The World Cup is undoubtedly football’s biggest stage and thus offers relatively unknown players the chance to make their mark. SportsClub selects the 10 players who have seriously enhanced their reputation in Russia.
The sheer global reach of today’s game means it’s almost impossible for someone to make that journey from obscurity to international stardom within a single World Cup. But, although these 10 players weren’t complete unknowns before Russia 2018, their performances in the competition have elevated their careers to another level.
10. Viktor Claesson (Sweden)
Finally free of the albatross that is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden have proved that strong teamwork can be more valuable than an egotistical superstar, progressing further than they have in any World Cup since a third-place finish in 1994. Yet there have still been several impressive individual performers, including the previously unremarkable Viktor Claesson.
Having enjoyed a glorious first season with Russian Premier League side Krasnodar, the 26-year-old winger has thrived on familiar turf – earning a penalty against South Korea, setting up two goals and rivalling Emil Forsberg as Sweden’s most creative force.
9. Cho Hyun-woo (South Korea)
Cho Hyun-woo spent most of South Korea’s qualifying campaign as third-choice keeper, but his impressive form for K League side Daegu inspired boss Shin Tae-yong to twice promote him. The 26-year-old repaid that faith with a promising opening display against Sweden, making an incredible point-blank reflex save to deny Marcus Berg.
However it was his superb efforts in South Korea’s historic 2-0 win over Germany that turned him into a cult hero, denying the holders a goal on six separate occasions. The humble Cho admits he’s still got much to learn about the game, but his dreams of playing in Europe may now be realised much earlier than he expected.
8. Moussa Wague (Senegal)
Cruelly denied the chance to further showcase his talents by the fair play rule which saw off Senegal, Moussa Wague has been one of the few positives to emerge from the poor showings of African teams at this World Cup. The 19-year-old became the continent’s youngest-ever World Cup scorer with his blistering strike against Japan, which was also his first international goal.
The right-back was just as lively up and down the flank against Poland and Colombia, forging an impressive partnership with fellow winger Ismaila Sarr to provide Senegal’s main threat. Currently plying his trade with Belgian side Eupen, Wague will now be on the radar of numerous European heavyweights.
7. Rodrigo Bentancur (Uruguay)
Arsenal may well be rueing their failure to sign Rodrigo Bentancur last summer judging by the Uruguayan’s form in Russia. The tenacious midfielder, who instead moved from Boca Juniors to Juventus, completed more passes than any other played aged 23 or under in the group stage.
He also controlled the South Americans’ trickier than anticipated 1-0 defeat of Saudi Arabia, guided them to a 3-0 victory against hosts Russia (on his 21st birthday, no less) and provided the perfect pass for Edinson Cavani’s second-round winner against Portugal.
Bentancur started just five times for the Serie A giants last season, but can expect to feature far more often as they aim for an eighth consecutive league title next season.
6. Benjamin Pavard (France)
Benjamin Pavard was deemed to have taken a step back when he moved from regular Champions League qualifiers Lille to second-tier Stuttgart in 2016. But having helped steer the fallen giants back into the Bundesliga, he’s now being hailed as the new Lilian Thuram.
In fact, with his exquisite volley against Argentina – a strong contender for goal of the tournament – the 22-year-old became the first French defender to score in a World Cup since Thuram back in 1998 (although he’s since been joined by Raphael Varane). That magical strike may have grabbed the headlines, but it’s Pavard’s defensive versatility – the centre-back has adapted brilliantly as cover for injured right-back Djibril Sidibe – that’s attracted the attention of the all-conquering Bayern Munich.
5. Juan Quintero (Colombia)
Juan Quintero had a point to prove in Russia. The Colombian midfielder was inevitably overshadowed at Brazil 2014 by teammate James Rodriguez, and has spent the subsequent four years bouncing around from club to club on loan from Porto.
Yet the diminutive playmaker will no doubt have made the Portuguese side sit up and take notice with his dazzling group-stage display. The 25-year-old played a part in three of his homeland’s five goals, setting up Radamel Falcao and Yerry Mina against Poland and Senegal respectively, and scoring the tournament’s cheekiest free-kick in Colombia’s shock 2-1 defeat to Japan.
4. Ante Rebic (Croatia)
Ante Rebic will undoubtedly have enjoyed his second World Cup experience far more than his first. The pacy winger was only deployed as a late substitute in Croatia’s disappointing showing in Brazil, but still found the time to get sent off and was subsequently banished to the international wilderness.
However the 24-year-old hasn’t looked back since being recalled by new boss Zlatko Dalic. Capitalising on Willy Caballero’s jaw-dropping howler, his acrobatic volley against Argentina helped set Croatia on their way to a commanding 3-0 victory. He would also have settled the second-round tie against Denmark before penalties had he not brought been down while clear on goal, four minutes from time.
3. Aleksandr Golovin (Russia)
Aleksandr Golovin will have already been familiar to Arsenal fans – the CSKA Moscow midfielder scored an absolute screamer against the Gunners in the Europa League earlier this year. But now the rest of the world is fully aware of the Russian’s talents.
The 22-year-old netted a similarly spectacular free-kick, and provided two assists, in the World Cup opener against Saudi Arabia before going on to run the show in the host’s 3-1 victory over Egypt. He then proved to be Russia’s key man in their surprise second-round win over Spain, also coolly netting a penalty in an unbearably tense shootout.
It’s little wonder that incoming Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri is expected to make Golovin his first signing.
2. Takashi Inui (Japan)
Real Betis appear to have bagged this summer’s best bargain, having signed Takashi Inui on a free transfer just weeks before his star-making showing in Russia. By far the oldest outfield player on this list, the 30-year-old proved that it’s never too late to make a major impression at a World Cup, with two magnificent group game performances and a monumental display against Belgium.
Indeed, the winger shell-shocked the latter with his dazzling close control, exquisite passing technique and a powerful 25-yard drive which briefly had Japan with one foot in the quarter-finals. All this from a player who had barely made a ripple outside the mid-tables of the Bundesliga and La Liga.
1. Hirving Lozano (Mexico)
Mexico may have once again failed to break their second-round curse, but they did at least produce the tournament’s brightest star. Winger Hirving Lozano was an instrumental figure in his side’s qualification from Group F, setting up Javier Hernandez’s decisive strike against South Korea with an impressive mazy run, having already scored a career-defining winner against Germany in Mexico’s opener.
The man nicknamed Chucky was just as influential during PSV’s Eredivisie triumph last season, netting 17 goals in 29 appearances. But with the likes of Barcelona now circling around, it seems unlikely the 22-year-old will be around to help the Dutch side retain their title.
This story originally appeared on FourFourTwo.co.za