There is no bigger stage than the World Cup.
Not literally, of course. It would be weird if the players played on an actual stage, and I'm sure there are really large ones on Broadway or somewhere like that.
But they may as well be on a literal stage, stringing together passes and taking free kicks under the blindingly bright spotlight. There is no tournament on the planet more important than the World Cup. Millions of eyes will be fixated on every match, scrutiny will rain down from every direction and a single performance can make or break a player.
The pressure reaches a boiling point, but for the players who are capable of delivering masterful performances under that kind of intense circumstance, they will instantly become World Cup legends.
Let's take a look at some of the world's best up-and-coming studs who will fall into that latter group in Brazil.
Paul Pogba, France
At just 21 years of age, Paul Pogba has already found great success at the club level. Helping Juventus to an absolutely dominant Serie A season, he scored seven goals and seven assists, impressive numbers for a player also asked to distribute and track back to defend.
According to WhoScored.com, he finished with an average match rating of 7.64, highest on the club and second in Italy's top league.
Of course, it goes far beyond the numbers. Putting together a rare blend of strength, intelligence and technical ability, the electrifying Frenchman has a tantalizing skill set. Actually, just watch this. This is much better than words:
Moreover, as Opta Sports noted, he has already established himself as a mainstay with France on the international level:
8 - Paul Pogba has started the last 8 France games, longest current run. Regular.— OptaJean (@OptaJean) June 1, 2014
Franck Ribery's World Cup status is in major doubt, but Pogba has the ability to put Les Bleus on his back into the quarterfinals.
James Rodriguez, Colombia
Staying with the same "next man up" theme, Colombia will be without talismanic striker Radamel Falcao, but the Cafeteros aren't without the talent to fill the void.
That starts with James Rodriguez.
Monaco's 22-year-old attacking midfielder finished with nine goals and 12 assists in 34 Ligue 1 appearances (30 starts) this season. The engine that fueled the league's runners-up, he finished first in France in assists and second in key passes, per WhoScored.com.
As ESPN's Max Bretos argued (even on the advent of Falcao's exclusion from the team), there are certainly worse scenarios than having the dangerous playmaker running the show:
There will be immense pressure on guys like Jackson Martinez, Adrian Ramos and Carlos Bacca to fill the scoring boots of Falcao up front, but rest assured, Rodriguez will make it much easier to do so.
Raheem Sterling, England
Which youngster will have the best tournament?
Roy Hodgson surprised many when he filled out a 23-man squad filled with inexperience: Six players—Fraser Forster, Luke Shaw, Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley and Rickie Lambert—have less than five international caps.
Many of those players aren't likely to see anything but small cameos in Brazil, but Sterling is a bit different.
Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers, via LiverpoolFC.com, explained the impact the 19-year-old is capable of making:
He can replicate what he's done for us with England if he's given the freedom to play fearlessly. It's easy for people to forget that he's still very young because of his mature performances.
As I've said, Raheem's been one of the most outstanding young players throughout Europe and we just want him to kick on now. He can become as great as he wants to be.
Helping Liverpoool to a resurgent 2013-14 campaign, Sterling tallied nine goals and five assists in 33 appearances (24 starts). The speedster is especially dangerous if given a little bit of space to operate—he finished third in the Premier League, per WhoScored.com, with 2.8 successful dribbles per match.
Facing a dangerous group, the normally powerful Three Lions enter Brazil as a slight underdog to advance to the knockout stages. But Sterling has the potential to change that as quickly as one of his many spellbinding runs through the defense.