Forget Rooney and Ronaldo, Messi and Eto’o. World Cups are often more about the stars who emerge from under the radar than the ones already anointed before the first kick off. Here are five youthful talents (probably) destined to be household names by the tournament’s end.
Angel di Maria, 22, Argentina
If Leo Messi is Argentina’s greatest weapon, di Maria is its secret one. He has been a talismanic figure for his club, Benfica, Portugal’s most popular side, and led the Lisbon-based team this season to its first championship in five years. Di Maria is a speedy winger with absurd technical ability and a nose for goal. Teams facing Argentina — coached by the legendary, if erratic, Diego Maradona — will hope to contain Messi and pile pressure on the team’s creaky defense as well as on Juan Sebastian Veron, the aging midfield dynamo at the heart of the Argentine lineup. Look for di Maria to be the South American giants’ get-out-of-jail card, lightning quick on the counter-attack.
Alexis Sanchez, 21, Chile
Known in his native Chile as “el nino maravilla” — the wonder boy — Sanchez oozes skill and flair. According to Tim Vickery, a veteran BBC commentator on South American football, the attacking midfielder “has all the talent in the world” and is the sort of brilliant, dribbling showman that routinely lights up World Cups. He’ll need to be spectacular: Chile are in a group with tournament favorites Spain and their key striker, Humberto Suazo, has gone down injured. Whatever happens in South Africa, expect Sanchez, who plays for Italian club side Udinese, to make a lucrative move to one of Europe’s top teams this summer.
Milos Krasic, 25, Serbia
For a Serbian team that has been sculpted on its toughness and defensive prowess, Krasic is the X factor. The tenacious, floppy-haired right winger has drawn comparisons to the great Czech midfielder Pavel Nedved — and not just because they look similar. Krasic is expected to join Nedved’s old club, Juventus of Turin, after the World Cup. Depending on results in the group stages, Serbia could possibly face the U.S. in the second round. It’s a match up Krasic says he wants: raised in a Serbian enclave in Kosovo, he still remembers American and NATO bombers pounding his home town.
Gregory van der Wiel, 22, the Netherlands
The honorary defender on this list, van der Wiel is debuting for a Dutch side that’s loaded with offensive talent with the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie. He was schooled in the famed Ajax youth system and is a deft follower of its attacking philosophy — van der Wiel’s marauding runs from right back will be essential for the Dutch team’s expansive passing game. His pace and youth will augment an aging Dutch back line that many consider the team’s weakest link. If these perennial under-achievers are to finally win a World Cup, they’ll need a sterling display from van der Wiel.
Mesut Özil, 21, Germany
Özil is an old-school, silky smooth playmaker — he’s elegant, fast, and can thread a pass through the proverbial eye of a needle. Already a star in the German league for Werder Bremen, Özil is the pick of the litter among a new generation of German footballers born to immigrant parents (his are Turkish). The injury that sidelined Michael Ballack, the German captain, ahead of the tournament, has left room now for Özil to shine.
Honorable mentions: Luis Suarez of Uruguay, Kwadwo Asamoah of Ghana, Sami Khedira of Germany, Carlos Vela of Mexico, Mathieu Valbuena of France, Pedro Rodriguez of Spain, Marek Hamsik of Slovakia, Gervinho of the Ivory Coast