Think about what you remember most from past World Cups. You may have some spectacular goals that stick out in your mind, but I’m willing to guess it doesn’t end there. Maybe it’s a goal celebration. Maybe you remember a particularly bad tackle. Perhaps you remember the face of your favorite player as they cried at the end of the game— tears of sorrow, most likely, but maybe tears of joy. Maybe you remember an altercation on the pitch. Or maybe you remember someone biting a competitor.
The World Cup is so much more than goals and results. It’s particular moments suspended in time. It’s flashes of individual brilliance. And while teams and nations set up a wider context for the tournament, it’s the players themselves, with personalities and egos bigger than the competition itself, that really drives the drama.
With Russia 2018 on the horizon, we’re taking a look at the big names and big personalities you’ll see fighting to lead their countries to glory. Some will be looking to cement their legacies. A number will be looking for redemption…and one will just be happy to show up.
10. Harry Kane, England
Kane embodies everything people love and hate about The Three Lions. His style of play doesn’t set the heart racing but it is most assuredly English—all work-rate and determination and “graft.” If you ask the English what the ideal playing style should be for English football, many will indelibly point at Harry Kane. With 30 goals in the Premier League last season, and with him being so integral to Tottenham Hotspur becoming a Top Four team (despite being, you know, Tottenham), it’s hard to argue with the results.
But a lot of people hate England, due in no small part to the air of snooty entitlement that follows them. England fans believe they should win the World Cup every time because the game was “invented” there, and when they don’t, it’s somehow always someone else’s fault.
That sense of entitlement will always be bound up with Kane after this past spring, when he demanded that Spurs appeal to the FA on his behalf to have a goal credited to teammate Christian Eriksen assigned to him so he could close the gap in the Golden Boot race. He ended up missing out on the award anyway, and now this ridiculous incident will follow him for the rest of his career. You’d think that might concern him, given that he’s England’s Great White Hope. But not Kane, he ain’t bothered.
If you like your villains petty and vain, England’s captain has you covered.
9. Nicklas Bendtner, Denmark
If you’re new-ish to soccer, you may not be familiar with the legend of Lord Bendtner. My friend, you are missing out.
Soccer is replete with irrepressible egotists. For the most part, these players can support their I-Am-The-Greatest rhetoric with convincing evidence— highlight-reel golazos, dominant wins over rivals, silverware. And then there’s Nicklas Bendtner, who still counted himself among Europe’s elite tier after several “ugh just go away” loans from Arsenal and ultimately ending up in England’s second division.
Consider this anecdote from The Guardian’s Daniel Taylor:
Jacques Crevoisier, Arsenal’s psychologist, once gave an interview to the Swedish magazine Offside that neatly sums up the way Bendtner is wired differently to the rest of us. Crevoisier used to give the players a series of multiple-choice questions to test their intelligence and personality. “One of the categories is called ‘Self-perceived competence’ – ie how good the player himself thinks he is,” he explained. “On a scale of up to nine, Bendtner got a 10. We had never seen that before. When Bendtner misses a chance, he is always genuinely convinced it isn’t his fault. You might say that’s a problem, and to a certain degree it can be. But you can also view it as this guy has a remarkable ability to come back after setbacks.”
So what’s holding Lord Bendtner back? He has documented issues with alcohol, resulting in problems ranging from embarrassing to reckless and irresponsible. With every lapse in judgement and every loan spell that didn’t work out, the legend of Lord Bendtner grew until it became a certifiable internet meme. Then someone decided to buy Bendtner some land so he could become an actual Lord. And now, with Bendtner facing an injury scare, there’s a petition to delay the start of the World Cup so that he can play.
It’s hard to tell where the meme stops and the footballer begins these days. But regardless, Bendtner will be one to watch in Russia. (If he makes it.)
8. Rafa Márquez, Mexico
American fans are in varying stages of grief over missing out on the World Cup. Some, closer to the Acceptance stage in the process, are turning desperate eyes toward Mexico as their surrogate “home” team. Others, orbiting closer to anger and/or unwilling to set aside the USMNT’s longstanding rivalry with El Tri, refuse to do anything of the sort.
That Mexico will include Rafa Márquez likely won’t convince anyone in the latter set to change their minds.
Márquez is remembered— unkindly— for his two-year stint with the New York Red Bulls. Fights with opponents. Getting red cards in critical games. Throwing his teammates under the bus. His time in America was so widely panned that editorials mused whether he was the worst MLS Designated Player ever. Many American soccer journalists and fans figured, at the very least, that his performances for the Red Bulls killed his career dead.
But it didn’t. He immediately signed for León, moved to Verona two years later, then returned to boyhood club Atlas. And now here he is, leading Mexico to the World Cup at 39 years young.
Márquez’ career has had a long and winding road, from Liga MX to Barcelona to MLS and back home. Through it all he’s been El Tri’s rock. A sharp and pointy rock, but a rock nonetheless.
(Did we mention that he’s under investigation for suspected ties to drug trafficking?)
7. Sergio Ramos, Spain
Oh hey, speaking of defenders with anger management issues.
Sergio Ramos is one of the best defenders to ever play the game. He’s strong, his technical ability is phenomenal, and his skillset is versatile enough that he can play basically anywhere in the back half of the pitch. He’s made the FIFPro World XI eight times— a record for a defender— and UEFA’s Team Of The Year seven times. And that’s before you count his team awards. He also has a World Cup winners’ medal in his undoubtedly luxurious house, having served as a vital component in the 2010 Spain squad that won the whole shebang.
But most people know him for another accolade of sorts— 24 red cards. Very few footballers have ever found themselves in the kind of rarefied air that Ramos is in. Fewer would even dare to try. His Wikipedia page has a section titled “Disciplinary record.” If you ignore the blood and shattered bones he’s left in his wake, it’s almost impressive.
For all his sanctions in games, Ramos has gotten away with many more hits. Most recently, his WWE-style armbar on Mohamed Salah in last month’s Champions League Final did not even earn him a yellow card. Salah had to leave that game early, all but killing off Liverpool’s hopes of winning. Real Madrid marched on to a 3-1 win and their 12th Champions League title, while Salah may or may not be able to play in the World Cup.
Sergio Ramos is often called one of the dirtiest players in the game. It’s more than deserved.
6. Antoine Griezmann, France
Griezmann is young. He’s cocky. He’s one of the most technically gifted forwards in the game. And he’s been the tip of the spear for Atlético Madrid for four years, helping to turn La Liga into a three-horse race. His boyish good looks dazzle nearly as much as his footwork. He nearly led France to a European Championship in 2016. All things being equal, he’d make a good hero for the story of the World Cup.
At least he would’ve before his inexplicable heel turn last winter, when he posted photos of himself in blackface on social media. He deleted the post and then offered a meek and insufficient “sorry if you were offended” response to criticism.
Like so many narratives at Russia 2018, the story of Antoine Griezmann is complicated and more than a bit problematic. At 27, this is likely his best (though certainly not last) shot at reaching the summit at the World Cup. That he plays for France, a side that can be charitably described as mercurial, makes it unclear just how high or low his ceiling will be this summer. With a chip on his shoulder from Euro 2016, and with fans uneasy to get behind him after his act of casual racism, Griezmann appears to have little room for error.
5. Luis Suarez, Uruguay
Hoo boy. Where should we start.
- His disciplinary record
- His fights with teammates on the pitch
- The diving
- The public fights with Liverpool over being allowed to leave
- That time he got into an altercation with Patrice Evra and uttered what was probably a racial slur
- That time he made an obscene gesture at opposition fans.
- And the biting. So much biting.
His last biting incident happened at the last World Cup during Uruguay’s match with Italy. That earned him a four month suspension from “all football activities.” He wasn’t even allowed to go to a game as a fan. It was that bad. (FIFA ultimately relaxed the ban so he could train with Barcelona, with whom he had recently signed.) The suspension also carried a 16-game international ban, keeping him out of the national team for 21 months.
Suarez is undoubtedly one of the best No. 9’s in the world, and there’s every possibility he’ll do tremendous things in Russia. But let’s be real here…we’re watching him out of a sense of morbid curiosity. Like those kids from Jurassic Park when they put the goat in the T-Rex habitat.
4. Neymar, Brazil
Brazil had the air of Champions In Waiting about them in the last World Cup. Playing on their home turf and boasting the strongest Seleção roster in a generation, 2014 seemed like their prime opportunity to claim the throne.
Their secret weapon, of course, was Neymar. Often compared to fellow Santos alum Pelé in his youth, Neymar won South American Footballer of the Year and a Puskás Award at the tender age of 19. He had just completed his first season at Barcelona at the start of the World Cup, shouldering hefty expectations and coming through. If Brazil were going to win the World Cup, their World Cup, Neymar was going to be the bright and shining champion to lead them to the promised land.
So when he suffered a fractured vertabra in his spine in the quarterfinals against Colombia, you could almost hear the entire country’s collective heart break. Viewed in that light, Brazil’s historic 7-1 loss to Germany in the semifinals almost seemed inevitable.
Neymar is four years older now. He left Barcelona under a cloud and his new start at Paris Saint-Germain appears to be going poorly. He heads to Russia under tremendous pressure and with a huge score to settle. If Neymar set out to fulfill a promise in 2014, he heads into 2018 looking to make things right. Redemption stories in sports are compelling but a bit overplayed. Vengeance quests, on the other hand…
3. Lionel Messi, Argentina
No one is owed anything in soccer. You don’t win the World Cup because you deserve it. You have to take it, make a grab for it and then fight anyone who tries to take it from you. There is no divine right to anything in this sport.
But Leo Messi comes close.
At the risk of stating the obvious, Messi is one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. His creativity, his vision, his on-the-ball movement, it’s all peerless. You could live your whole life without ever seeing someone perform with the kind of brilliance that rests at the core of his being. Everyone playing at the elite level of the sport are incredible athletes who will undoubtedly leave their mark on the sport; but Messi is the kind of player who gets inside the sport, underneath it, and forces you to look at it in a new way.
In that sense, Messi is already in a vanishingly small class of players. Pelé. Maradona. Eusébio. Cruyff. At the club level he’s climbed every mountain and has little left to prove.
His international career is another matter.
On paper, Argentina are a solid enough team, but they’re not quite contenders. What makes them a force to be reckoned with heading into Russia is their captain and No. 10. As incandescent as Messi is, he’s one person. Asking him to carry all of Argentina on his back is a lot to ask— even for him. Yet, he’s being asked to do just that, and the fact that he hasn’t managed to win major international honors for Argentina has earned him criticism bordering on condemnation. The outrage after missing a penalty attempt in the 2016 Copa America Final was so sharp that he briefly retired from international duty.
Because of who he is, and because Argentina came so close to winning it all in 2014, the pressure on Messi will be tremendous. If Argentina wins the World Cup, whatever credit he receives will be tempered by the perception that he was just doing what was expected of him. You don’t praise the mailman for doing his job, after all. If Argentina falls short, there will be columns questioning Messi’s legacy and whether he belongs in the GOAT conversation. Messi doesn’t deserve to lift the World Cup trophy, because no really does. But it’s hard not to root for him anyway.
2. Mohamed Salah, Egypt
If you think about soccer in terms of professional wrestling, Mohamed Salah is arguably the promotion’s top babyface, and not just because of his warm smile and twinkling eyes.
His play in recent seasons, at Fiorentina, Roma and now Liverpool, has been breathtaking to watch. He’s racking up awards— Premier League golden boot, CAF African Footballer of the Year, Premier League player of the season. He’s loved by his teammates and respected by his opponents. Plus, in a country gripped in a fever of racism and xenophobia, Salah is changing perspectives on Muslims in Britain. To say nothing of how he’s inspired his fellow Egyptians and Africans as they prepare to cheer on their national team at the World Cup for the first time in nearly 30 years would be a shame.
Heading into Russia, Salah and Egypt seemed set to be one of the tournament’s few genuinely feel-good stories. Then the Champions League Final happened.
Ramos’ armbar takedown didn’t just end Salah’s role in the Final, the injury has him set for a 3-4 week recovery. That’s cutting it pretty close. Egypt (and indeed Liverpool) will no doubt do everything in their power to quicken Salah’s healing so that he’s fit, but there’s a frustrating non-zero chance that he won’t be ready in time.
If that’s how it turns out, it will be an injustice of nearly cosmic proportions. There are plenty of players you root for at the World Cup. With Salah, the world is holding his breath hoping he just manages to show up.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
If Salah is the top babyface, CR7 is undoubtedly the smug heel champion.
Unparalleled athletic ability. Incomparable technique. A knack for taking control of games and forcing opponents to play on his terms. An indomitable will to win. Cristiano Ronaldo is also in the GOAT debate on par with rival Leo Messi— on an individual basis and as players on opposite sides of perhaps the greatest club rivalry in the world— as they’ve made the past decade or so a truly blessed time to be a soccer fan.
Ronaldo is also a man that is profoundly unhappy when he isn’t the star of the show. He’s known to sulk and complain when he doesn’t score, even if his team puts in an otherwise dominant performance. When he didn’t get on the scoresheet for Real Madrid’s win over Liverpool for their 12th Champions League title (and third in a row), he was so incensed that he hinted he would be looking for a new club. Maybe he’s serious and is actually ready to rage-quit Real Madrid because he couldn’t get a goal in a Champions League Final, or maybe he was just desperate to find a way to make a European Cup win all about him.
Either way, Ronaldo is the kind of player who sees himself as bigger than whatever team he plays on. You can only hope to get away with that kind of attitude if you have once-in-a-generation talent. Which he does.
This is especially apparent when he plays for Portugal. Or, perhaps more aptly, Cristiano Ronaldo And His 10-Piece Fado-Swing Orchestra. Portugal’s performance in major international tournaments turns entirely on whether CR7 has a good game. To his credit, it was good enough to win the 2016 European Championships. It’s not inconceivable that it might be enough to carry Portugal far in Russia.
Where Messi is carrying the expectations of his home country and millions of fans around the world, Ronaldo is only out to satisfy one person— himself. To be clear, that is no easy task. However, that singular focus might just be enough to get him to the promised land.
There is a narrow set of circumstances by which Portugal will face Argentina in the knockout rounds, which would send those betting on the World Cup into a frenzy. Which means there’s a chance we’ll finally get a World Cup edition of Messi vs Ronaldo— something which the soccer world may or may not be able to handle.
Writer. Activist. Queer (She/They). Anti-fascist. Patzer.