The Confederations Cup is fast approaching, with eight national teams set to battle for this summer’s most hotly-contested prize. Naturally, intrigue and speculation will predominantly surround the major teams and players featured—with Brazil and Neymar clearly primed to be show-stealers.
The lesser-known players also present a myriad of interests, and this article focuses on some of the stars who may be ‘under the radar’ going into the tournament—that is to say, who may not court major media attention, or whose identities may not be common knowledge to your casual football fan.
Doubtless, some of these stars will be the subject of transfer speculation this summer, and the Confederations Cup may provide an ideal window for you—and their prospective suitors—to learn a little more about some of world football’s lesser lights.
One of the key sub-narratives to Nigeria’s triumphant Africa Cup of Nations triumph earlier this year was boss Stephen Keshi’s revolution of the side. This was not a success built upon years of toil with a talented collective, nor was it the cherry on the top of a generation of impressive careers.
Keshi’s philosophy, on arriving in the hot seat, was to rid the squad of the under-performers, the underachievers and the disgruntled prima donnas, and to focus on building a squad of hungry, young stars. It was an approach utilised by Herve Renard with Zambia, who saw his side claim the African title back in 2012.
One of the many domestic-based players integrated into the team was Godfrey Oboabona. Having excelled alongside Azubuike Ekwuekwe throughout 2012, Oboabona found himself a key component in Nigeria’s cup of nations triumph. With national captain Joseph Yobo dropped from the team, the youngster formed a remarkably composed backline with similarly inexperienced Kenneth Omeruo.
The pair were a revelation, and Oboabona in particular stood out— his marshalling of Didier Drogba in the quarter-final with the Cote d’Ivoire was a master class in defensive play, and put an end, seemingly, to the legendary striker’s international career.
Sterner tests will surely lie in wait, and this Confederations Cup could be a crucial stepping stone in Oboabona’s road to the World Cup next summer.
As Mexico coach Juan Manuel de la Torre finds himself slipping further under pressure—as El Tri’s underwhelming 2013 continues—something he has consistently struggled to get right is the identity of Mexico’s starting centre-back pairing.
Veteran Rafael Marquez was once a sterling defender, now 34, however, his best days were evidently behind him long before de la Torre decided to give him a final swansong in the national side. Similarly, Francisco "Maza" Rodriguez has long been discarded by the majority of occasional observers of the Mexican (or German) game. Nonetheless, Maza is de la Torre’s captain, and rarely an imposing one at that.
However, there is one ray of hope, coming in the form of Maza’s teammate, Diego Reyes. Still only 20, the defender was a shining light in Mexico’s Olympic triumph, and his terrific work for Club America has earned him a major European move—to Portuguese giants Porto.
Described by Bleacher Report’s Alex Richards as “Good in the air, a decent reader of the game and with the ability to play the ball out from the back,” the Confederations Cup will provide his new owners a chance to examine their investment in some exalted company.
Admittedly, Paulinho is perhaps not as "under the radar" as some of the other players mentioned in this list, but having played the recent portion of his career in South America with giants Corinthians, he is perhaps not totally familiar to the broader, global sporting audience.
Despite scoring an impressive equaliser against England in the recent Maracana friendly, he was one of the lesser-known components of Felipao’s starting XI.
And yet the Corinthians midfielder is developing into quite a handy player, and in the absence of Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Sandro, a valuable asset to the South American giants.
Predominantly a holding player, capable of recycling the ball intelligently and keeping a team flowing from a deeper position, Paulinho also has admirable technical abilities—as he demonstrated with his crisply-taken goal against the Three Lions.
His energy and dynamism are also assets, and so while for Brazil he is the midfield’s anchor, he is more than capable of operating as an effective box-to-box midfielder.
Bleacher Report’s own Ryan Bailey recently explored the rumours linking the player to Internazionale and emerging-force Monaco. According to Bailey, either club could be set to profit from Paulinho’s all-round game, as well as his prowess going forward.
Firmly in the shop window this summer.
Unheralded, and almost unheard of ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations earlier in the year, Sunday Mba became a national hero during the competition. After first ousting Betis midfielder Nosa Igiebor from the starting XI, Mba then proceeded to oust hot favourites Cote d’Ivoire from the quarterfinals—silencing the Elephants with a delightful goal.
As if that wasn’t enough, the former Enyimba man stole the show in the final against Burkina Faso. With both Nigeria and the Etalons looking jaded on the occasion, Mba rose to the occasion, sealing the only goal of the clash to bring the trophy home to Lagos after a 19-year wait.
All has not been plain sailing since that emphatic triumph. Initial suggestions of a move to the Premier League—with Arsenal and Tottenham both interested—were revised to more modest realities.
Under pressure from Stephen Keshi, the midfielder eventually moved from Enugu Rangers to Warri Wolves—but not before an onerous transfer saga between the pair. Now established as a mainstay in the national side, Mba will be relishing the chance to continue to build his legacy in Brazil this summer.
With Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda likely to generate the majority of headlines surrounding Japan, there is a chance that Wolfsburg midfielder Hasebe might get short shrift. However, the player is a crucial cog in Alberto Zaccheroni’s Blue Samurai outfit, and is among the side’s most important contributors.
The reason for this is twofold. Playing as one of the two in Zaccheroni’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, Hasebe is charged with both supporting those in front of him and protecting those behind.
While playmaking and creating chances is Japan’s strength—particularly in the Asian arena—the defences of Brazil, Italy and Mexico will prove a sterner test this summer. Hasebe will be one of those charged with allowing Japan to play; regaining possession, working for the team and feeding those higher up the field.
While attacking is a Japanese strength, defending has emerged as a weakness in recent times. With only one clean sheet in their last seven games, you’d certainly fancy their Confederations Cup opponents to have a field day against the East Asians.
Hasebe, along with fellow deep-lying midfielder, the experienced Yasuhito Endo, will be crucial in protecting the fragile actors behind them, and ensuring that Japan remain competitive.
After another impressive year in the heart of Wolfsburg’s midfield, expect the determined former-Urawa Red Diamonds man to give his all this summer.