There’s a good reason the World Cup is the biggest sporting event there is. Billions tune in from across the globe. Thousands travel to stadiums to watch their footballing icons live in action. Hearts are broken. New heroes are discovered. The joy of qualification is often paired with the agony of elimination. In the end, only one team makes it to the top.
In Qatar, from 20 November-18 December, 32 teams will compete for the right to be called world champions. This tournament will also have many firsts and lasts. While we will see the use of semi-automated offside technology, Qatar will also be the last World Cup to feature the 32-team format.
It is not easy winning a World Cup. Only eight national teams—from two continents—have managed it in 89 years. Football is a team game but every squad will turn to that one individual for an extra bout of inspiration and magic.
Lounge looks at one standout player from every team at this year’s World Cup and why they could make all the difference. As Pele, who lifted the trophy three times with Brazil, rightly said: “The World Cup is a very important way to measure the good players, and the great ones. It is a test of a great player.”
Qatar | Akram Afif, 26, forward, Al Sadd, 89 caps: One of the most exciting prospects in Asian football, Akram Afif has become a mainstay of the Qatar team at a young age. The World Cup hosts will have to play out of their skin if they are to progress from Group A. Afif, along with striker Hassan Al-Haydos, will be key to their ambitions. FC Barcelona coach Xavi, who managed Afif at Al Sadd in the past, called the playmaker “an unbelievable talent”. The home supporters will hope Afif will be able to deliver on that promise.
Ecuador | Moisés Caicedo, 21, midfielder, Brighton & Hove Albion, 25 caps: Moisés Caicedo has become one of the most sought-after box-to-box midfielders in Europe with his performances at Premier League club Brighton. An excellent reader of the game, Caicedo is known for his passing and positional intelligence. He even managed to find the back of the net against Uruguay and Chile in Ecuador’s qualifying campaign. Caicedo is dreaming big. He was quoted in a Reuters report in October as saying: “A good World Cup for Ecuador would be to reach the semi-finals. My teammates and I want to leave Ecuador’s name high up.”
Senegal | Kalidou Koulibaly, 31, defender, Chelsea, 64 caps: With Sadio Mané sadly ruled out for the tournament with a leg injury, the Senegal team will look to their defensive anchor Kalidou Koulibaly to lead from the back. While the 31-year-old is still settling in at Chelsea, having joined them earlier this year from Napoli, there is no doubt about his place in the national team. Koulibaly remains one of the quickest and strongest centre-backs in world football. His tackling is second to none. He can also play in a variety of positions, which makes him a defensive asset.
The Netherlands | Cody Gakpo, 23, forward, PSV Eindhoven, 9 caps: The Dutch will have balance in midfield with Frenkie de Jong and a world-class defensive cornerstone in Virgil Van Dijk but the most exciting player for the Netherlands heading into Qatar is young PSV winger Cody Gakpo. Blessed with incredible speed, the 23-year-old leads the chart for both goals (9) and assists (12) in the Dutch Eredivisie this season. “Incredibly talented,” says author Karan Tejwani, who covers the Dutch league. “He’s probably the most in-form Dutch player heading into the tournament and could make a big impact.”
England | Harry Kane, 29, forward, Tottenham Hotspur, 75 caps: Harry Kane will head into the World Cup as the most experienced striker in England’s ranks. The Tottenham striker, who had an excellent scoring streak in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, has been in fine form domestically as well, with 11 goals so far in the Premier League. What makes Kane an asset is his ability to drop into the midfield and assume the “playmaker” role when needed. The top scorer in the 2018 World Cup, Kane is just three goals shy of surpassing Wayne Rooney as England’s record goalscorer. A World Cup would be the perfect stage to do it.
Iran | Mehdi Taremi, 30, forward, FC Porto, 60 caps: A prolific striker, Mehdi Taremi will want to put his crucial miss against Portugal at the 2018 World Cup behind him. One strike and Iran would have qualified for the round of 16 for the first time. He has since moved to FC Porto and is scoring goals for fun. The Iranians have never gone beyond the World Cup group stage and Taremi’s experience—both in the Portuguese league and the Champions League—will be crucial here. In Carlos Queiroz, they also have a reliable coach.
United States | Christian Pulisic, 24, forward, Chelsea, 52 caps: “Captain America”, as he is fondly called, must assume a more senior role in the US team, which is going to Qatar with a fairly young, inexperienced squad. Pulisic, probably the most recognisable American football player playing today, has had a good 2022 for the national side, including a hat trick against Panama in a World Cup qualifier in March. Coach Gregg Berhalter will turn to Pulisic for more goals and creativity as the team looks to move on from its failure to qualify for the World Cup in 2018.
Wales | Gareth Bale, 33, forward, Los Angeles FC, 108 caps: At 33, Gareth Bale is in the twilight of his career. His time at Real Madrid fizzled out but he seems to have rediscovered himself in the MLS (Major League Soccer). It was Bale’s standout performances against Austria and Ukraine that earned Wales their first World Cup appearance since 1958. The Welsh will rely once more on their record top scorer. Bale might not be the dazzling winger he once was, his speed and long galloping runs have slowly faded, but he remains a threat up front with his finishing ability. And that left foot is still capable of moments of brilliance.
Argentina | Lionel Messi, 35, forward, Paris Saint-Germain, 164 caps: Could this finally be Lionel Messi’s moment of glory? Winning the 2021 Copa América ended a long wait for a major trophy with Argentina. But it’s the World Cup that has eluded one of the greatest players of his generation. Messi goes to Qatar in prime form, having notched up 10 assists and 7 goals so far in Ligue 1, where he is finally beginning to dovetail with PSG teammates Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. Even at the age of 35, Messi has lost very little of his abilities on the pitch and can easily dictate a game’s flow. He will lead from the front as captain in what is surely going to be his last World Cup.
Saudi Arabia | Salem Al-Dawsari, 31, forward, Al-Hilal, 70 caps: Al-Dawsari is another Asian star to watch out for. An experienced wide attacker—he has spent his entire career with Saudi club Al-Hilal barring a short loan spell at Spanish club Villareal—the 31-year-old is rated highly by coach Hervé Renard, who called him a “leader” in a recent interview with Reuters. Al-Dawsari, along with captain Salman Al Faraj, will hold the key to any Saudi Arabian success in Qatar.
Mexico | Hirving Lozano, 27, forward, Napoli, 59 caps: Hirving “Chucky” Lozano is no stranger to the World Cup. He put in a man-of-the-match performance for Mexico against Germany in a group stage game four years ago, scoring the winning goal. Lozano is now a key part of Napoli and will be a constant threat with his electric pace. He can be deployed on the left or right and also play as the central striker. Expect more goals from him when Mexico start their campaign against Poland this time.
Poland | Robert Lewandowski, 34, forward, FC Barcelona, 134 caps: Robert Lewandowski joined a new club in the summer but his goal-scoring form has not changed. The former Bayern Munich striker has 18 goals in all competitions for Barcelona this season and Polish fans will hope that their record goalscorer can continue that run in Qatar for the national team. In the 2018 World Cup, Lewandowski failed to score a single goal as Poland crashed out in the group phase. If Poland are to change that and spring a surprise in Group C, then they will need Lewandowski firing on all cylinders.
France | Kylian Mbappe, 23, forward, Paris Saint-Germain, 59 caps: No Paul Pogba or N’Golo Kante means that France’s chances of retaining their title will rest heavily on young striker Kylian Mbappe, who already knows a thing or two about winning a World Cup. Mbappe has had a whirlwind 2022—on the verge of joining Real Madrid, he instead signed a contract extension with PSG, a club with Qatari owners. France manager Didier Deschamps will hope Mbappe’s blistering pace and dribbling skills complement the experience and finishing of striker Karim Benzema, who is also in red-hot form.
Denmark | Christian Eriksen, 30, midfielder, Manchester United, 117 caps: A little more than a year ago, Christian Eriksen’s heart stopped during Denmark’s first match at the Euros. He was resuscitated on the pitch. Since then, he has, improbably, completed a splendid six-month spell at Brentford before securing a move to Manchester United. There’s no doubt that Eriksen will be Denmark’s pivotal player in Qatar. There are very few midfielders who possess Eriksen’s vision and passing range, let alone his ability to execute pin-point free kicks. The 30-year-old could hold the key to Denmark qualifying from Group D.
Tunisia | Ellyes Skhiri, 27, midfielder, FC Cologne, 45 caps: Cologne midfielder Ellyes Skhiri is renowned for his stamina in the middle of the park. The French-born player is a defensive midfielder not shy of putting in some strong tackles. That could come handy for Tunisia, who will be the underdogs in group D, which has Denmark, France and Australia. Skhiri told AFP recently: “We know we are certainly not among the favourites, but anything is possible in a major competition and we will try to spring a surprise.”
Australia | Ajdin Hrustic, 26, midfielder, Hellas Verona, 19 caps: It’s hard to find any sort of stardust in the current Socceroos squad but attacking midfielder Ajdin Hrustic stands out. Hrustic is part of the next generation of Australian football. Having played in the Eredivisie and Bundesliga, Hrustic is now finding his feet at Hellas Verona. He even chipped in with goals against Kuwait, Japan and the UAE during Australia’s 2022 World Cup qualifying games. It will be interesting to see how he recovers from a recent foot injury.
Spain | Pedri, 19, midfielder, FC Barcelona, 14 caps: Pedri, the 2021 Golden Boy and Kopa Trophy winner, is heading to his first World Cup. Coach Luis Enrique has shown tremendous faith in the Barcelona midfielder, who can play virtually anywhere along the midfield. His composure on the ball, passing ability and positional awareness are reminiscent of Andrés Iniesta and he’s certainly not shy of taking aim at the goal. The good thing for Pedri is that he will have the protection and experience of veteran Sergio Busquets behind him. A new young player emerges at every World Cup. Could this be Pedri’s year?
Germany | Manuel Neuer, 36, goalkeeper, Bayern Munich, 113 caps: Things have been tricky for Germany since they won the 2014 World Cup. New coach Hansi Flick is slowly reviving a team that flopped at the 2018 World Cup. There is a slew of exciting young players in midfield for Germany but Manuel Neuer, the captain, remains their most experienced player, the spine of the team. Germany-based football writer Arunava Chaudhuri says: “At 36, Neuer is still one of the best goalkeepers in the world. With his recent injury break, Neuer will be fresh and ready going into the World Cup.”
Japan | Takumi Minamino, 27, midfielder, AS Monaco, 43 caps: The former Liverpool player has found life tough in Monaco and Ligue 1. The press has even labelled him a flop of the season so far. Yet this is a player who was scoring crucial goals at Merseyside not so long ago, and has 17 goals to his name for the Samurai Blue. His low centre of gravity and ability to ghost past players might prove useful for Japan, who don’t have many options up front. Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp called Minamino a “super talented” player. It’s time he showed why.
Costa Rica | Keylor Navas, 35, goalkeeper, Paris Saint-Germain, 107 caps: At 35, Keylor Navas will be the most experienced Costa Rican player in Qatar. The former Real Madrid goalkeeper—a club where he won three Champions League titles—is now playing second fiddle at PSG thanks to the dominance of Gianluigi Donnarumma. But there is no denying his importance to the national team. On his day, Navas is one of the best goalkeepers in the world. His experience—and supreme athleticism between the sticks—will be crucial for Costa Rica.
Belgium | Kevin De Bruyne, 31, midfielder, Manchester City, 93 caps: Inarguably one of the best midfielders in the Premier League, Kevin De Bruyne will be the player to watch in Belgium’s well-oiled team. The 31-year-old is leading the charts in England with 9 assists. The likes of Leandro Trossard and Romelu Lukaku will be raring to go, knowing that De Bruyne will find them with his impeccable passes. After their impressive third-place finish at the 2018 World Cup, this could be the last chance for Belgium’s golden generation to go all the way, and De Bruyne will have a big say in that.
Canada | Alphonso Davies, 22, forward, Bayern Munich, 34 caps: At just 22, Alphonso Davies has won the lot with Bayern Munich—4 Bundesliga titles, one Club World Cup and a Champions League medal. His incredible journey—from a refugee camp in Ghana to the pinnacle of European football—continues in Qatar. Davies is one of the fastest players in world football, with incredible creativity. His astonishing goal against Panama in a World Cup qualifier last year was a prime example. Capable of playing at left-back and in attack, Davies will be Canada’s most threatening player, one who can be unplayable at times.
Morocco | Achraf Hakimi, 24, defender, Paris Saint-Germain, 53 caps: There are very few right-backs in world football at the moment better than Achraf Hakimi. A defender—but very much in the attacking mould—blessed with breath-taking speed, Hakimi will be a constant goal threat for Morocco and can turn defence into attack with his accurate long passes. He also comes with bags of experience for someone so young, having won trophies at Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan and now with PSG.
Croatia | Luka Modrić, 37, midfielder, Real Madrid, 154 caps: It was so close, yet so far, for Luka Modrić and Croatia in 2018 as they were swept away by France in the final. Modrić will head to Qatar hoping to pull the Croatians across the finish line this time. The team will need all his experience to improve on their best-ever finish at a World Cup four years ago. Modrić might be a veteran now—and he admitted that Qatar will be his last World Cup—but he can still create plays and pick out passes like no one else. In a squad infused with youth and experience, Modrić will be the key to it all.
Brazil | Neymar, 30, forward, Paris Saint-Germain, 121 caps: If mid-season form is anything to go by, Neymar is at the top of his game right now. The showboating youngster everyone saw at Santos and Barcelona has matured into a forward of real pedigree—he already has 11 goals and 9 assists in just 14 games for PSG this season. The Brazilian squad is packed with experience in defence and midfield but it will be up to Neymar to produce free-flowing football up front. The former Barcelona star said earlier this month that he “can’t guarantee” if he will play another World Cup after Qatar. This could be Neymar’s last chance to help the Selecao win a record sixth World Cup.
Serbia | Aleksandar Mitrović, 28, forward, Fulham, 76 caps: Serbian coach Dragan Stojković is sweating over the fitness of Aleksandar Mitrović, who is recovering from an ankle injury. With fellow striker Dušan Vlahović also nursing a groin problem, Stojković will be hoping Mitrović can recover in time, simply because of his stupendous form for Serbia. With 50 goals so far, Mitrović is Serbia’s all-time top scorer and a constant aerial threat. A match-fit Mitrović will be hot to handle for any defence in Qatar.
Switzerland | Granit Xhaka, 30, midfielder, Arsenal, 106 caps: Granit Xhaka is a player reborn under Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and the Swiss national team could benefit highly from their captain’s rich vein of form. Technically sound, Xhaka not only shields his defensive line but also scores goals up front, as he has shown this season with Arsenal. His experience—along with the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri and goalkeeper Yann Sommer—could be vital if Switzerland are to advance from Group G.
Cameroon | Eric Maxim Choupo-moting, 33, Striker, Bayern Munich, 68 caps: Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting could not have chosen a better time to play a World Cup. The tall striker has 11 goals in all competitions for Bayern so far this season. Choupo-Moting will offer coach Rigobert Song and Cameroon a more experienced option up front. The likes of André Onana (goalkeeper), André-Frank Zambo Anguissa (defensive midfielder) and Choupo-Moting will have to be at their best if Cameroon are to match their 1990 World Cup feat of making it to the quarter-finals.
Portugal | Cristiano Ronaldo, 37, forward, Manchester United, 191 caps: Cristiano Ronaldo’s fifth World Cup feels like his final one. Despite his exemplary fitness levels, it’s difficult to see him playing another one after Qatar—he will be 41 by the time the 2026 World Cup comes around. A disastrous second stint at Manchester United has also coincided with a dry patch for Portugal, for whom he has failed to score in the last 9 matches. But Ronaldo comes alive in big tournaments; his 117 international goals are proof of that. Portugal’s captain, all-time top scorer and most capped player will have to stretch his limits if he is to lift the World Cup this time.
Ghana | Thomas Partey, 29, midfielder, Arsenal, 40 caps: The Arsenal midfielder has been in sublime form at the club level. Partey brings a rare mix of leadership and steel to the Ghanaian midfield, a quality that is vital at World Cups. The former Atlético de Madrid man can also chip in with goals from the middle of the park, as he has shown this season in the Premier League. This Ghana squad also has star names in defence and attack but Partey could be the link that holds them all together.
Uruguay | Federico Valverde, 24, midfielder, Real Madrid, 44 caps: What a blistering season Fede Valverde has had so far at Real Madrid. The Uruguayan is now Madrid’s most valuable midfielder. His versatility will also be key for Uruguay, who go into the tournament as dark horses, thanks to the incredible amount of talent in their squad: Cavani, Suarez, Núñez. New coach Diego Alonso will hope Valverde will be the centrepiece of this team. His ability to play anywhere along the midfield and even at full-back, coupled with his remarkable passing skills, could be pivotal for La Celeste (the Sky Blue), who are now at their fourth consecutive World Cup.
The Republic Of Korea | Son Heung-min, 30, forward, Tottenham Hotspur, 104 caps: Son Heung-min is a jewel of Asian football. A full international since 2010, Son represented South Korea at the 2014 and 2018 World Cups and is the team’s joint top scorer at the tournament. It’s not surprising then that coach Paulo Bento has included Son in his squad despite a recent injury— a fractured eye socket—which required surgery. Son is a finisher of the highest calibre, capable of playing in any forward position. His two-footed ability means he can cut in from either flank even when he’s not up front as the main striker.