Soccer  

Which players need a big World Cup? Messi, Ronaldo, Mbappe?

The FIFA World Cup is the biggest stage for any player to showcase their skills. The most prestigious tournament in football is the place to shine if you harbour hopes of a transfer, are keen to prove something to your current club, or even just want to end your career on a high.

Here are a number of players who will be extra motivated to perform at Qatar 2022.

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To get a future transfer

Kylian Mbappe, FW, France and Paris Saint-Germain

ESPN reported last month that Mbappe is pushing to leave Paris Saint-Germain just five months after signing a new contract over what he views as broken promises regarding team tactics and recruitment. The 23-year-old signed new terms over the summer, having almost left to join Real Madrid on a free transfer. This season hasn’t been short of stories of discontent, infighting and unhappiness in Paris, though he has also managed 19 goals in 20 games. For France, Mbappe is clearly a key player, and his performances could persuade Madrid to return for him, albeit at a vastly increased transfer fee.

Cristiano Ronaldo, FW, Portugal and Manchester United

It seems incredible to say, but sources told ESPN that no clubs are interested in signing Ronaldo after he made it clear he wanted to leave Man United last summer. The 37-year-old may be one of the world’s greatest players ever, but his influence on the game is waning. A bit-part player before his astonishing interview attack on the club just before the World Cup break, his impact on the national team could be hit by his lack of football, and the forward will have to impress for Portugal when he gets the chance in order to attract a potential new club.

Frenkie de Jong, CM, Netherlands and Barcelona

After Barcelona agreed on an €85m move for De Jong to move to Manchester United in the summer, the 25-year-old midfielder opted to stay at Camp Nou. It’s fair to say that things have gotten messy, given his outstanding wages, the club’s clear desire to move on from him and various badly worded statements. But he’s not short of admirers as sources told ESPN that Premier League sides Chelsea and Liverpool have joined the race to sign him. While De Jong hasn’t been starting that regularly for Barcelona, he certainly will for Netherlands, and both player and club will want him to have a good tournament so they can finally move on.

Eden Hazard, FW, Belgium and Real Madrid

After years of injury woes, Real Madrid’s €100m forward still isn’t starting games for his club on a regular basis. Hazard is 31 now and should be at the peak of his powers, but has been usurped in the Madrid side by the likes of Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo and needs to consider his future. With a contract that expires in 2024, Madrid will know that the next few transfer windows will be the only chance left to recoup some cash for him. Belgium’s captain will be front and centre in Qatar and will be motivated to help the so-called “Golden Generation” live up to their billing, too.

Declan Rice, CM, England and West Ham

Arguably the best young defensive midfielder in the world, Rice has a contract until 2024 (the club hold the option of another year) and is running out of time to make the step up. The England international turns 24 shortly after the World Cup and needs to start thinking about competing for trophies, rather than fighting a battle in midtable. At over £100m, his services won’t come cheap, but in Qatar he has the chance to show why that kind of money isn’t a gamble.


To raise their profile

Cody Gakpo, FW, Netherlands and PSV Eindhoven

With Man United opting to sign Antony instead last summer, Gakpo’s hopes of a transfer fell away but his incredible form for PSV this season means he will be one of the top targets for clubs in January. With 13 goals and 17 assists from his first 24 matches this season, the winger will walk into the Netherlands XI, and he could make a real name for himself with some similar form at the World Cup. PSV are struggling financially and are reportedly ready to accept around €30m, but that figure could rise significantly.

Jonathan David, ST, Canada and Lille

Having starred for Lille since moving from Belgian side Gent in 2020, David is expected to make a big move in 2023 at some point. His nine goals in 15 Ligue 1 games so far this season suggest that the Canada international’s stock is on the rise. A few good games at the World Cup would do wonders for his profile. Everton, Man United and AC Milan are reportedly keeping a close eye on the 22-year-old forward.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, CM, Serbia and Lazio

Linked with a move to a big club for many years, Milinkovic-Savic continues to impress for Lazio while speculation around his future gathers pace. At 27, the Serbia midfielder is approaching his peak and will want to ensure he is fighting for titles. A fee of €100m has been mooted, though Lazio president Claudio Lotito claimed recently that “every month that passes, the price goes up.” Yet the reality is that Milinkovic-Savic’s contract expires in 2024, so there is a natural limit to how much a suitor will pay to sign him.

Mohammed Kudus, AM, Ghana and Ajax

Kudus has been playing in a “false No. 9” role for much of this season at Ajax, despite being a playmaker, and has bagged 10 goals in 21 games. For Ghana, the 22-year-old slots in behind the central striker so he can have more of an impact in the creation phase, and he will be a key player for the Black Stars in Qatar. Ajax are clearly open to letting their stars leave if the right offer comes around, so clubs will be aware that Kudus may well be available in January. Liverpool fans can take note that his childhood idol was Thiago Alcantara.

Lovro Majer, CM, Croatia and Rennes

One of the best creators in Ligue 1, the stylistic comparisons to Luka Modric are clear, but Majer is forging an identity of his own at Rennes. Many of Europe’s elite sides have scouted the 24-year-old, including Barcelona and Arsenal, with a €60m transfer fee believed to be enough to tempt the club into letting him go. Majer will still have one major tournament left to learn under Modric, and that could benefit him a lot next year.


To prove something to their clubs

Christian Pulisic, FW, United States and Chelsea

Pulisic is the man on whose shoulders the United States’ World Cup campaign rests. But for Chelsea this season, he’s been a bit-part player who has been filling in at wing-back. The 24-year-old gets to play in his preferred role on the left of the attack while with his national team and he will hope that Blues’ boss Graham Potter is paying attention to events in Qatar. With plenty of other clubs interested in signing Pulisic, reportedly including Juventus and Newcastle, January could offer an escape route if things don’t change.

Takehiro Tomiyasu, RB/CB, Japan and Arsenal

Tomiyasu had a great first season at Arsenal, but this campaign has seen him usurped by Ben White at right-back and shunted onto the left side to cover. While Arsenal’s centre-back pairing of Gabriel and William Saliba are looking undroppable, Tomiyasu plays in that position for Japan and could make a case to Mikel Arteta with a strong showing.

Darwin Nunez, FW, Uruguay and Liverpool

With any transfer that could eventually reach €100m, there is an element of pressure. Nunez has come under fire for inconsistency and his fiery temper, after being sent off in only his second game for the club, while his goal record of nine goals in 18 games has paled in comparison to the Premier League’s other big striker arrival this summer: Man City’s Erling Haaland (who has 23 in 18 games and cost €60m to sign.) Uruguay will still rely on 35-year-old strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, but Nunez should get a chance to prove why Liverpool paid all that money to get him.

Ferran Torres, FW, Spain and Barcelona

It’s fair to say that life at Barcelona following his €55m move from Manchester City in January hasn’t gone to plan for Torres. The forward hasn’t started many games, has struggled with injury and managed just five goals in 18 games. Now he has had to watch as €150m of new talent arrived in the summer to take his place. While the 22-year-old still has a chance to prove to Xavi what he is capable of, despite the number of attacking options that Barcelona have, his performances for Spain in Qatar could help his cause.

Edouard Mendy, GK, Senegal and Chelsea

After returning from a recent injury, Mendy found himself relegated to the bench behind Kepa Arrizabalaga and his status as Chelsea’s No. 1 called into question. The 6-foot-4 goalkeeper has generally done well since he arrived from Rennes in 2020, but a good World Cup for Senegal would help remind new Blues boss Potter of his pedigree. There have been reports that Chelsea are willing to listen to offers for Mendy, and he has a chance to silence the doubters.


A final hurrah?

Lionel Messi, FW, Argentina and PSG

With his form back on track — 12 goals and 14 assists from 19 games — after a difficult first season at PSG, Messi should be heading into the World Cup full of confidence. The only reason the 34-year-old really needs a good tournament is because it’s the one big trophy missing from his career. If he wants to be considered the greatest of all time (GOAT), then a World Cup win is key. In 2014, Messi received the Golden Ball award as his Argentina side lost the final 1-0 to Germany in extra time, which is the closest he has come so far.

Gareth Bale, FW, Wales and LAFC

At 33, you might think that Bale has a few good years left in him. But the LAFC star was set to retire before Wales clinched a spot in Qatar and could yet hang up his boots after the tournament ends. Amid his injury struggles and talk around his giant wage packet while at Real Madrid, it’s easy to forget the impact the winger has had on the game. He will be keen to ensure that fans remember him for good reasons.

Luka Modric, CM, Croatia and Real Madrid

Off the back of his starring performances at the 2018 World Cup, Modric broke up the decade-long Ronaldo/Messi duopoly to win the Ballon d’Or that year. The midfield maestro was key in Croatia’s run to the final and, while it’s unlikely that the side will go one better this tournament, Modric will be the pulling the strings from midfield again. It will be the 37-year-old’s last international appearance, while his Real Madrid contract expires in 2023 as well.

Thiago Silva, CB, Brazil and Chelsea

Brazil haven’t won a World Cup since 2002 and after their capitulation on home soil in 2014, captain Thiago Silva was criticised for the suspension that saw him miss the 7-1 defeat to Germany in the semifinals. Neymar missed that game too, through injury, but Thiago Silva won’t get another chance to right that wrong as he is 38 now. It’s time for a younger generation to come through, but the centre-back deserves to go out on a high.

Andres Guardado, CM, Mexico and Real Betis

The 36-year-old Guardado could become only the third Mexico player to appear in five World Cups — following legends Antonio Carbajal and Rafael Marquez. But he will want to banish one particular record from memory. Since 1994, Mexico have always lost their fourth game after progressing from the group stage … the curse of the fifth game (Quinto Partido) has occurred seven times in that spell, and the captain will want to consign it to history once and for all before he retires.