Much of the talk around this summer’s World Cup in Russia has been around those trying to cement their place in history. Cristiano Ronaldo watched from the sidelines as unlikely hero Eder secured Portugal’s first-ever major trophy at Euro 2016.
Lionel Messi has lost three consecutive finals in the famous Albiceleste shirt of Argentina. Those two generation-defining footballers will be looking to etch their name on the trophy they’re so desperately missing in otherwise glittering careers.
But what of those on the next tier down who want to take the step to superstardom?
For James Rodriguez, Brazil 2014 was the moment his life changed. One of the most impressive tournament displays ever saw him land a big-money move to join Real Madrid’s galacticos.
Who could follow in his footsteps and become the must-have star come mid-July? We took a look....
Kylian Mbappe (Monaco, on loan at Paris Saint-Germain)
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For our purposes, Mbappe’s international teammate Antoine Griezmann and clubmate Neymar are already fully-fledged members of the superstar club.
But Mbappe, despite having a €200 million permanent deal with PSG lined up, has not yet shown the dominance to be placed in the top tier.
Where better to do that than in Russia, where France boast a deep, talented squad and forwards like Mbappe will be best-placed to profit from a raft of creative midfielders and buccaneering full-backs working to provide the bullets?
That breakout season in the Champions League showed off a teenager blessed with remarkable talent. This isn’t a player for whom you need to deep dive into the analytics to appreciate his abilities. He passes ‘the eye test’ first time - you watch him and you instantly know that he is special.
If he shows that on the biggest stage and takes France deep into the competition, Mbappe’s ascent will be complete.
PSG’s Financial Fair Play concerns mean that they will be twitchy about the possibility of Real Madrid and Manchester City reviving their long-standing interest should the Paris-born starlet grow into the real thing.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Serbia)
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Juventus’ growing interest in securing the signing of Milinkovic-Savic from Lazio suggests they know that if they let him leave Serie A, they will regret it for a decade or more.
The powerful midfielder is the sort of player that pops off the screen when you watch him, a player who the commentator can’t help but mention a hundred times per game and who the opposition try everything to neutralise - often unsuccessfully.
Milinkovic-Savic’s striking playing style combines the swagger of a playmaker with the range of a box-to-box midfielder, a sort of Serbian Paul Pogba for whom the future is undoubtedly bright.
The only question that remains over this kid is where he will end up playing. Should Juve fail to keep him in Italy then it will only be because the world’s biggest clubs have finally acted upon their interest.
Serbia’s prospects at this competition rest on him and his opportunity to impress relies much on the framework Serbia can implement around him to make him shine.
He is all-action, and in a month we could be talking about him as an all-star.
Hirving Lozano (Mexico)
Mexico remains the great underachiever in global football; a regular qualifier for the World Cup and a huge country with a wealthy, impressive football league and rich football heritage.
If this is the tournament where they finally break out and make a raid on the final four, it is likely that Hirving ‘Chucky’ Lozano will play a significant role.
Lozano is one of those players that every top-tier club has scouted for years and monitored with a view to buy. Doubts over the quality of Liga MX and Monterrey’s excessive demands scared away Europe’s elite but PSV’s Marcel Brands - now sporting director at Everton - took a gamble on the Mexican winger and paid what was necessary to relocate him to Eindhoven.
Tricky with some quick-twitch skills and the ability to go past his man with either foot, Lozano is the sort of attacker that most top teams are permanently in the market for because of a need for squad depth at elite clubs amid the glut of competitions they have to play in.
Should he perform to the ceiling of his ability then he won’t begin next season in the Eredivisie.
Marco Asensio (Spain)
The Spain team is full of immensely talented players but their dominant, possession-based style still shows some of the same cracks we saw under Vicente Del Bosque.
Diego Costa is likely to start as the centre-forward but remains a player far better suited to reactive, counter-attacking teams where he can roam into space and lead sweeping battles with a defence. Intricacy and short-space sharpness are not his specialities and with Paco Alcacer disappearing from view while Alvaro Morata suffered from a touch of the Patrick Bamfords this season, it is a new gaggle of unproven strikers who will try to fit into the Spanish attack, including Bolton alumnus Rodrigo Moreno and Liverpool set-piece legend Iago Aspas.
It is the midfielders who will drive Spain’s success, and Asensio’s driving runs from wide might make him their most important attacking piece.
While even the historically-talented Andres Iniesta is pretty much replaceable, with Isco and Thiago among the ludicrously-talented pass-masters waiting in the wings, Asensio provides a unique mesh of directness and technical talent.
The Real Madrid kid is one big tournament away from securing his place as the face of the future at the Bernabeu, saving Florentino Perez tens of millions of euros and allowing him to move on from Gareth Bale and/or the perma-stropping Cristiano Ronaldo.
Sadio Mane (Senegal)
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At club level, the former Southampton winger is very much second fiddle to Mohamed Salah, with his inconsistency in front of goal setting him a tier below the Egyptian.
Should things go right for Mane in Russia, though, he could become one of the world’s most marketable stars. Senegal are primed to be tournament dark horses, placed in a group with some eminently beatable rivals and a real chance of qualification. England or Belgium would be difficult but not impossible foes in the second round.
With that in mind, Mane and his teammates could become the great story of this competition, a dangerous attacking side that shock their way deep into the knockout stages. If Mane scores a few along the way then the Liverpool man will suddenly represent the hope of all Africa, his roadrunner speed combining with adept finishing to mark him out as one of the tournament’s most dangerous forwards.
Senegal may not be a team many people are talking about, but Mane could be a name on many people’s lips when he next puts on a Liverpool shirt.
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Christian Eriksen (Denmark)
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Those who watch the Tottenham midfielder every week would argue quite vociferously that he is already in the superstar bracket. A good showing at the World Cup and few around the globe will have any doubts.
Eriksen combines the grace and elegance you’d expect from a playmaker schooled at Ajax with a measured intelligence reminiscent of his Danish footballing forefather Michael Laudrup.
At club level he is one of a number of stars but in his national team he is the beating heart. Those playing against Denmark will concentrate on stopping him. Those playing for Denmark must do anything and everything to free him to create.
Barcelona have considered the Dane as a long-term replacement for Andres Iniesta and should Eriksen show the world what he can do this month, they may accelerate the succession plan.
Davinson Sanchez (Colombia)
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Another Tottenham player has an opportunity to make a name for himself this summer, with the Colombian centre-back nicely-positioned to establish himself as the leader of a new generation of defenders.
The souped-up attacking lines on show in every Champions League fixture have made life much harder for defenders in recent years, and top-level centre-halves who can cope with elite forwards are in short supply.
The £70m that Liverpool unloaded on Virgil van Dijk spoke as much to the Dutchman’s ability as to the dearth of quality alternatives. Sanchez was not cheap, with Spurs shelling out £40m to secure his signature from Ajax, but he is already showing all the hallmarks of being a top-quality defender.
To deal with the modern elite forward you need to have pace and a reading of the game as well as the traditional strength and size associated with the position. Oh, and you must be able to dribble the ball out from the back and pass accurately, starting attacks for your team. It is not necessarily the most natural meshing of qualities and yet Sanchez has them all in his skill set, a towering young defender who displaced Toby Alderweireld from the Spurs team towards the end of the season.
Colombia have a great chance to not just progress but win their group, and if Sanchez is a key cog in their success then he may just prove to be the best young defender in the world.
Hakim Ziyech (Morocco)
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A few spectacular moments are all that a player needs to make a huge mark on the World Cup and Ziyech is a player whose currency is the spectacle.
Ajax kept Ziyech in the Eredivisie when there was interest from further afield, but they did so knowing that his ability to roam around and seemingly score from anywhere was always going make highlight reels and pique the interest of buying clubs down the line.
Watching Ziyech you see a combination of a Hakan Calhanoglu who can actually shoot or Dmitri Payet before the pie ‘n’ mash slowed him down.
He may only be a 7/10 player but he is capable of moments of 10/10 genius and that can be worth an awful lot, especially to a Morocco team who drew as tough a group as you could imagine.