10 Players Destined To Become Cult Icons At The 2018 FIFA World Cup
Due to the dawning of the internet, increased globalization and the heavy concentration of players plying their trade in European club football, there are hardly any unknown quantities at the World Cup now. Years back, nations like Panama, Iceland and Peru would’ve left opposing managers scrambling for information, but in 2018, that’s hardly the case.
And yet every World Cup, without fail, offers up its own cult icons. While hardcore aficionados might’ve scoffed at the world’s sudden infatuation with the likes of James Rodriguez, Keylor Navas and Memphis Depay back in 2014, these were players that casual fans had never heard of.
With 3.2 billion tuning in, the World Cup transforms relative unknowns into month-long subjects of water cooler chat. Players who’ve traditionally been wildly inconsistent for their club sides put together a couple weeks of brilliance in June and become immortal. It’s part of the wonderful fabric of the tournament.
Here are 10 players that casual fans (if you already know them, that’s great — save your soccersplaining for June 14) will probably become enamored with this summer.
10 Potential Cult Heroes of the 2018 World Cup
Rafa Benitez has only made one mistake as manager of Newcastle United and that was refusing to put his faith in Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic. To be fair to Benitez, he had his reasons. While he scored 17 goals for the Toon over two and a half seasons, he also collected 11 yellow cards and two reds.
It’s safe to say he’s got some Diego Costa in him.
Mitrovic celebrating Gayle's late winner for Newcastle last night by breaking his neck...https://t.co/42itnKY04v
— Pie Sports Booze (@piesportsbooze) September 29, 2016
However, since being loaned to Fulham in January, Mitrovic has been handed the minutes he so desperately craves while scoring seven goals in nine appearances for the Cottagers.
His record for Serbia is impressive as well — 13 goals from 35 caps, including six during World Cup qualifying and a recent brace against Nigeria.
If Serbia is to survive group play, it’ll be because the in-form Mitrovic is banging in the goals. The 23-year-old’s passion and commitment will endear him to viewers around the planet.
As one of two nations participating in their first-ever World Cup, Panama will serve as a huge talking point throughout the group stage — doubly so since they’ve “replaced” the USMNT in representing CONCACAF.
Los Canaleros will experience a trial by fire at their first tournament, opening proceedings against Belgium before playing England six days later. If Panama can shock the world by earning a result against either of those nations, they’ll do so relying heavily on a defense that’s anchored by brick shithouse Roman Torres.
Torres immediately catches the eye with his size and stature, and his play (he scored the winning penalty for Seattle in the 2016 MLS Cup Final, and his header at the death against Costa Rica effectively bounced the U.S.) is just as noticeable.
Roman Torres' goal clinches Panama's ticket to the 2018 FIFA World Cup. A great moment for Panama especially with Titanic music.
— TITANIC HOOPS (@TitanicHoops) October 11, 2017
Regardless of whether Panama sinks or swims on its maiden voyage, Torres will get the international recognition he deserves.
As a bearded Viking, no player came to represent Iceland’s memorable Euro 2016 run more than captain Aron Gunnarsson. If you wanted to utilize a photo of Iceland’s players/fans doing the “Viking Clap,” it was basically an editorial law that Gunnarsson had to be involved to elicit the full emotional effect.
But that was just the European Championship; this is the World Cup. Gunnarsson’s fame is going to escalate tenfold, much to the annoyance of Cristiano Ronaldo (Ronaldo refused to swap shirts with Gunnarsson after Portugal drew 1-1 with Iceland to begin group play at Euro 2016).
As the smallest country in terms of population to ever reach the World Cup, literally everyone on the planet will be watching Gunnarsson and Iceland take on Lionel Messi’s Argentina on June 16.
If Iceland can somehow advance from a group also containing Nigeria and Croatia, the Cardiff City midfielder’s face and beard will serve as THE image of 2018.
For the vast majority of footballers, it’s much easier to shine for your club side than it is on the national level. There’s more continuity, familiarity and understanding throughout club sides, so international football poses a much more difficult (and fleeting) stage.
However, some cats, like Germany’s Miroslav Klose, prefer it that way.
Peru’s Edison Flores might just be another example. After failing to make the grade at Villarreal, the attacker now plays for Danish club Aalborg BK. The 23-year-old has scored one goal in 22 league appearances this season.
For Peru, Flores has scored nine goals in 26 caps, including five goals during World Cup qualifying.
Returning after a 36-year absence (and at the expense of Chile), Peru will be another darling of the World Cup. With France the overwhelming favorites in Group C, Peru’s opening match against Denmark will provide the tournament with some early knockout round-esque drama.
Xherdan Shaqiri is only 26 years old, but the 2018 World Cup will be his third. Standing at just 5-6, the Alpine Messi immediately endears himself to viewers, but it’s his penchant for only scoring the best goals you’ve ever seen that’ll really make him a fan favorite in Russia.
He’s also in the midst of his finest season as a professional, scoring seven goals in 29 appearances for a terrible Stoke City side.
Manchester City winger Bernardo Silva is the ultimate Pep Guardiola footballer. He’s a little magician with a first touch that could be packaged and sold along the Silk Road. We liken him to the Amazonian fish-frog from The Shape of Water, because he was clearly captured in the Amazon, where he was previously worshipped as a god.
“HOWS YOUR TOUCH?????”
Bernardo Silva: ... pic.twitter.com/FWt94DT8VC
— Jake (@Everything_City) February 13, 2018
And although Guardiola prized him from Monaco after Silva had contributed heavily to City’s Champions League exit, the Portuguese winger has largely had to make due with time off the bench because of the form of Raheem Sterling.
With everyone hellbent on watching Cristiano Ronaldo at presumably his final World Cup (maybe he’s got two or three more in him, who can honestly say), many will be tuning in for CR7 but ultimately leaving with Silva’s visceral imprint of godliness.
You don’t spend five seasons in and around the starting XI of Real Madrid during the halcyon days of their European domination without being really good at soccer. It’s just not possible, and Isco is an impossibly talented midfielder.
However, Isco’s name has always lagged behind the likes of Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos and Toni Kroos when it comes to social media mentions.
He’s never been able to fully gain the trust of Zinedine Zidane, and he’s only just become a regular for Spain. The Spanish look formidable, and a few peak performances of Iscoball could turn the 25-year-old Andalusian into a global phenomenon.
Isco really made two grown men fall in the same sequence. He didn't have to do that but I'm glad that he did. pic.twitter.com/Oj2r5FJTQM
— Zito (@_Zeets) March 28, 2018
Paulinho has spent all of the 2017-18 season as a meme. After becoming one of the first high-profile signings in China after transferring from Tottenham, Barcelona shocked the world by signing the Brazilian back in August.
Paulinho was Barca’s first purchase after the sale of Neymar, so everybody had a laugh at Paulinho’s expense.
Fast forward eight months and Barcelona is competing for a treble with Paulinho excelling in all competitions, including eight goals in 28 La Liga games.
He went from being a meme of futility to a meme of an unstoppable midfield engine. In 2017, he scored five goals in eight appearances for the Seleção, and then he scored again in Brazil’s 3-0 friendly win over Russia on March 23.
| Paulinho's goal, to make it 3-0 for Brazil.pic.twitter.com/jHvn5NF2D8
— Barca Centre Media (@centrevid) March 23, 2018
There’s always a bit of schadenfreude when Brazil are involved (that’s the price you pay for winning it five times), but you can’t help but cheer for Paulinho.
If you want a trendy pick for the 2018 version of James Rodriguez, look no further than Mexico winger Hirving “Chucky” Lozano. The 22-year-old just landed in Europe last summer with PSV Eindhoven, and he’s gone on to score 16 goals in 28 appearances for the Dutch side.
He’s reportedly being monitored by some of Europe’s biggest clubs, who’d be wise to submit a bid of around $30 million right now. If Chucky excels in Russia, then his transfer fee is going through the roof.
The young attacker has an impressive return at the international level, scoring seven goals in 25 caps, and his November brace against Belgium showcased the direct style of the inverted winger.
And his nickname is Chucky. That's a cult classic in and of itself.
Go ahead. Let your hipster flag fly this summer. Tunisia has qualified for its first World Cup since 2006, and its most gifted player is 27-year-old attacker Youssef Msakni.
Msakni is an unknown because he’s spent the majority of his club career in Qatar. Back in 2013, Qatari club Lekhwiya SC paid a princely sum of $15 million for his services, and although he’s been a rumored transfer target of many big European clubs, he’s elected to stay and dominate the Qatar Stars League.
Now is the time to appreciate his talent, because you probably won’t see him again (unless, of course, Qatari football is your thing).
Youssef Msakni breaking ankles at the AFCON pic.twitter.com/gFGG9nnVTY
— GeniusFootball (@GeniusFootball) January 24, 2017
The Carthage Eagles are back in the big time...
Man to watch in Russia for 2004 African champions #Tunisia is not playing at home or in Europe. Youssef Msakni plays his club football in Qatar with Al-Duhail. Skillful, dangerous and clinical.pic.twitter.com/MEk7bIlpOn
— Oluwashina Okeleji (@oluwashina) December 28, 2017
In 2014, we were blessed with the managerial presences of Louis van Gaal and Miguel Herrera — two coaches that necessitated their own sideline cameras. This Cup, all the cameras will be soaking in dashing Morocco manager Hervé Renard.
The 49-year-old Frenchman became the first coach to win two Africa Cup of Nations tournaments with different countries (Zambia in 2012 and Ivory Coast in 2015), and he’s now led Morocco to its first World Cup since 1998.
Don’t be surprised when your mom starts asking questions about this Moroccan side come June.