This is their year: From obscurity to pursuit of World Cup glory

Infantino thanks Russia for hosting ‘best World Cup ever’

By Brian Tamayao

As the 2018 FIFA World Cup is about to start, many fans will expect a lot from familiar attendees like Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Neymar. Unlike them, however, a number of rising stars in world football were far from the World Cup picture four years ago. Now looks to be their time as they aim to help their respective countries shine in the biggest football tournament in the world.

Here’s a list of players, distributed per group, who have quickly risen to prominence within a span of four years:

Group A – Mohamed Salah (Egypt)

Every proper football fan in the world knows Mohamed Salah by now. The 25 year-old sensation playing for Liverpool FC and Egypt has just won the Premier League Golden Boot and also helped his club team in reaching the UEFA Champions League Final. In the international level, he played a pivotal role in putting Egypt back in the World Cup. Things are looking so rosy for Salah in the past 12 months although this was not the case four years ago.

After being signed by Chelsea in January 2014 from FC Basel, Salah played very little part in the London club as he only figured 13 times for the Blues. Eagerness for playing time saw him move to Italy on loan with Fiorentina and Roma willing customers. The latter eventually cashed in by making a loan move permanent in 2016.

While he was in Italy, Salah maximized his opportunities by helping both clubs achieve European qualification. Fiorentina finished fourth whilst Roma ended the season in third, prompting them to make Salah their player outright. For a reported amount of 15 million Euros, Salah turned out to be money well spent for the Romans.

He thrived in the Italian capital, catching the attention of Liverpool who signed him a season later. The rest, as they say, is history as the endeared Egyptian King has been making his mark with the red half of Merseyside.

As important as he is for Liverpool, Salah is an integral member of Egypt’s World Cup squad. Perhaps the most highly rated African in the competition, the forward will be hoping to replicate his success with the Reds in his national stint.

His Egypt is grouped alongside Uruguay, Russia and Saudi Arabia. For the North Africans to exceed expectations, Salah would have to be firing on all cylinders in order to inspire his native Egypt to a historic run.

Group B – Isco (Spain)

Real Madrid’s Isco missed the 2014 FIFA World Cup as more experienced and arguably more talented players were chosen ahead of him. Four years later, the 26 year-old midfielder made sure he wouldn’t be set aside once again.

Officially making the 2018 World Cup squad of the 2010 World Champions, Isco has had a wonderful four years to cherish. Before the 2014 World Cup, he contributed to the European success of Real Madrid. He would go on to win three more with Los Blancos and in each time they won it, the former Malaga man played an important part of their UEFA Champions League dynasty.

With Isco still not in his peak, many anticipate more things to come from the Real Madrid midfielder not just at the club level but also internationally. Spain has been producing plenty of the world’s dazzling midfielders and Isco aims to be one of them in the near future.

Isco will be playing in a heavily favored Spain team seen by some to go all the way again. Portugal, Morocco and Iran initially stand in the way of the one-time World Cup winners who are touted by many to top the group. If Isco performs for the red of Spain the way he has been doing for the white of Real Madrid then it won’t come as a surprise if he lands himself another piece of silverware – this time the much-coveted World Cup.

Group C – Christian Eriksen (Denmark)

When Denmark failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, Christian Eriksen was just settling in at North London. Moving from Ajax to Spurs, the Danish midfielder quickly adjusted to life in the English capital as he developed year after year with the Lilywhites.

In his five years with Spurs, Eriksen has yet to win a major trophy with his club. Nevertheless, he contributed towards making Tottenham a regular in European club competitions. Like his club team in the league, the Dane has become an enormous presence in the Tottenham set-up. He is now among the first names on the team sheet with his incredible play-making skills towing him above the rest. Eriksen’s growth has been remarkable with his inclusion in the 2017/18 Premier League Team of The Season a testament to his development.

Heading into an international tournament for the first time in six years, Denmark will look to make a resounding comeback in the world stage. And Eriksen will be playing a pivotal role should the Danes come close to matching or bettering the best ever finish of their country in the competition – a quarterfinal exit back in 1998.

For Eriksen and Denmark to get there, they first need to navigate their way out of a group that also includes France, Australia and Peru. A tough but fair group to be in, Denmark will hope one of their brightest talents will produce the goods in Russia.

Group D – Gylfi Sigurdsson (Iceland)

Iceland will be featuring in the World Cup for the first time ever so like the rest of his teammates, Gylfi Sigurdsson was totally out of the World Cup picture back in 2014. But not like most of his teammates, the Icelandic footballer has been playing at the top flight of English football since 2012.

Becoming a part of Tottenham six years ago, Sigurdsson has had a steady time at the North London side before switching the white of Spurs for the white of Swansea in 2014. It is where Sigurdsson has truly made his mark by scoring 30 goals for the Welsh club in his 112 appearances for them. Eventually, Sigurdsson found the Swansea pond too small for a growing fish of his caliber. He then saw an Everton move fit for his career, a move that materialized last season.

Speaking of small ponds and big fishes, Sigurdsson’s Iceland hasn’t been a big fish at all in international competitions even if they have now qualified for two major tournaments in the last two years. In fact, they’ve been in a small pond for so long that no one saw their Euro 2016 campaign coming. It was in that tournament where Iceland showed they had what it takes to swim with the big boys and they will be roaring to prove that the 2016 achievement is no fluke.

Iceland’s road to the knockout stages won’t be easy as they have to wrestle with Argentina, Croatia, and Nigeria – all of whom have plenty of World Cup experience as nations. Despite their lack of experience in the big stage, don’t expect Sigurdsson and his pals from Iceland to be intimidated. Like the Vikings, their band fears no one.

Group E – Alisson Becker (Brazil)

world cup alisson

Still young for a goalkeeper at the age of 25, Alisson Becker hasn’t been in the setup of the Seleçao until 2015. While a part of the youth setup, the AS Roma goalkeeper was not included in the 2014 roster even as a backup goalkeeper unlike some of his counterparts elsewhere.

Perhaps the exclusion helped more than harmed his development as a player. Still a budding player at Internacional, Alisson did not move to Europe until 2016. He earned a move to Rome following his impressive outings with the Brazilian club.

Able to compete with former AC Milan and Brazil keeper Dida at Internacional, he then had to joust with one-time Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny in his first season at Roma. Unhappy with limited playing time, the Brazilian contemplated of departing to a club which would guarantee him of action. Fortunately, Alisson remained patient and it was the Poland international goalkeeper who got a move to rivals Juventus. It presented the Brazil goalkeeper an opportunity to make his mark at one of Europe’s toughest leagues. The young South American goalkeeper did not disappoint.

His presence between the sticks afforded Roma security they needed especially in competing against the big wigs. A proof of this is the Giallorossi’s upset of FC Barcelona with Alisson shutting down Lionel Messi and co. for a semifinal spot in the UEFA Champions League. In the domestic front, Roma remained competitive en route to a third place finish.

In the process, Alisson only allowed 28 goals in 37 appearances to average at .76 goals conceded per game. It’s less than half of his average in the previous season where he allowed 1.58 goals per game (19 goals in 12 games). This perfectly illustrates how far the young goalkeeper has improved over the course of a year.

Alisson will hope his development will not benefit not only AS Roma as he will also bid to safeguard Brazil’s net in their redemption bid at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. A group that also involves Serbia, Costa Rica, and Switzerland awaits the five-time World Cup winners. Many believe that the Brazilians have the best chance of winning the trophy. That is no guarantee – but what is is Alisson’s desire to prove them right by providing safe hands in between the sticks.

Group F – Joshua Kimmich (Germany)

world cup kimmich

As Germany ended a 24-year World Cup drought in Brazil back in 2014, Joshua Kimmich had just concluded his first of two seasons with RB Leipzig who were still in the third-tier of German football at the time. Unbeknown to him, he would make the 23-man lineup set to keep the World Cup trophy in German hands four years later.

It all started moving nicely for the German youngster when he got a winter move from the Northeast to Bavaria when giants Bayern Munich acquired his services in January 2015. He impressed right away for the record German champions, earning him a spot in Die Mannschaft’s Euro 2016 lineup. He has been a regular ever since, helping Germany achieve qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup with a remarkable 100% record.

In club level, Kimmich has contributed to Bayern’s prevailing dominance in the Bundesliga. He has won the Bundesliga in each of the three seasons he has played there. He also has one DFB Pokal win under his belt. This time around, he will look to add a World Cup win to a glittering résumé.

For him to do just that, Kimmich needs to be at his best. A versatile player capable of playing in defensive midfield and the right back spot, the 23 year-old will be one of the persons put under the spotlight as his position was previously occupied by the influential and admirable Phillip Lahm. Kimmich is a different player in his own right but should he have a similar influence his former Bayern teammate had in the team, then expect the Germans to not just cruise past a group that includes South Korea, Sweden and Mexico. They can do so much better than just finish on top of the group for they have what it takes to go back-to-back in Russia.

Group G – Harry Kane (England)

world cup kane

Four years ago, a center forward led England to the World Cup. His name is Wayne Rooney, who holds the goalscoring record for the Three Lions. Fast forward to four years later and another center forward will be leading the line. This time around, his name is Harry Kane. The 25 year-old will make his World Cup debut as England captain – a far cry from where he was in 2014.

Kane was watching England on a screen somewhere perhaps unaware that he would be heavily involved in their next bid to winning the World Cup. By then, he just finished a season with boyhood club Tottenham Hotspur where he rose to prominence in the middle of the season. Still not a first choice striker until the following season, Kane worked his way up by giving Tottenham a vital presence in front of goal.

He managed to solidify his role as Spurs’ primary offensive weapon in the 2015/16 season when he bagged 25 goals in the Premier League to take home the Golden Boot award. He did it again in the following season, scoring 29 goals in the process. He scored one more than that just this season, coming in second to Mohamed Salah who had 32 to his name. Even if he failed to win a third consecutive top scorer award, Kane’s rising tally is a manifestation of his development over the years.

With that said, Kane has plenty to offer his country. England needs improvement in the offensive department, only scoring six goals in their last seven World Cup games. The Tottenham striker has the potential to provide his national team enough ammunition to take them to greater heights and if the 2014 performance is the bar then it isn’t too high of a barrier to overcome.

Kane and the Three Lions’ mettle will surely be tested against Panama, Tunisia, and Belgium in a group where many still project them to advance albeit as second favorites. For England to perform well, Kane must deliver where others before him fell short. Whether it be about scoring goals or encouraging his teammates, the Londoner now holds the key in bringing back England to where they believe they belong.

Group H – Kalidou Koulibaly (Senegal)

world cup koulibaly

Just like Senegal, Kalidou Koulibaly is a name not often associated with worldwide prominence but don’t be fooled by a lack of fanfare about this man – many believe he is the real deal. If attracting the likes of the top teams in England is not enough to convince you, maybe his track record for the past four years can.

Back in 2014, the French-born Senegalese defender was still with Belgian outfit KRC Genk. He subsequently moved to Naples in the summer of the same year. Although life in Southern Italy did not start well for the Senegalese, a change in management turned out to revive his prospects in Napoli. The past three years has seen him develop into an elite defender, often making decisive and successful challenges in critical areas. At just 26 years of age, Koulibaly still has so much more to offer to Napoli or any prospective buyers.

As far as his contribution to the national team is concerned, Koulibaly should play for Senegal at all times. Since the 2017 African Cup of Nations, Senegal has yet to concede a goal whenever he was on the field. They were untimely eliminated in the said competition through a penalty shootout loss to eventual winners Cameroon. Trivia: Koulibaly opened the scoring for the Lions of Teranga.

After the heartache in Gabon, Senegal rebounded by finishing on top of their World Cup Qualifying group. They only conceded three goals in the process – all of which, interestingly enough, happened without Koulibaly on the field. If that does not show how integral he is to Senegal’s defense, then it is hard to determine what is.

Come mid-June, Koulibaly’s record of keeping a clean sheet with Senegal will be put to the test when they play against Colombia, Poland, and Japan. Should he preserve such an incredible record, then the Senegalese might just be poised to at least match their best and only recorded finish in the tournament – a quarterfinal exit 16 years ago.

Who do you think will have the biggest impact on their teams? Let us know in the comments below.