This article profiles players whose legacies will be on the line at the 2014 World Cup.
The tournament, which comes around every four years, is football’s grandest stage. It is the biggest event in the sport’s four-year cycle, is watched by fans worldwide and represents the pinnacle of a player’s career.
It is no coincidence that men such as Pele, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff built their legacies on unforgettable performances at the international high table.
While these three founded their eternal reputations on success (or in Cruyff’s case, near-success) in the glorious context of the World Cup, players have also had their legacies defined by enduring failure.
Roberto Baggio, for example, had his magical career defined by a single spot-kick, while the global recollection of men such as Gabriel Batistuta, Dennis Bergkamp, Eric Cantona, Hugo Sanchez and Duncan Edwards will, for various reasons, be tempered by their lack of influential performances at the elite end of international competitions.
At club level, there are few African footballers in history who can compare with Didier Drogba. The Ivorian has a clutch of Premier League titles, has various other domestic honours and single-handedly (according to Sir Alex Ferguson) won the Champions League for Chelsea in 2012.
It is a remarkable return and, rightfully, earns him a spot in the pantheon of African greats.
However, a key difference between Drogba and Samuel Eto’o, the man I consider to be Africa’s greatest-ever is their international record.
While Eto’o has won two African titles and an Olympic gold, Drogba has been the figurehead of the Golden Generation that has so persistently flattered to deceive in international competition.
AFCON tournaments have come and gone, and the Elephants have done little more than enforce their statues as Africa’s greatest chokers.
The Ivorians have, unlike recent World Cups, received a friendly draw this time around and should be confident of making it to the knock-out rounds.
From here, anything is possible. It is an opportunity that Drogba and his compatriots must seize with both hands.
If they fail to do this, then the Golden Generation may always be remembered as one of African football’s great failures.
They will surely be remembered as two of the Premier League’s finest: Lampard as the EPL’s greatest goalscoring central midfielder and a multiple-championship winner, and Gerrard as Liverpool’s loyal, inspirational captain, the man who has won cups and, significantly, the Champions League, in his role as midfield dynamo.
However, both men remain wholly unfulfilled at international level.
Despite being heavily capped—they stand eighth and third in England’s all-time appearances list respectively—the pair have achieved precious little with the Three Lions and, indeed, have been present for some of the team’s most bitter failures in recent years.
Both will be keen to recreate their domestic dominance on the international scene in Brazil. Fail to do this and two great talents may forever remain unfulfilled in England colours.
Over the last 18 months, Nigerian fans have begun to witness what many will tell you they’ve been expecting all along.
Head coach Stephen Keshi has crafted a young and exciting team, and Mikel is its centrepiece, its beating heart, the majestic force that drives the team forward and keeps the Super Eagles ticking over.
The presence of prodigious defensive midfielder Ogenyi Onazi certainly helps. The Lazio man may be young, but he possesses the maturity and the energy to keep things tight and allow Mikel to flourish offensively.
Those who don’t keep an eye on African football often greet such grandiose statements as mindless over-exaggerations. Such a disconnect was evident in two goals Mikel scored in 2013.
When he found the net for Chelsea against Fulham, his first-ever finish for the Blues, his goal was greeted with euphoric ridicule from the Stamford Bridge. Here was a player who, like Claude Makelele before him, no one ever expected to find the net.
However, when Mikel equalised against Uruguay in the Confederations Cup—a sumptuous finish following a sinuous weave through the opposition defence—no one in Nigeria expressed shock. This is what they’d been waiting for from the man who was once considered to be the natural successor to Jay-Jay Okocha.
Brazil 2014 provides Mikel with a perfect opportunity to show the world what he is truly capable of. The young Super Eagles around him will look for Mikel the creative, inspirational force, not Mikel the lumbering, stodgy holding midfielder.
Perhaps this tournament will be forever how we remember John Obi Mikel. He will be 27 in Brazil, firmly in his prime—now is the time to remind the world of the talent they left behind.
Many of you would, I imagine, argue that Francesco Totti doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone. He is a supreme talent, one of the finest players of his generation, a Roma legend and an inspirational force who has few rivals.
While loyalty to his boyhood club may have cost him the domestic honours that his ability undoubtedly deserves, he has accrued numerous individual honours (he is a five-time Italian Footballer of the Year) and is a World Cup winner.
However, I would argue that Totti’s Italy career remains unfulfilled.
He was one of the star players in Euro 2000 and was Man of the Match in the final but could only watch on impotent as Sylvain Wiltord and David Trezeguet scored the goals that handed France the continental title.
At both the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004, his tournaments ended in ignominy as, despite being one of the Italians’ great hopes, he was sent off in both competitions. The first was for diving against the Koreans in Daejeon, then, two years later, for spitting at Christian Poulsen in Guimaraes.
He impressed sporadically at the World Cup in 2006 but wasn’t totally fit heading into the tournament and didn’t steal the show like some of his compatriots.
Now 37, and having been retired from international football for more than six years, his would be an unlikely return. However, the Roma skipper is playing some of the best football of his career and could be a valuable source of experience and creativity for the Azzuri.
The clamour for a recall remains and a spot in Cesare Prandelli’s World Cup 23 would afford Totti the opportunity to leave a lasting mark on the international high table, making up for lost time and bad decisions all in one go.
At almost any time during the last decade, Iker Casillas would be a certainty to be named among the world’s finest goalkeepers. However, Saint Iker is currently enduring a torrid time at Real Madrid, the club he has served with distinction since 1990, when he joined as a boy.
Despite having won all there is to win at club and international level, and earning a huge haul of individual honours in the process, Casillas finds himself in crisis.
Now 32, he should really be in his prime, but instead he is watching on from the touchline as Diego Lopez holds the fort for Real Madrid in La Liga. Casillas hasn’t played in the tournament since January 2013—a remarkable absence.
These domestic frustrations have left Casillas "increasingly disillusioned" with life in Madrid, according to Bleacher Report’s Guillem Balague.
For now, at least, he retains his place in Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain side, but if Casillas fails to impress (or even play) at the World Cup, his celebrated career risks ending on a particularly unhappy note.