Neymar? If you haven’t heard of Neymar, you probably shouldn’t be reading a soccer blog today. Your uncle who dislikes soccer probably knows who Neymar is. (I’m not judging, just being honest.)
A good cable package (or possibly an addiction to a popular soccer video game) offers your average American soccer consumer access to and knowledge of a vast wealth of players unheard of even just four years ago.
So, most of the pre-World Cup* lists of players to watch are often populated by players most soccer fans already know pretty well.
*Hang on a second: OMG, the World Cup starts Thursday!
I want to dig deeper and go full-hipster on a list like this. Who are the potential breakout stars off the beaten path?* The precocious talents as of yet uncovered by the masses? The prodigious strikers hidden in a lower league? The crafty midfielders tearing up defenses away from the watchful eyes of those with mainstream TV packages?
*In other words, if they play for the big clubs (Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Liverpool, Paris St. Germaine, etc.) I’ve left them out of contention.
Using a proprietary formula that measures age, club stature, “enjoyability,” “unknown-ness,” “breakout-potential,” “big-move possibilities,” “likely playing time in Brazil,” and a healthy amount of time spent with FIFA 14 and Football Manager, I’ve put together a list of 20 players who could one day become your favorite player — you just don’t know enough about them yet.
I’ve read somewhere that people love reading lists. So, without further Freddy Adu, here it is: The Full 90’s 2014 World Cup Soccer Hipster Index.
These are guys you should probably already know about but are worth mentioning as players to definitely make an appointment to watch: Paul Pogba (Juventus/France), Mario Götze (Bayern Munich/Germany), Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling (both Liverpool/England), Ross Barkley (Everton/England), Marco Fabian (Cruz Azul/Mexico), Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea-Athletico Madrid/Belgium), an Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea-Everton/Belgium).
Now, onto the list.
20. Shinji Okazaki, Japan
Position: Forward | Club: Mainz (Bundesliga-Germany)
19. Serge Aurier, Ivory Coast
Defender | Toulouse (Ligue 1-France)
18. Mikkel “Mixx” Diskerud, United States
Midfielder | Rosenborg (Tippligaen-Norway)
17. Ahmed Musa, Nigeria
Forward | CSKA Moscow (Russian Premier League)
16. Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium
Midfielder | Wolfsburg (Bundesliga)
15. Josip Drmic, Switzerland
Forward | Nurnberg/Bayer Leverkusen (Bundesliga)
14. Jackson Martinez, Colombia
Forward | Porto (Primeira Liga-Portugal)
13. Memphis Depay, The Netherlands
Forward | PSV Eindhoven (Eredivisie)
12. Axel Witsel, Belgium
Midfielder | Zenit St. Petersburg (Russian Premier League)
11. Andre Ayew, Ghana
Midfielder | Marseille (Ligue 1)
Now that the appetizer is out of the way. Onto the main course. The Top 10. With video.
10. Ezequiel Garay, Argentina
Defender | Benfica (Primeira Liga)
After a few years spent as the fourth-choice defender at Real Madrid, the big Argentine has had a resurgence playing in Portugal. At 27, he’s a bit old for this list, but could a big tournament and a possible move to Bayern Munich will put him back on the radar. Very dangerous on set pieces.
9. Son Heung-min, South Korea
Forward | Bayer Leverkusen (Bundesliga)
He’s a tremendously gifted winger with a knack for scoring with either his left or right foot. Exceptionally fast and agile, he is likely the main goal-scoring threat for South Korea.
8. Bernard, Brazil
Midfielder | Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukrainian Premier League)
He’s a high-energy player with loads of pace who could easily change the dynamic of a game in a heartbeat. Before the World Cup, he has been linked with a possible move to either Liverpool or Arsenal.
7. Ciro Immobile, Italy
Forward | Torino (Serie A-Italy)
His form during the season (he led Serie A with 22 goals) and Italy’s pre-World Cup friendlies could see him supplant Mario Balotelli as the Azzurri’s No. 1 striker. Not bad for a 24-year-old. Also not bad? His tireless work rate and eye for goal has landed him a transfer to the ultimate hipster club next season: Borussia Dortmund.
6. William Carvalho, Portugal
Midfielder | Sporting CP (Primeira Liga)
Sporting Kansas City fans were very sad to see the departure of Oriol Rosell a few weeks ago to join Sporting CP in Lisbon. Why do the other Sporting need a defensive midfielder when they currently have Carvalho? Because, after his fantastic season in Portugal, Carvalho is likely taking his physique, ball control and tackling power to Manchester United after the World Cup.
5. Mateo Kovacic, Croatia
Midfielder | Inter Milan (Serie A)
Playing as a central midfielder, he has an exceptional eye for a pass (he completed nearly 90 percent of his passes this year in Serie A). For Croatia, he’ll play alongside Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modric, which could see him dictating play for an exciting attacking squad.
4. Eduardo Vargas, Chile
Forward | Napoli-Valencia (Serie A-La Liga)
Looking for a dark horse Golden Boot winner? Vargas (who spent the past season on loan with Valencia) is an outside contender. He’s got timing, touch, pace and, if things fall together for an entertaining side, a long tournament run.
3. Miralem Pjanic, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Midfielder | Roma (Serie A)
Already a familiar name to many American soccer fans after his superlative performance at the MLS All-Star Game last year, Pjanic is still criminally underrated in world soccer. He has the ability to bend space and time with his passes (OK, not literally). Also, he’s pretty good at dribbling and free kicks too. I expect a big tournament from Bosnia and it’s architect.
2. Antoine Griezmann, France
Midfielder | Real Sociedad (La Liga)
While it will be impossible to replace the injured Franck Ribery entirely, it opens the door for Greizmann to bring his talents to the starting lineup to a strong Les Bleus team. Blessed with excellent technical and physical ability, the Real Sociedad forward is one of the many young French players who can lift France beyond its disappointing finishes the last two tournaments.
1. James Rodriguez, Colombia
Midfielder | Monaco (Ligue 1)
I, for one, am ready and waiting for The James Rodriguez Era to begin. Colombia is a super exciting team with so much attacking talent. Even the loss of Radamel Falcao isn’t enough to diminish the possibilities of Colombia playing spoiler in the knockout stage.
Rodriguez, vastly under appreciated for a Monaco team that has almost no fans, pulls the strings for Colombia. He’s been compared to Carlos Valderrama (one of the greatest midfielders ever) and, at just 22, the whole world is ahead of him. He’s got excellent vision, exquisite touch, sublime control and, well, I’ve run out of adjectives to describe him. Just enjoy and prepare for the James Era to wash over us. If not now, soon.