Champions League.
His all-action displays, goal-scoring and maturity have naturally alerted bigger teams. Neil Lennon has valued him at £25 million, and while teams may not match that price, Celtic certainly look set to make a major profit on the £900,000 they spent on him back in 2011.
Within the African context, there is also the suggestion that Wanyama, alongside his brother McDonald Mariga, might prompt an East African revolution. The region has long been underrepresented within the continent’s football, and these two Champions League-level performers may be exactly what is needed to give the Great Lakes region a new direction and sporting identity.
Unpredictability is exciting. It’s hard to argue with. Football has been littered with mavericks throughout the years, guys who have set themselves apart by being totally impossible to read, players who have suggested one thing and delivered another, or who have made their name from doing the unexpected, or even the unthinkable, on a regular occasion.
Unlike almost all of the other stars on this list, Adel Taarabt isn’t in a rich vein of form, nor has he taken the world by storm in recent months, in fact, his stock has fallen this year, to the point where his future is decidedly murky.
With QPR’s relegation now all but inevitable, I have difficulty picturing Adel once again battling away in the division from which his virtuosic performances lifted the Super Hoops two years ago. Instead, I believe it’s time that the Moroccan star cut loose from the Rangers and sought his fortune elsewhere.
Too often have his intentions, commitment and qualities been questioned in West London, here is a player with prodigal abilities, a star once identified as the Heir to Zidane, who is having to justify himself to a cause that, right now, feels beneath him.
If the playmaker manages to take his ‘supreme talent’ someplace new, I believe that Taarabt could finally realise the potential that had people raving about him at such a young age. Still only 23, he has time on his hands to build an exciting career at the top level of the sport.
Another product of Samuel Eto’o’s Football Foundation, Olinga, like J-M Dongou, looks set to be a major success in Spain following his arrival from Central Africa. Olinga also followed a career trajectory much like his hero, Eto’o, moving to Mallorca as a crucial stepping stone in his development.
Still only 16, Olinga has a long way to go to match his patron, but early signs are that we are dealing with a terrific talent here.
He made headlines when he was called up by Manuel Pellegrini for the opening game of the 2012-13 La Liga season, and sealed a dream debut by entering the fray with half an hour to play and bagging the only goal of the game. It was a perfect start for player and club, and allowed Olinga to break Iker Muniain’s record for the league’s youngest ever goalscorer.
He is clearly untroubled by the big occasion and the higher stage, as he proved on his debut for the Cameroonian national side. Seen by many as the eventual, long-term successor to Eto’o, he scored in his first game for the Indomitable Lions.
Doubtless, Olinga will encounter all kinds of hurdles in his quest to become an elite star, it won’t always be this easy, but early outings show that this could be a player with all of the tools to begin to follow Eto’o’s path to greatness.
Last season, Milan frontman Stephan El Shaarawy began to show a promise that set him apart from the majority of young forwards across Europe. As with so many young players however, it was hard to guarantee that nascent talent would eventually produce a world-class striker.
This season, however, El Shaarawy can no longer be considered a raw young striker, he has found the consistency and composure that was lacking in the past and is now considered one of Serie A’s finest frontmen.
The ‘changing of the guard’ at Milan has clearly worked in his favour, and the departure of a whole swathe of veterans and dead wood has allowed the youngster to cement himself as the main man up front. He is not the only one to have grasped the game time available and to have revelled in the limelight, and Milan fans can look forward to an exciting future with El Shaarawy leading the line.
Still only 20, he currently stands third in Serie A’s top scorer charts with 16 goals. Already a full Italy international, ‘Il Faraone’ clearly has an exceptionally bright future ahead of him.
Unlike some of the other talents on this list, Mario Gotze is already an established, elite-level star. While various players listed here are only on the fridges of first team action, Gotze is already a key player for both Borussia Dortmund—one of the four teams still alive in the Champions League, and the German national side—currently in second place in FIFA’s World Ranking.
All this, and he is still only 20.
With 22 caps for the national side to date, Gotze has emerged from an enormously talented roster of players as the key creative fulcrum in the side moving forward. At club level, he already has two Bundesliga winners’ medals, and with nearly 100 appearances for Dortmund, is already approaching ‘legend’ status with the Schwarzgelben.
The upcoming Champions League semifinal clash with Real Madrid will doubtless be an enormous challenge for the midfielder, but regardless of the outcome, there is sure to be a tremendous clamour for his services this summer.
Manchester City have been heavily linked with Germany’s star man, and if he does choose to test himself beyond the Bundesliga, I wouldn’t bet against his talent picking up further silverware and further admirers.
Truly an exceptional talent, and one of the world’s most exciting young stars.
The third component of an attacking frontline that contains the Afro-Italian talents of Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy, Niang is the rawest of the three, but has the potential to be one of Serie A’s brightest frontmen.
Since his early origins with Caen, in French Ligue 2, to his steady progression through France’s youth teams, Niang has been identified as a player with the capacity to cause serious damage to the opposition.
Adept at tearing down the flanks at pace, and strong enough to protect the ball, it is fair to say that his burgeoning physicality and raw athleticism has carried Niang to Milan and to his successes to date.
It is that word ‘raw’ that is inescapably associated with him, and while the base materials, and the context of Milan, appear perfectly set-up for him, the striker still has a long way to go for the talents shown to date to translate into a long career at the elite level.
Doubtless, we will be afforded the chance to assess Milan president Silvio Berlusconi’s claim that ‘Niang is better than Balotelli’.