20 Unknown Players Most Likely to Earn Big Transfers Via World Cup Performances

Laura Greene@@Greene_LFeatured ColumnistApril 6, 2014

20 Unknown Players Most Likely to Earn Big Transfers Via World Cup Performances

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    The Netherlands' Memphis Depay.
    The Netherlands' Memphis Depay.Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

    With less than 70 days to go, the 2014 World Cup is just around the corner.

    For many relatively unknown players, the tournament can serve as the biggest and brightest stage to showcase their talents and earn a move during the transfer window.

    But who will be in the limelight in Brazil this summer? Over the following slides we look at 20 players (unknown to most casual football fans) who might earn a big transfer via their World Cup performances.

    Arranged in alphabetical order, according to their respective nations, read on to see who we picked.

    Feel free to add your own suggestions below.

Aissa Mandi, Algeria

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    Twenty-two-year-old right-back Aissa Mandi made his debut for Stade de Reims in 2010 after coming up through the youth system at the then-Ligue 2 club.

    Now in Ligue 1, Mandi has clocked up almost 100 appearances for the French side. He has the ability to play anywhere across the back line but has nailed down a right-back berth over the last two seasons.

    Called up for the first time in November 2013 by Vahid Halilhodzic, he is very likely to appear and impress for Algeria at the World Cup this summer.

    Stade de Reims should brace themselves for offers.

Marcos Rojo, Argentina

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    Buda Mendes/Getty Images

    Marcos Rojo has 20 Argentina caps and is likely to be a big part of Alejandro Sabella's plans for La Albiceleste this summer. However, he is still not a household name.

    Over the last two seasons, the 24-year-old has clocked up 57 appearances for Sporting Lisbon. A central defender with his club side, Rojo is a left-back for his country.

    A versatile defender who can also score (he's put away five goals for Sporting this term), he has already been watched by Liverpool this season, according to Alex Richards in the Mirror. In the Express, Simon Jones claims that Arsenal are also keeping tabs on Rojo.

    During Brazil 2014, expect Rojo's stock to rise even further, with a big transfer coming soon.

Thomas Meunier, Belgium

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    Christopher Lee/Getty Images

    When people talk about Belgium's chances at the 2014 World Cup, talk invariably focuses on the side's big Premier League names, such as Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku.

    In Thomas Meunier, the Red Devils have a new star in the making. The Club Brugge right-back was called up for the first time by Marc Wilmots in November for friendlies against Colombia and Japan. Wilmots told Clubbrugge.be:

    We have been keeping an eye on Thomas for quite a while and we are convinced about his qualities. Now we just have to see how well he fits in the team. Meunier, who is definitely an option for the future, has everything to become a big player on right-back. He is well-disciplined and is great in passing the ball forward.

    He may have just two senior international caps to his name, but Meunier stands a very good chance of going to Brazil. Toby Alderweireld has hardly played for Atletico Madrid this season, and Guillaume Gillet is considered more effective in midfield, which leaves just Anthony Vanden Borre as a natural right-back.

    Meunier is on form, he has been playing regularly for Club Brugge and he has even scored three goals in his last four games.

    The former striker-turned-defender can also do this.

    Following Brazil 2014, there should be a long line of clubs queueing to sign the 22-year-old.

Vincent Aboubakar, Cameroon

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    Clive Rose/Getty Images

    If the average person on the street has not yet heard of Vincent Aboubakar, he or she soon will.

    The Lorient striker looks like he is going to be one of the standout stars of the 2014 World Cup, if his performances in Ligue 1 this season are anything to go by.

    Currently the league's joint fourth-highest scorer, with 13 goals in 30 games (plus six assists), the 22-year-old has already made 21 appearances for the Indomitable Lions since making his debut in 2010.

    A fast, powerful forward with excellent finishing skills, Aboubakar will be pitted against some pretty tough opposition in Group A, which Cameroon share with Brazil, Croatia and Mexico.

Felipe Gutierrez, Chile

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    Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

    Chilean international Felipe Gutierrez has established his place in midfield for FC Twente this season, where he has played almost every minute of every game for Michel Jansen's side.

    Twente paid a fee in the region of €2.8 million to bring the 23-year-old to Europe from Universidad Catolica in 2012. An attacking midfielder, he brings creativity to the Chilean national team, where he has 14 caps to his name.

    According to Who Scored, Gutierrez's biggest strengths are passing, ball interception, dribbling and tackling, with no significant weaknesses to his game.

    The 23-year-old was part of the Chile side that outclassed England at Wembley in November, and it will be interesting to see how La Roja fare in Group B, where they will be pitted against Spain, the Netherlands and Australia.

    Gutierrez has all the makings of a top midfielder for years to come. Heads will be turned this summer.

Juan Fernando Quintero, Colombia

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    After moving to Porto, following a loan spell at Pescara in July 2013, Juan Fernando Quintero has already crept onto the radars of several clubs in Europe.

    This summer, the 21-year-old's performances for Colombia at the World Cup could thrust him into the spotlight and make him a top transfer target.

    The Medellin-born player is a left-footed, attacking midfielder who already has all the hallmarks of a world-class talent. He will be tested in Group C, where Los Cafeteros will be up against Greece, the Ivory Coast and Japan.

    "It's difficult to judge a player at this age and know if he'll have a great career, but sometimes it's just blindingly obvious when you get to see a future star," said Australian youth coach Paul Okon on FIFA.com, after his side faced Quintero in the 2013 U-20 World Cup in Turkey.

    At the time of writing, Quintero has made 17 Primeira Liga appearances for Porto this season, scoring three goals and assisting a further two. The 2013 South American Football Tournament MVP has also made three substitute appearances in the Champions League this term.

    Expect big things from him this summer and beyond.

Keylor Navas, Costa Rica

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Fans of La Liga know his name, for Levante's Keylor Navas has been one of the best goalkeepers in the division this season.

    Currently occupying the 10th spot, Levante have scored only 29 goals all season. Their position in the table is largely due to Navas' rock-solid performances in goal.

    In fact, the 27-year-old is currently rated statistically better than his La Liga counterparts, as seen on Ligabbva.com (in full, in Spanish) and on Twitter (stats in English). 

    With 51 caps for Costa Rica, he is undoubtedly the country's No. 1. When the transfer window reopens for business, he will be getting a move to a much bigger club. Don't bet against it.

Mateo Kovacic, Croatia

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    Darko Bandic

    Known by watchers of Serie A and those of us who like to indulge in transfer gossip, at 19, Mateo Kovacic is on the brink of becoming known to even the most casual of football fans.

    The Croatian midfielder has already been linked with a move to the Premier League with Liverpool, per Jamie Sanderson in Metro, after impressing for Inter Milan who he signed for in January 2013. 

    Before joining Walter Mazzarri's side, Kovacic spent three years with Dinamo Zagreb, where he won two Croatian League titles and two Croatian Cups.

    He has represented his country at every youth level from Under-14 upward and was called up to the senior squad in 2012. 

    An incredibly versatile player, Kovacic has played in a variety of midfield roles during his career so far but has been used primarily as a substitute in Inter's central midfield, where he inherited the No. 10 shirt—formerly worn by Wesley Sneijder.

    The World Cup is his time to shine.

Ross Barkley, England

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    Alastair Grant

    While known to many who watch the Premier League for his exploits with Everton, Ross Barkley is yet to be introduced on the biggest stage in football.

    All that could be about to change if England manager Roy Hodgson selects the 20-year-old to go to the World Cup this summer.

    Barkley's creativity and technical ability set him apart from most players his age, and his confident, physical displays for Roberto Martinez's team this season have made him a strong contender to go to Brazil with the England squad. Should his case need to be strengthened, this wonder goal, scored against Newcastle in late March, should seal the deal.  

    The attacking midfielder has three senior England caps to his name and has been compared to Michael Ballack and Paul Gascoigne by Toffees boss Martinez, as seen on BBC Sport.

    Already wanted by Chelsea, according to Neil Moxley in the Sunday People (via the Mirror), Barkley's potential World Cup performances will make a host of clubs sit up and take notice this summer.

Antoine Griezmann, France

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    David Ramos/Getty Images

    It's impossible to imagine that Antoine Griezmann will still be at Real Sociedad in six months' time.

    The 23-year-old, who has one senior cap for France, has already been doing the rounds in the rumour mill. If he travels to Brazil and shows what he can do on the world stage, expect everyone to know exactly who he is.

    This season, he has put away 15 goals in La Liga, with a further three coming in the Copa del Rey. Griezmann's performances earned him his first call-up for France in February, with Didier Deschamps giving the young winger his first cap in March in a 2-0 friendly win against the Netherlands. 

    According to Liam Prenderville in the Mirror, Griezmann has already been attracting admiring glances from Arsenal, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus.

Frank Acheampong, Ghana

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    Adam Pretty/Getty Images

    Ghanaian winger Frank Acheampong has been at Anderlecht since a loan move from Thai side Buriram United was made permanent in 2013.

    This season, the 20-year-old has made 18 appearances in the Jupiler League and six in the Champions League until injuring his ankle in late January. Set to return this month, he faces a race to attain full fitness before the World Cup.

    Acheampong won lots of praise for his performances in the under-20 World Cup Championships in Turkey last year, where he scored twice and played a big part in getting his side to the semi-finals. Last year, he scored his debut goal for Ghana in a friendly against Japan.

    The 5'6" winger is exceptionally quick, and he seems to have settled into life in European football with ease. Thesubsbench.ca describe him as:

    Very comfortable running with the ball at opposition defenses. What sets him apart is his ability to also make intelligent runs off the ball and link up with his teammates. He is also aware of his defensive duties, and provides his fullback with good defensive support. He shows a good awareness of where he needs to be positioned when defending and is able to make challenges when needed.

    Ghana are in an incredibly difficult group, where they will be pitted against Germany, Portugal and the United States. Perhaps this diminutive 20-year-old will impress against big opposition.

Andy Najar, Honduras

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    Moises Castillo

    Former DC United winger Andy Najar has been with Anderlecht since 2013, following a loan spell at the club.

    The 21-year-old has impressed for the Belgian side where, after a slow start, he has become a regular under Besnik Hasi. 

    In 2010, when Najar was just 17, his electrifying pace and advanced-beyond-his-years technical ability saw him already being singled out as one to watch, as discussed by Paul Gardner of Soccer America: "The player who attracts the eye immediately is the 17-year-old Honduran Andy Najar, frisky and speedy on the right wing, a handful for most defenders."

    MLS Rookie of the Year in 2010, Najar has represented his country 15 times, according to Transfermarkt.

    With electrifying pace, excellent dribbling skills and a mean shot from distance, Najar will be one to watch this summer, with a potential big move away from Anderlecht in the very near future. 

Reza Ghoochannejhad, Iran

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    Kim Do-hun

    Reza Ghoochannejhad recently became known as the player with the longest last name in English football, per Laura Williamson in the Daily Mail.

    Over the summer, perhaps he will make a name for himself on the pitch.

    In January, the Iran-born striker signed for Championship side Charlton Athletic from Standard Liege. Interestingly, Ghoochannejhad moved to Holland when he was eight and represented the Netherlands at every youth level, from under-16-19, before being invited to join the Iranian national team by manager Carlos Queiroz in 2012.

    In 12 games for Queiroz's side, Ghoochannejhad has netted nine goals—three of them coming in World Cup qualifiers. 

    With one goal for Charlton, he has started to settle into life in England. Perhaps we will be seeing more of him in the future.

Gotoku Sakai, Japan

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    Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

    Gotoku Sakai has impressed since signing for Stuttgart in July 2013, following a successful loan spell with the Bundesliga club.

    The former Albirex Niigata player, who was born in New York and raised in Japan, has made 24 appearances for Stuttgart this term, mostly at right-back.

    As written on football blog In Bed With Maradona in 2013, Sakai was described as, "Every bit the typical right back: a steady hand, defensively solid, and more than willing to get forward and affect matters at the other end too."

    The 23-year-old has appeared in seven friendlies for the Blue Samurai in 2013/14, where coach Alberto Zaccheroni has used him at left- and right-back in equal measures, with one performance on the left wing.

    He appears to be a shoo-in for Zaccheroni's Brazil-bound squad, where he will be facing up against Colombia, Greece and the Ivory Coast in Group C.

    Stuttgart may face a struggle to keep him at the Mercedes-Benz Arena beyond this summer.

Raul Jimenez, Mexico

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    You may remember THE bicycle kick that Raul Jimenez scored against Panama last October, the goal that kept Mexico's World Cup dream alive. If you don't recall the goal (or even if you do), here it is—it's worth watching multiple times. 

    Jimenez currently plies his trade with Club America in Mexico City—a team where he came through the youth ranks and has scored 27 goals in 78 appearances, per Transfermarkt

    Just 22, Jimenez—who was a gold medalist with Mexico's under-23 side at the 2012 Summer Olympics—has already scored one of the most famous goals in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying history.

    Mexico won't have it easy when they face host nation Brazil and fellow Group A teams Croatia and Cameroon this summer, but perhaps Jimenez will shine for El Tri.

Memphis Depay, Netherlands

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    Netherlands' Memphis Depay listens to the national anthems during the lineup prior to the  international friendly soccer match between Netherlands and Colombia at ArenA stadium in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Tuesday Nov. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
    Peter Dejong

    Used sparingly by PSV Eindhoven last season, Memphis Depay has made the left wing his own in 2013/14.

    In August of last year, Depay received his first call-up to Louis van Gaal's senior Netherlands squad, after representing the Dutch at under-17, 19 and 21 level.

    Born to a Ghanaian father and a Dutch mother, the 20-year-old now has four senior international caps to his name. After his performances at club level this season, with 11 goals and seven assists, including this sumptuous strike scored last month against Groningen, Depay is likely to be on the plane to Brazil this summer. 

    Unknown to many a casual fan at the moment, don't expect that to last long. 

Ogenyi Onazi, Nigeria

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    Patric Schneider

    Lazio midfielder Ogenyi Onazi is a player who everyone will be talking about this summer, when Nigeria take to the field against Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Iran in Group F.

    The 21-year-old, less well-known than his international counterpart Ahmed Musa (also 21), has been playing in Europe since 2011, when he joined Lazio from Lagos side My People.

    He has established his place in the heart of the Biancocelesti's midfield, clocking up 25 appearances in Serie A this season.

    Onazi represented the Super Eagles at under-17 and under-20 level before getting called up to the senior squad in 2011/12. He has gone on to be a key member of Stephen Keshi's side, where he plays alongside John Obi Mikel. He won the Coppa Italia with Lazio last season and the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.

    It looks like he is already attracting attention. As Jamie Sanderson reports in Metro, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur appear to be keen. 

    Ogenyi Onazi—remember the name.

Aleksandr Kokorin, Russia

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    Dmitry Lovetsky

    Aleksandr Kokorin, at 23, looks like he is on the cusp of becoming a star on the world stage.

    The striker has spent most of his career at Dynamo Moscow apart from a big-money move to Anzhi Makhachkala in July 2013. The move lasted only a month, when a fire sale by owner Suleyman Kerimov saw all of the club's biggest assets sold off.

    Now, back in Moscow, Kokorin is enjoying a successful season, where he has scored seven goals and registered nine assists in 17 league games. 

    Last year, he started seven of Russia's World Cup qualifiers, scoring four goals, including this excellent strike against Israel in September. 

    The talented forward's profile is about to be raised, and a big transfer will follow.

Granit Xhaka, Switzerland

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    Lee Jin-man

    There have already been murmurings of a big transfer away from Borussia Monchengladbach for the side's 21-year-old midfielder Granit Xhaka. However, following the 2014 World Cup, expect the speculation to increase tenfold.

    As reported by Jamie Sanderson in the Metro last December, Liverpool were linked with a move for the Switzerland international, with comparisons being made between Xhaka and Steven Gerrard.

    The comparisons do not end there. The former Basel player has been said to be better than Xherdan Shaqiri by former Hamburg coach Thorsten Fink and, according to Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, has also been dubbed the "young [Bastian] Schweinsteiger," as seen on Goal.com.

    He won the under-17 World Cup in 2009 and has racked up 24 appearances for the senior Switzerland team since making his debut in 2011.

    Following the World Cup, it appears certain that Xhaka will move away from Die Fohlen this summer. 

Aron Johannsson, United States

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    Christian Hofer/Getty Images

    With 25 goals to his name (in all competitions) for AZ Alkmaar this season and a regular on Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. team sheet, Aron Johannsson could find himself on the wish list of several teams across Europe this summer.

    Perhaps a move to the Premier League could materialise for the Alabama-born forward, who has played in the Eredivisie since January 2013.

    A great finisher, who is good at set pieces, Johannsson—it has to be said—is playing in a league where goals are very easy to come by. However, if the 23-year-old has a positive showing for the U.S. in extremely tough Group G, with Germany, Portugal and Ghana, a move outside of the Netherlands may beckon.

    Follow Laura Greene on Twitter: @Greene_L