2014 World Cup: 5 Dark-Horse Players to Watch
As the 2014 World Cup approaches, you'll consistently hear the names Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar and Suarez, among others. While these top-tier players will certainly own the spotlight in Brazil, there are many first-timers looking to make a name for themselves on the world stage.
Take a Raphael Varane, for example, a 21-year-old French defender who starts in the back for recently crowned winners of the UEFA Champions League, Real Madrid. He's expected to burst onto the national stage this June and is already highly regarded as one of the best young players in the world.
The World Cup is where certain players set themselves up for record-breaking contracts and moves to high-profile clubs. Take Mesut Ozil as a prime example. After a 21-year-old Ozil dazzled at the 2010 World Cup, he transferred from Werder Bremen to Real Madrid, and now he plays for Arsenal, setting himself up for the remainder of his career in terms of financial and team success.
Other young 20-something-year-olds like Ozil and now Varane proved themselves at the club level, but they can use the World Cup as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
So here are five dark-horse players to watch for in the upcoming 2014 World Cup.
5. Joel Campbell, Costa Rica
The 21-year-old on-loan Arsenal striker could very well be Costa Rica's go-to option with Alvaro Saborio rising in age. The Costa Ricans got a tough draw with Uruguay, England and Italy, and if they are to shock the world, Campbell will have to make a name for himself scoring goals.
He scored nine goals in all competitions for Olympiakos this year, including one against Manchester United in the Champions League Round of 16.
Despite being heavily criticized for diving during CONCACAF play against the U.S., if Campbell can rectify his sportsmanship and put his lightning speed on display, he could hit pay dirt after this tournament is over.
4. Xherdan Shaqiri, Switzerland
The 22-year-old Bayern Munich winger is already in high demand, as Liverpool is keen to acquire the Swiss international.
In the past two years, Shaqiri has totaled 18 goals and 18 assists in all competitions and will provide a dynamic piece in attack for a Switzerland team that failed to advance past the group stage in the 2010 World Cup.
After suffering a thigh injury back in early April, Shaqiri is ready to go for the World Cup and highlights a youthful Swiss side in which he looks to be the go-to player.
3. Victor Moses, Nigeria
The Nigerian winger has spent his last couple seasons blazing down the wing for Chelsea and Liverpool in the English Premier League, and along with Peter Odemwingie and Obafemi Martins, forms a lightning-quick Nigerian attack.
While his knack for scoring goals hasn't quite developed at the highest level, Moses is looking to hit pay dirt at the 2014 World Cup. He transferred nationalities from English to Nigerian in 2011, and he could be a key factor in Nigeria advancing past the group stage in a Group F that's one of the weaker ones in the field.
Especially against the weaker defenses of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iran, Moses can easily torture the outside backs with his pace and his dribbling ability down the wing. Even against Argentina's aging defense, the 23-year-old could potentially cause major fits.
2. Raphael Varane, France
Varane is just coming off a stout performance in central defense for Real Madrid in its Champions League triumph. Announcers Gus Johnson and Eric Wynalda referred to Varane as "one of the best young defenders in the world" during the broadcast.
He will certainly be called upon for a French squad that went through turmoil at the 2010 World Cup, failing to advance past the group stage.
The team's two most experienced defenders are 30-plus-year-olds Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna, and Laurent Koscielny has at times shown flaws in the center of defense for Arsenal.
Look for Varane to become a household name as early as the group stage, where he will go up against the likes of Shaqiri and Ecuador's Antonio Valencia in Group E play.
1. Thibaut Courtois, Belgium
The Belgian goalie is just coming off an outstanding season, in which he anchored the best defense in both La Liga and the Champions League for Atletico Madrid.
Although Atletico came up on the short side against Real Madrid in the final, Courtois seemed to make smarter decisions than his more experienced counterpart, Iker Casillas.
The 22-year-old Courtois recorded 20 clean sheets in the La Liga season and averaged only .65 goals allowed per game, both tops in the 20-team league.
Belgium is considered one of the dark-horse teams for this World Cup because of players like Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini and Romelu Lukaku, but keep an eye on its netminder as well, who could be the X-factor to a deep run for the Belgians.