The days of World Cups being the true launching pad for breakout stars are waning in the era of globalized networks, widely televised matches and social media, but in Brazil there might be some players who could yet surprise us.
Some of the players below have won league titles or play for big clubs, but are not yet household names. They could be, though, very soon. Here's one player from each group to keep an eye on for now and the future:
Group A – Mateo Kovacic (Croatia)
Kovacic was only 18 when he made his Croatia debut, just a few months after joining Inter Milan for a reported €13 million in January 2013. And while his spell in Italy has not always been easy – he has had few first-team chances, and the signing of Hernanes from Lazio sidelined him further – his role in the Croatia team will be vital this summer.
Coach Niko Kovac has two options for where to play him: as the third midfielder in front of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, though that leaves Croatia without a natural holding player, or on the wing, which is his more natural position.
Kovacic has just turned 20 and could use the World Cup as a chance to prove that Inter have been wrong to ignore him (and it has previous with the likes of Roberto Carlos and Andrea Pirlo). Former Croatian playmaker Zvonimir Boban has said: “He has the potential to become better than me.” This is the perfect time to show it.
Group B – Daley Blind (Netherlands)
Philipp Lahm is not the only player this season who has switched from fullback to midfield with resounding success. Ajax has just completed a fourth straight Dutch title victory and its player of the season was Blind, son of former club captain Danny, who moved from left back to a holding midfield position.
Ajax coach Frank de Boer played alongside Pep Guardiola at Barcelona and the pair share similar ideas from the dugout – both honed in part by Louis van Gaal, the current Holland boss. Blind’s role at Ajax was like that of Sergio Busquets in Guardiola’s Barcelona, as midfield enforcer with the ability to drop back and become an auxiliary center back.
Van Gaal’s Holland is now wrestling with a new system, a 3-5-2 to compensate for the loss of Kevin Strootman. And while Blind may not play the enforcer in that system, his ability on the ball could see him fill the Strootman void and take up a midfield position just like Lahm, the German captain. Many would expect to succeed and then follow his father’s footsteps and captain the national team too.
Group C – Serge Aurier (Ivory Coast)
Aurier has made quite a name for himself this season, with six goals and six assists from right-back for Toulouse. The form of the powerful defender has convinced Ivory Coast coach Sabri Lamouchi to ditch old favorite Emmanuel Eboue, and it looks likely that Aurier may also follow in Eboue’s footsteps at his next club: Arsenal is interested in signing him, and, with Bacary Sagna likely to leave, Aurier’s arrival at the Emirates is thought to be only a matter of time.
What would Arsenal be getting? An up-and-down fullback with energy to burn, but true the modern prototype player, Aurier is also versatile: he can play at center back if necessary (even Sagna played there a few times) and as a defensive midfielder too. Aurier gives hope to Ivorian worried about the end of this ‘golden generation’ – he is leading the charge for the new brigade.
Group D – Adam Lallana (England)
Lallana is a rarity in English football, as he can play with both feet and is tactically smart and versatile, but he lacks the pace that Roy Hodgson likes to have out wide. That's why the Southampton captain, reportedly the subject of a £20 million bid from Liverpool, could have a role as an impact sub, coning off the bench to find space between opposition lines, as he did in England’s March friendly against Denmark, a short cameo during which he set up the only goal of the game.
Gary Lineker has been leading the calls for his inclusion, writing in his own World Cup guide: “One player who has to start is Adam Lallana: I have been saying it all season, but he is a smart player who can really help the team.”
Lallana brought forward his wedding, originally planned for this June, to make the World Cup, and he reportedly skipped his bachelor party too, a week-long trip to Florida last week, in order to be fit for the World Cup. With that level of commitment, you’d hope he gets some playing time in Brazil. England will benefit if he does.
Group E – Frickson Erazo (Ecuador)
Center back Erazo is on the radar of European scouts after his performances for Flamengo helped the Brazilian club win the Carioca state championship this season. Compared to Benfica defender (who is now off to Zenit) Ezequiel Garay, Erazo also won the Ecuadorean league title with Barcelona SC in 2012. A tall and strong defender, Erazo gives the South American outsider solidity at the back, and could be a star in the making.
Group F – Ashkan Dejagah (Iran)
Dejagah only made his debut for Iran in February 2012, having played for Germany, the country in which he was raised, through the Under-21 level. Injuries and an initial lack of game time at Fulham had restricted his Iran game time, but his influence at both club and international levels has risen sufficiently to ensure that he will be one of Carlos Queiroz’s most important players.
Creative and at his best when surging into the box, he has been a useful goalscorer throughout a career that took in spells at Hertha Berlin and Wolfsburg before his move to west London. Two goals on his debut, in a qualifier against Qatar, confirmed the point, and further strikes against Thailand and Lebanon suggest that he could be a dangerous outlet in support of forward Reza Ghoochannejhad.
Group G – Abdul Majeed Waris (Ghana)
If you want a rags-to-riches World Cup tale, they don't come much better than Majeed Waris, a graduate of Ghana’s Right to Dream academy who has made it into the squad – via English non-league football – after a stunning six months at French club Valenciennes, where the flying winger scored nine goals in 14 games (not quite enough for the club to avoid relegation).
Waris always had an eye for goal – during his time at Hacken, he was the first player to ever score five goals in a Swedish top-flight game – and could solve a few problems for Kwesi Appiah, whose scoring options are limited to Asamoah Gyan up front.
A sign of how important Waris already is to the team was apparent in the first week of World Cup preparation: he limped off with an ankle knock and the serious faces and somber mood made it apparent that Waris is destined for big things. Currently owned by Russian club Spartak Moscow, if he carries on his current form – he has scored four international goals in his first nine appearances – then expect a big team to come in for him soon.
Group H – Islam Slimani (Algeria)
Center forward has historically been a problem position for Algeria, whose most recent World Cup performance was memorable for its dogged defense as it held England to a 0-0 draw. That could change soon after the emergence of Slimani, who burst onto the scene this qualifying campaign with five goals in five matches. He began the season as a sub at Portuguese over-achievers Sporting Lisbon, but his habit of scoring vital goals – as he did in the Cup against Benfica, and the winner against Porto – saw him dislodge Fredy Montero to become the starting striker.
Physical and strong, Slimani’s goalscoring record – nine goals in his first 17 international appearances – has put him on the radar of Premier League scouts and a few more goals in Brazil could add some clout to his transfer value (not that it should, as three games is barely a sample worth evaluating a player on, but that's another story).