The world’s best soccer players will descend on Russia for the 2018 World Cup beginning on June 14.
That means some of the planet’s most recognizable names — like Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo — will be joined by superstars from six continents hoping to lift the famous trophy.
From Costa Rica to South Korea, many teams feature at least one player of transcendent quality — which means every moment of the tournament is must-see TV.
While it’s impossible to list all the great players at the World Cup this year, here’s a list of 13 you should definitely make time to watch play.
1) Lionel Messi, Argentina
Lionel Messi is arguably the best player in the world, and has been named so five times since 2008. (He received the second-best player in the world honor the other five years.)
But one title has eluded him on his quest to become the best player ever: the World Cup trophy. He led Argentina to the 2014 World Cup finals against Germany but lost 1-0. That’s a trend for Argentina: La Albiceleste (“the white and sky blue”), as they are known to loyal fans, have lost four straight finals in major competitions, including that World Cup final defeat.
All eyes will be on La Pulga(“the flea”), as fans lovingly call him because he can be a pest to defenders in games. A creative genius with attacking flair, he will carry the weight of a nation on his shoulders. Now at 30 years old, Messi has his last, best chance to shine at the peak of his talents on the world’s greatest stage.
2) Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo is Messi’s nemesis, for lack of a better word. Since 2008, Ronaldo was named the world’s best soccer player the other five times Messi didn’t win the award (and came in second the times Messi won).
Ronaldo also wants to stake his claim as the best player ever, and he has an advantage in that he captained Portugal to the European championship in 2016. But Portugal has a tough draw against Spain early on and a difficult road to the final, should the team progress out of the group stage.
That means Ronaldo’s dazzling tricks, lightning-quick feet, and penchant for scoring huge goals may not be enough to lead his team to ultimate glory. But he’ll be fun to watch in what might be the 33-year-old’s last World Cup.
3) Neymar, Brazil
Brazil is one of the favorites to lift the World Cup trophy — and Neymar is the key man who may lead the Seleçãoto the promised land.
There is already talk that the 26-year-old striker is better than Messi and Ronaldo, and leading Brazil to the 2018 World Cup title could confirm that his star is ascending as the others’ dim. He became the world’s most expensive player last year after Barcelona sold him to Paris-Saint Germain for around $262 million. Neymar wanted to leave, in part, to get out of Messi’s shadow in Barcelona.
The problem is Neymar was part of the Brazil squad that lost 7-1 — yes, 7-1 — to Germany in the semifinals at the last tournament (which took place in Brazil). Neymar and his team will try to exorcize those demons in Russia.
4) Mo Salah, Egypt
Egypt’s Mo Salah took the soccer world by storm in 2017 and seemingly came out of nowhere to become one of the planet’s best players.
He’ll cap off a remarkable year by leading his country to its first World Cup in 28 years. Salah has fantastic speed, pinpoint passing ability, and unnatural coolness in front of goal. If Egypt is to have any success, Salah must carry the team on his shoulders.
But Salah actually injured his shoulder just a few weeks before the tournament, which means he may miss a game or not be at full fitness. That’s a big blow for a long-shot Egyptian side that relies so heavily on Salah’s brilliance. Still, Salah will be a sight to see whenever he steps on the field.
5) Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium
Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne will look to make an immediate impact for Belgium.
Belgium is chock-full of talent, but De Bruyne stands out among them all. A pure attacking midfielder who consistently makes passes that lead to a goal, the 26-year-old will orchestrate Belgium’s attack. Basically, if De Bruyne doesn’t play well, Belgium will struggle to advance beyond the group stages, despite the team’s depth.
De Bruyne is already a well-known player among soccer fans, but the World Cup is where he could take the next step to become a globally recognized superstar.
6) Son Heung-min, South Korea
South Korea doesn’t have a great chance of going deep at the World Cup, but Son Heung-min is reason enough to watch “the Reds” play in Russia.
Lovingly referred to as “Sonaldo” by his fans, the 25-year-old is arguably the best player to come out of Asia in years. He is quick and has a penchant for scoring, which is good since South Korea will look to him for the majority of its goals.
He’s also known for playing his heart out while always smiling. That’s endeared him to many who’ve seen him play. As Deadspin’s Billy Haisley put in March, “you can’t help but root for a guy who clearly takes so much joy from the act of playing.” Perhaps he will rack up more fans — and hopefully some wins — for his country at the World Cup.
7) Sadio Mane, Senegal
If Senegal is to have any chance of competing for the World Cup title, it’ll need amazing performances from Sadio Mane. Luckily, Mane churns out amazing performances on a consistent basis.
He almost singlehandedly brought Senegal to the tournament with myriad goals and assists. His team will once again look to get him the ball in attack once the World Cup starts. He has lightning-quick speed and reflexes, and he seemingly always puts himself in a position to score.
While soccer fans agree that Mane is a superb talent, few would consider him among the game’s truly elite. But if he continues his excellent play in Russia, Mane may finally take that step into soccer superstardom.
8) Thomas Müller, Germany
The numbers speak for themselves: Germany’s Thomas Müller has scored 10 World Cup goals in his career. That ties him for eighth most in history. If he scores two more, he’ll tie Brazil’s Pele, and if he scores six more, he’ll tie for first.
Müller is an outstanding player and goal scorer, but he kicks it into hyperdrive during the World Cup. He scored five goals in both 2010 and 2014, making him only the third player in history to score that many goals in two World Cups.
He isn’t a flashy player but he’s cool in attack and serves as an engine for the team. He was a huge reason why Germany won its fourth World Cup title in 2014, and Germany has a good chance of repeating as champions. If the country lifts the famous trophy in July, undoubtedly the 28-year-old’s goal-scoring abilities will have something to do with it.
9) Alex Iwobi, Nigeria
One of the most exciting young players to watch at the World Cup will be Nigeria’s Alex Iwobi.
The 21-year-old forward has only improved since he scored in his first senior professional game two years ago. Iwobi may not be the most important player for Nigeria, but he’ll certainly remain a key one nonetheless.
However, Nigeria is stuck in a group with Argentina, Croatia, and Iceland. It’s a long shot for the “Super Eagles” to go deep in the tournament. But if they do, it’s conceivable that Iwobi made some brilliant plays to get them there — including one of his patented rainbow kicks.
10) Keylor Navas, Costa Rica
Don’t forget the goalies! Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas has already proven he can play on the biggest stage: He was one of the breakout performers in the 2014 World Cup and has reliably played for Real Madrid since.
He’s quick to meet attackers off the line, has blazing-fast reflexes, and consistently makes impossible-looking saves. However, he’s somewhat unreliable on corner kicks, occasionally missing the ball when he tries to catch a cross in the air. Still, many World Cup teams would kill to have Navas in net, and he could solidify his place as one of the world’s best in 2018.
Simply put, if Costa Rica is to do well in Russia, Navas will have to play lights out.
11) Antoine Griezmann, France
Don’t let Antoine Griezmann’s 5-foot-9 stature fool you: He stands tall on the soccer field. Griezmann was named the world’s third-best player in 2016, in part because he led France to the finals of the 2016 European championship.
His success stems from just how good he is with his feet and head. With the ball at his feet, he can easily dribble around players, find the right pass, or slide the ball into the corner of the goal. With his head, Griezmann puts himself in the right place to power a cross beyond the goalkeeper.
That makes the 27-year-old one of the best players on a supremely talented French squad. if Griezmann has a good tournament, expect France to contend for the title.
12) Andres Iniesta, Spain
The 2018 World Cup will be a bittersweet moment for soccer fans because it’ll be the last time they’ll see Spain’s Andres Iniesta play.
The 34-year-old, widely regarded as the best midfielder of his generation, will put his dazzling skills on display one last time. He’s known for coolly making passes that lead to goals, floating by defenders, and keeping possession under immense pressure. In the words of one of his former coaches: “Iniesta’s the most inventive player in Spanish football at the moment. He’s like Harry Potter. One, two, three and whoosh … he’s past the player. It’s like he has a magic wand.”
Iniesta became a national hero when he scored the championship-winning goal for Spain in the 2010 World Cup. He’ll certainly hope to help his team in his final tournament — further ensconcing himself in the pantheon of world soccer.
13) Luis Suarez, Uruguay
Always one of the most controversial players, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez will try to keep his head above water in Russia.
There’s no denying Suarez’s talent: He is a natural-born goal scorer and a game changer. Uruguay will always be a threat anytime he’s on the field. The problem is he has a hot temper and makes ill-advised decisions (like shouting racist insults or literally biting opponents).
And in 2010, Suarez cynically stopped a certain goal with his hands, denying Ghana. He received a red card for that act, but Ghana failed to convert a penalty kick. That, in part, allowed Uruguay to proceed while eliminating the African side.
Suarez could silence his critics by simply playing at his usual high level and minimizing his on-field antics. It’d be better if he did more of his talking with his feet than with his mouth.
14) Robert Lewandowski, Poland
Robert Lewandowski born 21 August 1988) is a Polish professional footballer who plays as a striker for Bundesliga club Bayern Munich and is the captain of the Poland national team.
After being the top scorer in the third and second tiers of Polish football with Znicz Pruszków, he moved to top-flight Lech Poznań, and was the top scorer in the league as they won the 2009–10 Ekstraklasa. In 2010, he transferred to Borussia Dortmund for a reported €4.5 million, where he won honours including two consecutive Bundesliga titles and a season as the league’s top goalscorer. In 2013, he earned with Borussia a spot in the 2013 UEFA Champions League Final, a tournament in which he was the second top goalscorer, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo.
Prior to the start of the 2014–15 season, Lewandowski agreed to join their rivals, Bayern Munich, on a free transfer. In Munich, he won the Bundesliga title in each of his first three campaigns, earning a spot in the Bundesliga Team of the Year in every season. In 2015–16, he led the league in goalscoring with 30 goals, and in 2016–17 he was named the Bundesliga Player of The Year. He was named to the UEFA Champions League Squad of the Season on each of the last two seasons. He has totalled over 170 goals in Germany’s top division, Bundesliga, and reached the century mark quicker than any other foreign player. On 22 September 2015, Lewandowski scored five goals against VfL Wolfsburg in nine minutes, the fastest in any major European football league since records have been kept.
A full international for Poland since 2008, Lewandowski has earned over 90 caps and was a member of their team at Euro 2012 and Euro 2016. With 55 international goals, Lewandowski is the all-time top scorer for Poland. In 2015, he was voted Polish Sportspersonality of the Year and in 2016 he claimed fourth place at the 2015 FIFA Ballon d’Or Awards. He has been named the Polish Player of the Year a record seven times. The Guardian has ranked him as the fifth-best footballer on the planet in 2015.
15) Romelu Lukaku, Belgium
Romelu Menama Lukaku Bolingoli (born 13 May 1993) is a Belgian professional footballer who plays as a striker for Premier League club Manchester United and the Belgium national team. He is one of only five players to have ever scored 50 Premier League goals before their 23rd birthday, and the fifth youngest to have scored 100 goals in the competition. As a Belgian international, he holds the all-time record of 36 goals scored for the Belgian national team.
Lukaku started his career with local side Rupel Boom, before joining Lierse, where he earned a move to Anderlecht of the Belgian Pro League in 2006. Lukaku made his professional debut while still at school at age 16, and became the 2009–10 top scorer in Belgium as Anderlecht won the Belgian championship. He also won the Belgian Ebony Shoe in 2011. In the 2011 summer transfer window, Lukaku joined Premier League club Chelsea. He did not appear regularly in his first season there, and spent the following two seasons on loan at West Bromwich Albion and Everton respectively, signing permanently for the latter for a club record £28 million in 2014. Three years later, Lukaku signed for Manchester United.
Lukaku made his senior international debut for Belgium in 2010, and has since earned over 60 caps and is their all-time record goalscorer with 34 goals. He has also represented the country at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016.