Many call Messi one of the best soccer players of all time, and he’s only 26 years old. Despite immense success on world-beating Barcelona in the Spanish professional league and a host of trophies on his shelf, "The Atomic Flea" has never even made it past the quarterfinals of the World Cup. This go around may be his best chance, as Argentina’s squad is loaded with international stars all over the pitch, and Messi is at the top of his game and in full health after a hamstring injury last year. The only question is how well Argentina can play together behind their dynamo forward.Full coverage of the 2014 World Cup
Cristiano Ronaldo - PortugalThe most recent winner of FIFA's Ballon d'Or for being the best soccer player on the planet, Ronaldo has for now gotten the upper hand over the “Who’s the best?” debate that has been raging over him and Lionel Messi for the last several years. The Real Madrid star’s performance in the 2014 World Cup will go a long way towards quieting any remaining doubters, and Portugal’s national team will desperately need his other-worldly play if they’re going to stand a chance of making it out of this Cup's "Group of Death" that includes Germany, the U.S., and Ghana.
Even though the Portuguese have never made it past the Group of 16 since Ronaldo has played with the national side, the team’s 29-year-old star and captain is confident -- as always -- saying after he finished building a museum to himself in his birthplace of Madeira: "I have room for more trophies."
Neymar - Brazil
Brazilians will not accept bowing out of the World Cup at the quarterfinal stage like they have the last two World Cups when the tournament arrives on their home soil this summer. If they hope to take home their sixth World Cup trophy, Barcelona star Neymar’s slender frame will have to bear much of the burden. The 22-year-old, 5-foot-9-inch winger/forward may be one of many stars on this young team, but none of them make anywhere near the $20 million he does every year between salary and endorsements. The biggest knock against Neymar may be his size, but he has silenced many doubters after his move to Barcelona last year with lightning fast speed and acceleration, a top-class ability to finish off both feet, and the same doggedness on the pitch that his professional teammate Lionel Messi is known for.
Andres Iniesta - Spain
It may be a fool's errand to pick a single player from the
defending champs, whose aging squad was arguably one of the best all-time World
Cup teams in 2010. From Xavi Hernandez to Cesc Fabregas to Sergio Ramos, Spain’s
deep roster has made them a favorite to repeat their South Africa triumph in Brazil. However, much of their hopes this time around will rest on the
29-year-old who scored the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final. The
midfield wizard has made the FIFA XI squad the last five years in a row; even
fellow superstar Xavi called him "Spain's most complete player."
While he hasn’t had the best season statistically for Barcelona, the midfielder who can see passing lanes that no one else can has shown few signs of aging. For Spain to win again, he better not start now.
Clint Dempsey - USA
"Captain America" is no small part of the reason the rest of the soccer world takes the U.S. men’s team seriously now. Last year, Dempsey gave up a decent professional run in the English Premier League to play a little closer to home for the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer, where the 31-year-old is consistently named among the league's best players. Some have fretted the move stateside would hurt his overall ability, but after completing a two-month loan to Fulham, he scored six goals in the first four games of the 2014 MLS season. The native Texan’s world-class ability to finish near the goal and score on crafty free kicks will be crucial if the Americans want to survive the so-called "Group of Death" against Germany, Portugal and Ghana, and make it out of the round of 16.
Wayne Rooney - England
The nation that invented soccer hasn't won a World Cup since 1966, and they sure don't let their stars forget it. While Rooney may not be England’s best player, the 28-year-old is still one of the faces of soccer around the world, promoted heavily by both Nike and FIFA. The starting forward for the English national team has been one of the best players on a fading Manchester United squad that was the toast of the world not that long ago. Despite his continued top-flight play as his professional team crumbles, England's soccer fans fret continuously about whether Rooney and the England squad can make a real showing this time, after finishing 13th in South Africa in 2010. To survive an incredibly difficult group stage with Italy, Costa Rica and Uruguay, they're going to need his superlative ability to score goals, as well as his greatly improved passing and never-say-die hustle when the lights shine brightest.
Arjen Robben - The Netherlands
An argument can be made that Robin van Persie is more important to international powerhouse The Netherlands, but the "Oranje" won't come anywhere near replicating their 2010 final run without the continued inspired play of Robben. The 30-year-old winger has been on a tear for professional club Bayern Munich, where he's scored at least 55 goals since joining the team in 2009, and was a crucial reason they hoisted the Champions League trophy last year. He has shown a penchant for performing his best on the biggest stages, so watch for "The Flying Dutchman" to earn his nickname in Brazil by sprinting down the wing past defenders.
Mario Balotelli - Italy
The enigmatic 23-year-old of Ghanaian heritage has done a lot of
questionable things off the soccer pitch, but no one doubts his ability on it. Balotelli
can finish, pass and run with the best in the world, but has been maddeningly
inconsistent since his debut on the world stage. While Italy may have bowed out
at the group stage in 2010, it would not be wise to count out the four-time
World Cup champions, especially if the A.C. Milan striker brings his A-game.
He hasn’t shown great form in Serie A this year; this past February, Balotelli was spotted crying on the bench after being taken off the pitch late in a loss to Napoli. Whether that’s a sign of his passion for the game or his immaturity is anyone's guess, but fans of "Gli Azzurri" sure hope it's the former. The Italians are going to need every bit of help they can get to survive this a harsh group stage, where they'll square off against England, Uruguay and Costa Rica.
Mesut Ozil - Germany
The German national team is among the few favorites to take home the World Cup trophy in Brazil, and their star attacking midfielder will likely be the key to their success. Currently at Arsenal, the 25-year-old has been compared, perhaps not unreasonably, to French soccer legend Zinedine Zidane for his finesse, precision and improvisational skills. Ozil suffered a hamstring injury earlier this year, but has returned to club action and will be looking to get back in form quickly. The Germans are in the "Group of Death" with the U.S., Portgual, and Ghana, but if Ozil is healthy and leading the charge, they should have no problems making a deep run in this World Cup.
Luis Suarez - Uruguay
The 27-year-old striker knows how to court controversy: he was red-carded for a blatant handball that denied a game-winning goal to Ghana in the 2010 World Cup; months later, he was suspended by his club team Ajax after biting an opponent; the next year, as a member of Liverpool, he was suspended for racially abusing Manchester United's Patrice Evra; and in 2013, he was suspended for biting an opponent (yes, again), this time Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic.
But there's another thing Suarez knows: how to score goals, and at that, he is undeniably skilled, netting an eye-popping 30 goals for Liverpool this season. Now he is leading a talented Uruguay team that finished fourth in 2010. And while Uruguay is in one of the toughest groups to start the tournament with England, Italy and Costa Rica, if Suarez can perform with even a fraction of the form he’s shown for Liverpool, it's the other three teams that may need to worry.