Top 10 Must-Watch Players at the FIFA 2014 World Cup
Welcome to Bleacher Report's guide to the top 10 players to watch in the upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup.
The quadrennial event is the apex of the footballing world and showcases the best players in the sport from every corner of the globe.
We've selected the prime stars and the performances everyone should be taking in when all eyes turn to Brazil this summer.
Who made the cut? Which players boast that world-class level of talent you simply can't resist? Come on in and take a look!
10. Eden Hazard, Belgium
Belgium are considered a "dark-horse" pick to win the 2014 FIFA World Cup—despite being a seeded team for the Group Stage draw—and boast a deep pool of wonderful talents.
Perhaps the only position at which the nation cannot boast two world-class players is full-back, with central midfield being a particular strong point.
The team as a whole, though, produce an extremely physical outlook and can struggle without a fair sprinkling of guile and creativity; parallels to Tottenham Hotspur are easy to draw.
Eden Hazard is the solution for coach Marc Wilmots, who knows that for his side to make waves in Brazil next year and challenge the very best, Hazard must be on top form to make the difference.
9. James Rodriguez, Colombia
Club: AS Monaco
Colombia are many people's alternative pick to win the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and their cause is certainly aided by the fact that the competition takes place very close to home soil.
In the CONMEBOL qualifiers, Los Cafeteros were dominant, picking up 30 points from 16 matches and finishing second only to Argentina in the final standings.
James Rodriguez is the star man in the side, playing from the flanks in Jose Pekerman's fluid 4-2-2-2 formation. The system accentuates his strong dribbling, piercing running and immense technical ability, while also allowing his good work ethic to come to the fore.
He notched three goals in 15 games during qualifying, but it's the link he's forged with striker Radamel Falcao—who also plays for Monaco at club level—that impresses the most.
Rodriguez has tricky feet, works hard off the ball and is as comfortable in the wide areas as he is drifting inside.
8. Wayne Rooney, England
Club: Manchester United
It's arguable that the country where Wayne Rooney is least appreciated in is his own.
Whether Three Lions fans are simply sick and tired of the English national team underachieving and are looking to isolate the Manchester United man as a scapegoat or not isn't clear. But what is apparent is that if England are to upset the odds in Brazil, Rooney becomes key.
There are few players in world football as capable of linking play in the final third as well as Rooney, and those who are cannot claim to boast the same incredible defensive work rate.
The former Everton prodigy has been immense all season and has seven goals in six qualifying games; he will serve as the main man up front for Roy Hodgson, and the pieces will be slotted in around him.
At 28, this is his chance to grace a FIFA World Cup in his prime.
7. Arjen Robben, Netherlands
Club: Bayern Munich
The Netherlands constructed an unbeaten run through the European qualifying section, winning nine and drawing one of their 10 games in Group D.
Head coach Louis van Gaal has dispensed with former incumbent Bert van Marwijk's defensive, unattractive football and asked his younger crop to express themselves in the final third.
Promising young players like Kevin Strootman, Bruno Martins Indi, Jordy Clasie and Luciano Narsingh have been given the chance to showcase their talents, but in Brazil, all eyes will be on Arjen Robben.
He's made an astonishing return from the brink at Bayern Munich and has carried that stupendous form into his Oranje career. Robben combines searing pace and directness with quick feet and an improved decision-making process. His finishing is now bordering on deadly, and his defensive ethic has begun to emerge.
If you let him cut inside onto his left foot, you'll be down a goal in no time.
6. Andres Iniesta, Spain
There's nothing like pedigree and experience when it comes to FIFA World Cups, so to have Andres Iniesta—a man who won the 2010 edition alongside two European Championships—on your side is a big bonus.
Vicente Del Bosque will have some very tough decisions to make regarding his selections for Spain's first-choice midfield, and there's a chance Barcelona stalwart Xavi may not play a pivotal role.
His colleague, Cesc Fabregas, threatens to swoop in and take his place, but no such warning can be presented to Iniesta, whose silky feet and immense vision remain irreplaceable at this level.
"Andresito" is quietly putting together another excellent season at club level and impressed at the 2013 Confederations Cup.
He scored the extra-time winner against the Netherlands in 2010; would you bet against him repeating those heroics four years later?
5. Mario Gotze, Germany
Club: Bayern Munich
Mario Gotze stunned the world footballing community last season when he agreed to join Bayern Munich just weeks before he was due to face them in the UEFA Champions League final.
The prodigious No. 10, a former favored son at Borussia Dortmund, where he came through the ranks, has now recovered from injury and begun to make his mark on coach Pep Guardiola's first team—and boy, what an impact he's having.
Despite being so young, he has an incredible grasp on the tactical side of the game, and with Joachim Loew's inability to find a striker to suit Germany's 4-2-3-1 formation, expect Gotze to grow into a free-flowing centre-forward's role soon enough.
His weaving dribbles are Lionel Messi-esque, while his agility and small stature allow him to escape the most impossible of circumstances. Teams will mark, double-mark or perhaps even triple-mark him, but it won't matter.
Gotze will grow over the course of the 2013-14 season, and alongside Mesut Ozil, he will fire die Mannschaft into the latter stages of the FIFA World Cup.
4. Andrea Pirlo, Italy
Sky Sports have confirmed Andrea Pirlo is to retire from international duty after the 2014 FIFA World Cup, so be sure to drink in every last moment of him strutting his stuff in the Azzurri blue.
Despite his aging legs, he still runs the show for Italy, with manager Cesare Prandelli building a team and selecting a midfield around his star playmaker.
He utilizes an unorthodox regista (playmaker) role in the side, sitting in front of the defensive line and creating attacks from a deep-lying, quarterback-style position. His passing is as incisive as it is deadly accurate, and opposing teams are willing to commit serious resources to stopping Pirlo from pulling the strings.
He managed to bag a single goal during the European qualification period and was the only Italy player to manage nine of the 10 total games in Group B.
Juventus manager Antonio Conte may be phasing him out of the XI at club level, but he is still top dog on the international scene.
3. Neymar, Brazil
Brazil's newest hero will be expected to shoulder the expectations of millions this summer.
As hosts, the Selecao will be expected to win their sixth FIFA World Cup despite the fact that this team led by Luiz Felipe Scolari is far from special.
That may be a harsh assessment of a side which just convincingly won the 2013 Confederations Cup—seen as a dry run in South America for next summer's spectacle—but man-for-man, this XI is nowhere close to the glories of old.
Scolari knows this, and in turn, he's built a Brazilian side around their precocious, awe-inspiring talent. Neymar operates in a free role from the left-hand side of the Selecao's system, with striker Fred deployed to detract attention and create room for his countryman to work in.
The Barcelona trickster has pace, quick feet, an eye for goal and a stunning pass, so keep your eyes peeled whenever he gets on the ball in the final third.
2. Lionel Messi, Argentina
For years, it's been a struggle to get Lionel Messi to perform for Argentina despite his dominance over Europe at club level, but now Alejandro Sabella finally appears to have found the perfect formula.
Argentina have a true centre-forward in Gonzalo Higuain, who regularly rises to the challenge, so Sabella has decided to play Messi in a free role off the front man in order to extract his best.
It's a decision akin to giving your best player the keys to the formation, and in 14 CONMEBOL qualifying games, the former Newell's star hit 10 goals—one more than designated striker Higuain.
The diminutive South American is a four-time reigning Ballon d'Or winner and scored an astonishing 86 goals in the 2012 calendar year. For many, he's the best player in world football when fit, and he's taking in a timely amount of rest this side of Christmas.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
Club: Real Madrid
Cristiano Ronaldo is the favorite to win the 2013 Ballon d'Or, and if he does, his performances against Sweden in the FIFA World Cup playoffs will have been a major factor.
As is custom, Portugal stuttered over the line in qualifying despite the presence of their talismanic No. 7, settling for a two-legged playoff against Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Northern European charges.
Ronaldo scored four, including a scintillating hat trick in Solna, Sweden, to fire his country to Brazil next summer. If he continues his current club form there, he'll be a strong bet for Player of the Tournament.
He's scored 25 goals and three hat-tricks already this season, and it's tough to find a more complete player in world football.
A rasping long shot, searing pace, astonishing athletic presence and aerial ability make him unlike any other who plies the trade, and he'll need to use every one of his incredible strengths to take Portugal as far as possible.
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