The best soccer players in the world are in Qatar with the hope of lifting the FIFA World Cup for their country. Of that group, there’s a clear top tier.
Norma Astrid Godinho/Rediff.com presents the most impressive players after Round One:
Cody Gakpo (The Netherlands)
PSV forward Cody Gakpo, the rising Dutch star, has been in immense form in World Cup 2022 and scored in every match.
The incredibly talented 6-foot-2 is a winger who can also play in front of goal.
Gakpo is poised to shine on his World Cup debut, having displayed his versatility with a headed goal against Senegal, a left-footer against Ecuador and a right-footed strike against Qatar.
The 23 year old became the first player in Dutch history to score in its first three games of a World Cup tournament.
Gakpo is only the second player to score the first goal of the match three times in the same group stage of a World Cup (1st and 2nd included), after Italy’s Alessandro Altobelli in Mexico 1986.
‘Cody has everything it takes to become a star,’ says Dutch Coach Louis Van Gaal. ‘He has a wonderful personality to become a star player because he is open-minded to anything and everything.’
Kylian Mbappe (France)
Is there any defender who can stop France superstar Kylian Mbappe? After the group stages, the answer is none!
Mbappe, who helped France win the World Cup in Russia four years ago, has enjoyed an impressive start to France’s 2022 campaign, scoring three goals in two games, as they seek to win the World Cup again.
The PSG superstar opened his tally in Qatar in France’s emphatic 4-1 win over Australia and then scored twice in a narrow 2-1 victory against Denmark.
The 23 year old changed the tide when the Les Blues needed that crucial goal to seal the Round of 16 spot early on. He rose to the occasion and led his team to victory over the Danes.
France haven’t missed 2022 Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema’s clinical finishing as Mbappe continues to find the mark.
His electric heels help him speed past defences, while his power and precision with both feet have fetched goals with astounding regularity.
Mbappe is on ‘another level’ to everyone and, who knows, it can turn out to be his World Cup.
Vinicius Jr (Brazil)
Brazil has a galaxy of stars in their squad, from Neymar Junior, Thiago Silva, Casemiro and Raphinha. But they appear to have found two new talismans in Richarlison and Vinicius Junior in their quest for a sixth World Cup crown.
Vinicius came into the World Cup with just one goal from 16 games, but proved he has the ability, skills and, more importantly, proficiency to handle the pressure in Neymar’s absence.
Although the Real Madrid prodigy has not scored in Qatar — he had one goal ruled out for off-side against Switzerland — he has already produced two scintillating performances in a Brazil jersey.
The 22 year old, who scored Real Madrid’s winner in the Champions League final against Liverpool, was the best player on the pitch. He created most of Brazil’s chances and drew the attention of three Swiss defenders in the build-up to the winner, leaving Casemiro wide open in the box to score.
Vinicius also played a part in all three goals that the team scored, posing a consistent threat.
As Brazil go in search of World Cup win number six, the consolidation of Vinicius as a potent part of their attacking arsenal is the biggest bonus of their tournament so far.
He is a difference-maker that every team dreams of having.
Imagine a fit Neymar with Vinicius, Richarlison and Raphinha all starting the match. No can could stop Brazil from winning the Cup.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
For all the turmoil that surrounded Cristiano Ronaldo ahead of what is likely to be his final FIFA World Cup, the Portugal great continues to make his mark with another personal milestone.
Earlier this season he registered the 700th club goal of his career. In Qatar, the goal-machine continued his record-breaking feats, becoming the only player to score in five World Cups by slotting Portugal’s penalty against Ghana.
Even without his superb finishing, Portugal will have Ronaldo in the starting eleven because he has the ability to keep the goals coming in any form.
Not bad for a 37 year old!
He almost never made it to the World Cup due to a calf injury, but Ricarlison de Andrade proved that he deserved to be there.
The 25-year-old Tottenham star got the Selecao going in their first game against Serbia with a beautiful brace that included what many are calling a candidate the Goal of the Tournament.
Richarlison scored his first goal in the 62nd minute to give the Samba Boys a commanding lead, despite a ragged start against the European side and followed it up with an unstoppable scissor kick that launched Brazil’s campaign in Qatar.
As Richarlison attempted to control a cross from Vinicius, the ball popped up over his head and he leapt up in the air to volley home a bicycle kick and seal the win for Brazil, who are seeking a record-extending sixth World Cup crown.
He’s affectionately called the Pigeon by his fans, thanks to his avian-style celebrations.
Andre Ayew (Ghana)
If football was a family, it would probably be the Ayew family that birthed Andre. He is the second-born son of three-time African Footballer of the Year and FIFA 100 member Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew, set to feature in FIFA 22 and has two brothers, Ibrahim and Jordan, who also are professional footballers. He is the nephew of Kwame Ayew and Sola Ayew, both former international footballers.
Ayew has been representing Ghana since 2008 and has earned over 110 caps as well as represented his country at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.
The Black Stars skipper scored a 73rd-minute goal against Portugal in the first game of the group stage becoming the first player to score a goal for an African nation at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
In the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Uruguay denied Ghana a place in the semi-final courtesy of a Luis Suarez handball. Ayew said the Black Stars were focused on defeating the two-time world champions, and not concerned about revenge.
‘I’m the only one who was in the squad when that happened, so the others don’t know how we felt, but everyone felt bad. For me, I just want to get into the next stage so if it was revenge or not, we would go with the same determination and the same desire to win because we want to get to the next stage.’
Former champions Spain have come into this FIFA World Cup with little weight on its shoulders.
The team is a great mix of experienced players and a smattering of youth. And among the talented youngsters from the FC Barcelona stable comes Gavi.
The midfielder, whose name is starting to be taken in the same breath as Spain greats Xavi and Iniesta, made a mark immediately in Qatar. The 18 year old became the country’s youngest World Cup player in the match against Costa Rica, and the youngest to score since Brazil great Pele in 1958.
In the opening match, Spain pummelled Costa Rica 7-0, and at the heart of the team’s strikes was Gavi, who was rightly named man of the match.
He was the supplier for Olmo to strike the opening goal — Gavi put the ball into the path of Olmo, who turned and deftly lifted it over advancing ‘keeper Keylor Navas. He also played a part in Ferran Torres’s goal before he himself struck in the 74th minute off a running volley.
Gavi is expected to showcase his dazzling game deeper into the tournament.
Harry Souttar (Australia)
With no household names to talk of, Australia have done more than expected by reaching the last 16 at the FIFA World Cup 2022, emulating the batch of 2006.
The Socceroos first edged out Tunisia 1-0 before packing off biggies Denmark out of the competition with another gritty 1-0 win to advance.
While the Aussies have been gritty and with effect, it’s defender Harry Souttar who has stood out in the back line.
Souttar was propelled to superstar status when his super tackle late in the victory over Tunisia went viral.
Looking for an equaliser, Tunisia’s Yassine Khenissi surged towards their penalty area and just as he looked poised to shoot, Souttar appeared almost out of nowhere to slide in with a thunderous tackle.
The 24-year-old centre-half also made a superb block in the first half of that match. His showing against Denmark was equally appreciable and Coach Graham Arnold had this to say about his latest star defender.
‘People were probably surprised with some of my selections at the start of this World Cup, but it’s just that I know the players so well. I know the mentally strong ones and the ones that will die for the team and die for each other. They’re the ones I back and they’re the ones that I know that are gonna get the job done.’
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