There’s always a player who stands out from the rest at the World Cup: one who rises to the occasion, who gets hot at just the right time and who stays in the memory when it’s all over — and he probably won’t even be on the winning side.
Who was the best player at the last World Cup four years ago? Probably a choice between Luka Modric of Croatia (beaten finalists) and Kevin de Bruyne of Belgium (lost in the semi-finals). So who will be the player to remember, the one you will always associate with the World Cup of 2022?
Let’s take a punt on Frenkie de Jong of Netherlands. Dutch teams are always worth watching, and they might get on a run and go deep into the competition. If they do, de Jong will be the man driving it: a natural playmaker who can operate just about anywhere on the pitch. He has a great eye for the long pass and the technical skill to put it in the right place. He’s also a spectacular dribbler, and that’s a dangerous skill that can disrupt defensive discipline in the opposition by its unpredictable nature.
But there’s something about World Cups that brings out the romantic in all of us: and that romanticism tends to gather around Brazil. It’s decades since Brazil played in a romantic way, but you still can’t say “World Cup” without conjuring up visions of Pele, Socrates and Jarizinho. The current team is full of stars, but let’s go for Vinicius Junior, a thrilling player on his day. If he has half-a-dozen days over the next four weeks he will have made himself unforgettable: fast, a goalscorer, and a quite stunning dribbler.
A World Cup will often take its tone from a player who — for no very obvious reason — becomes convinced that he’s the best player on the planet. Some of us remember Paul Gascoigne playing for England in 1990: his complete conviction that he could lead England to victory seemed to lend him superpowers — at least for a while.
Do England have such a player this time around? Perhaps it will be Phil Foden, left-sided wing-back or midfielder. He has shown his abilities often enough for Manchester City in his short career — he is still only 22 — but we don’t know if he can play the part of main man. The next few weeks will show us.
Of course, global stars are always worth a look, and that — still — means Lionel Messi of Argentina, aged 35, and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, who is 37. Messi has never dominated matches and tournaments in international football: perhaps the team dynamic will allow him to do so this time.
Ronaldo has at least given us the traditional pre-action World Cup story. He told us that his club, Manchester United had “betrayed” him, and as a result he needs to show his best stuff at the World Cup. This ambition is compromised by Bruno Fernandes, his colleague for both Manchester United and Portugal. There are bad vibes here: Fernandes won’t want to play a supporting role in the Ronaldo show.
For the rest, look out for playmaker goalkeepers, especially Alisson Becker of Brazil and Manuel Neuer of Germany; their astuteness and accuracy can make it seem that their teams are playing with 12 men on the pitch. And remember that in tournament football the form that comes once in a lifetime can strike from a clear sky: in four weeks we might be remembering Gareth Bale, Sadio Mane, Robert Lewandowski, Karim Benzema, Son Heung-min … we just don’t know. And that’s the joy of it.