With less than a week to go until the start of the World Cup, we consulted our offices across Europe in order to compile a list of the 50 players to watch at Brazil 2014.
The list exhibits both talent fulfilled and potential untapped and includes at least one player from every nation.
Here are numbers 10 to 1:
Controversial, unpredictable but also lethal in front of goal, Balotelli showed what he can do on the big stage at Euro 2012 and could be key to whether Italy are amongst the trophy contenders in Brazil. If he's firing on all cylinders throughout the month, the nation's team spirit laced with Balotelli's goals and Pirlo's threat at set pieces will be extremely difficult to beat. Of course, the key reason 'Super Mario' doesn't make it any higher than 10 was highlighted by his hot-and-cold first full season at AC Milan. Which Balo will show up?
9. Yaya Toure (Ivory Coast)
In 2010, Ghana came agonisingly close to finally realising the potential most experts have claimed African nations possess at World Cups for yonks. And if you were to pick out one African talent in 2014 who could spark an even better campaign than the Black Stars' run to the last eight four years ago, it's box-to-box beast Yaya Toure. Though a magnificent, title-winning season with Man City was soured at the end by an unbelievable story casting doubt over his Etihad future because of how the club celebrated his birthday, such manoeuvring for a transfer/pay rise will be firmly on hold when he looks to help his nation (and continent) to new frontiers in Brazil.
8. Franck Ribery (France)
From a mental standpoint, perhaps no player at the World Cup is as potentially-dangerous as cultured winger Ribery. He was absolutely furious that he was overlooked for the 2013 Ballon d'Or award in favour of Cristiano Ronaldo despite Bayern Munich claiming the treble that year, and having helped the Bavarians retain two of those three pieces of silverware whilst helping Les Bleus salvage their road to Brazil via the play-offs, Ribery now has the opportunity to out-shine both Ronaldo and fellow Ballon shortlister Lionel Messi at the big tournament and prove a major point.
Injury soured a great season for the Brazilian-born forward, as after Atletico's Liga title win he was handed a start in the Champions League final in Lisbon despite not being fully ready to participate and was withdrawn before the 10 minute mark. However, signs are encouraging during Spanish pre-tournament training for a man who could provide the cutting edge up top which revives the 'tiki-taka' concept in time for a staggering fourth straight major international tournament win for the reigning world champions.
6. Thiago Silva (Brazil)
Silva is one of the world's top centre-backs, and though the eyes of a nation will focus on the likes of Neymar as Brazil strive for a sixth World Cup in front of their own, the PSG man will be just as crucial at the other end of the pitch if the tournament's greatest-ever participants are to extend their trophy record. The next month serves as the perfect opportunity for Silva to underscore his leadership qualities and enter the history books with a potential seven inspirational performances from the back.
5. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Many Chelsea fans and Belgian fanatics felt Hazard's contributions to the 2013/14 season were largely overlooked, with names such as Ronaldo and Suarez on an absolute tear. As the creative star of the tournament dark horses, Hazard could do some serious damage to sides who expect to have too much experience or name value for Belgium. Hazard has constantly wowed over the last four years for Lille, Chelsea and his country, and the World Cup in Brazil will be his biggest platform yet.
Suarez proved in the past season what he can do when he isn't bringing football into disrepute with his reprehensible antics. Tempered by Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers, Suarez was deservedly crowned England's best player in 13/14 as he broke goalscoring records and almost inspired the Reds to an unthinkable league title. Some feel Uruguay do not have enough as a team to go all the way in Brazil but Suarez's talent, form and undeniable desire to win (like it or not, that 2010 handball against Ghana paid off) makes it impossible to jump to conclusions.
3. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Ronaldo quelled a great deal of burning ambition this season, finally beating Messi to claim another Ballon d'Or, helping Real Madrid clinch that long-elusive Decima of European Cups and finally convincing many that he, not the Argentine at Barcelona, is the best player in the world today. Why is he third here? Well, will he be fully fit at the World Cup? That could be the deciding factor as to whether CR7 can eradicate Portugal's status as perennial also-rans and clinch them the major international trophy they've come close to in the past. "With a goal a game, when Ronaldo starts it feels like we start 1-0 up" said Real boss Carlo Ancelotti. Every Portuguese football fan will be praying that he remains fit enough to give them seven 'head-starts' in Brazil.
2. Neymar (Brazil)
Neymar has been Brazil's top sporting celebrity for some time now - barely a week would pass without another amazing highlight reel of his skills at Santos - and now he has moved onto a bigger club platform with Barcelona, he returns home for what could be the crowning moment of a career which may yet have over another decade to run. Neymar stands a very strong chance of being the man who fires the host nation to an unprecedented sixth World Cup. Between his explosive attacking, mesmerising ball skills, versatile goal threat and much-maligned gamesmanship (face it: even a player going down easily from a light challenge could be enough to decide the final), the 22-year-old has the world - and this World Cup - at his feet.
1. Lionel Messi (Argentina)
That Messi has endured his most disappointing season in recent years for Barcelona in the immediate run-up to this tournament hasn't fooled many - especially when his national form has, to the contrary, picked up in the face of questions over whether Lionel applied himself as much for his country as he always did at Camp Nou. Messi remains THE man to be wary of, with his Argentine team-mates supplying superior service and back-up than Ronaldo's Portugal or Suarez's Uruguay, and his long run as the sport's premier name offering far more experience of the 'big dance' than Brazil's Neymar or Belgium's Hazard. Do not be surprised in the least bit if Brazil 2014 is the setting for where Lionel Messi finally completes his trophy collection.
- Sports & Recreation
- Lionel Messi
- Mario Balotelli
- Cristiano Ronaldo
- Luis Suarez
- Franck Ribery
- Thiago Silva
- Eden Hazard