World Cups may be won by the team with the best defense or the most balanced midfield, but from a fan’s perspective, World Cups are best remembered by the flair and prowess of an in-form forward. From Pelé to Garrincha to Diego Maradona, forwards leave an indelible mark on this tournament and aren’t soon forgotten. And with most of the usual suspects qualifying for this year’s FIFA World Cup, there will certainly be no shortage of attacking talent on display.
5. Diego Costa
During an impressive breakout year with Atlético Madrid, Costa scored 36 goals en route to winning La Liga and progressing to the final of the Champions League. Despite being born in Brazil, Costa has attained Spanish citizenship and will represent La Furia Roja at the World Cup. However, a recurring hamstring injury has placed doubt over his fitness, particularly after only lasting nine minutes in the Champions League Final.
Alas, manager Vicente Del Bosque has selected Costa, and the frontman will likely start ahead the much maligned Fernando Torres, assuming Spain plays with a striker and not a false-nine. Costa’s talent is undoubted, and with Spain looking to be the first team to repeat as world champions since 1962, his power and pace will serve as a crucial tool. He will certainly find adequate supply from the midfield behind him, and if fully fit, he looks likely to make an impact in front of goal.
4. Luis Suárez
The Uruguayan striker was by far the best player in the English Premier League, with his 31 goals helping Liverpool to a second place finish. Like Costa, Suárez has significant injury doubts after recently undergoing surgery on his knee. However, it is believed that he will be fit for Uruguay’s second group match against England.
Uruguay will rely heavily on Suárez and his fellow forward, Edinson Cavani, for goals as they lack significant creativity in midfield. If La Celeste hope to escape what is perhaps the most difficult group in the tournament, Suárez must achieve the same form he has demonstrated for Liverpool earlier this year. After finishing World Cup qualifying as the leading scorer in South America, he has shown that his abilities for his club can certainly be replicated when playing for his country.
Neymar will surely be the most watched player at this summer’s tournament. As the talisman for Brazil, he is central to their hopes of lifting the World Cup trophy on home soil. Playing on the left wing, Neymar will be tasked with both scoring and creating goals for others.
The 22-year-old star has an incomprehensible amount of pressure on his young shoulders, and will look to redeem Brazil’s failure in 1950, the last time they hosted a World Cup. But, as was witnessed in last year’s Confederations Cup Final against Spain, Neymar is capable of thriving under scrutiny, and delivered a world class performance at a massive stage.
The World Cup is a different animal altogether though, and after a sometimes frustrating debut season at Barcelona, Neymar’s legacy will rest on his performances this summer. Brazil’s path to the final will not be easy, and they will rely on Neymar’s creativity to influence close matches.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo
The best player in the world this year will be seeking to continue a stellar season after having won the Champions League with Real Madrid, all while breaking the record for goals in that competition, being the leading scorer in La Liga, and winning the Ballon D’Or.
While it would be unfair to describe Portugal as a one-man-team, Ronaldo’s influence over his side cannot be understated. If they have any hope of reaching the latter stages of the tournament, Ronaldo must be at his absolute best. Unfortunately for the Portuguese, they have been drawn into a tough group with Germany, Ghana, and the United States. If they do progress, however, a quarter-final matchup against Lionel Messi’s Argentina is a likely possibility.
1. Lionel Messi
By his own stratospheric standards, Messi had a moderately subpar season that was plagued by injuries. Trophy-less seasons are particularly uncommon in Messi’s illustrious career, and he will hope that success this summer will serve as redemption.
Messi’s greatest source of pressure comes from comparisons to his compatriot Diego Maradona, who won the World Cup in 1986. After achieving everything at the club level with Barcelona, the only accolade keeping him from reaching Maradona’s level in the pantheon of greats is a World Cup winner’s medal.
This summer may prove Messi’s greatest opportunity to ever lift the World Cup trophy. At 26-years-old, this will be the last World Cup before the Argentinean captain turns 30. Additionally, he will never participate in a World Cup closer to his home nation.
Argentina has been blessed with an extraordinarily lucky draw for the World Cup, with a manageable group consisting of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, and Nigeria. They will hardly have to leave the south of Brazil for any match, which will create a pseudo home field advantage. To top it off, they will likely not have to play any of the favorites for the title until the semi-finals.
Simply put, this summer is a do-or-die opportunity for Messi’s World Cup career. Win, and he will be listed among the very greatest of all time. Fail, and he may never get a better chance to succeed.