SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Martin Rogers discusses Russia’s first time as a World Cup host, the underdogs of the tournament and if a South American country can win its first World Cup in Europe since 1958.
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In 2006, a 17-year-old Lionel Messi and 21-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo made their World Cup debuts. For the next decade plus, those two players would dominate the game at an unprecedented level. Starting in 2008, Messi or Ronaldo has won every Ballon d’Or (presented to the world’s best men’s player). In nine of those years, they finished 1-2 in voting.
With Messi and Ronaldo now entering their fourth — and quite possibly final — World Cup, it’s time to ponder which young players might fill the void.
The World Cup can serve as a coronation of the next wave of soccer’s elite, and here are 15 potential breakout players at this year’s tournament.
Club team: Real Madrid
Asensio has already won two UEFA Champions League titles with Real Madrid, and could add a World Cup title this summer with Spain, considered one of the favorites.
Club team: Juventus
Bentancur is a fast-rising youngster for a team that figures to at least make it out of the group stage. Over the course of two months last fall, Bentancur made his debut for Juventus and the national team in a World Cup qualifier.
Club team: Barcelona
A former teammate of Christian Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund, Dembele went to Barcelona on a hefty transfer fee and was handed the No. 11 jersey that had formerly been owned by Neymar. No pressure.
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Club team: PSV Eindhoven
Iceland figures to be a fan favorite for U.S. soccer fans looking for a team to root for in this year’s World Cup. Gudmundsson wasn’t a part of Iceland’s inspiring run in the European Championships in France in 2016, but could be a factor in the team’s first World Cup appearance.
Club team: Valencia
If Ronaldo aims to earn his first World Cup title, he’ll need help. Guedes — who was on loan to Valencia from Paris Saint-Germain last season — could be a key player for the reigning European champions.
Club team: Manchester City
Jesus scored 13 goals for a team that ran away with the Premier League title this year. If Brazil looks to put the nightmare of the 2014 World Cup behind it, Jesus will need to provide similar firepower.
Club team: Tottenham
Before Mo Salah came along and shattered records, Kane was the Premier League’s top goal-scoring menace. Kane led the league in goals scored in both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons (he finished second in 2014-15). Kane also is an avid fan of the NFL and the New England Patriots, which might help endear himself to the American audience depending on where you’re from.
Hirving “Chucky” Lozano
Club team: PSV Eindhoven
Mexico is bringing a talented contingent to Russia, but Lozano might emerge from the star-studded squad as the player with the most long-term potential.
Club team: Paris Saint-Germain
Paul Pogba, who plays professionally for Manchester United, was awarded Best Young Player at the 2014 World Cup as France advanced to the quarterfinal. Could France be repeat winners in that category? With Dembele and Mbappe — who scored 13 goals in his first season with PSG — France has two strong contenders.
Club team: Boca Juniors
Pavon’s time at Boca Juniors appears numbered, as his Argentine teammate Lionel Messi is pushing for a move to Barcelona. Argentina had a difficult go of it during World Cup qualification, but Pavon wasn’t a part of that. His inclusion into the 23-man World Cup team could be a boon for Argentina.
Club team: Manchester United
Rashford’s stellar performance in a tune-up match against Costa Rica surely will give coach Gareth Southgate something to think about when he fills out his lineup card for his team’s World Cup opener vs. Tunisia on June 18.
Club team: Liverpool
Salah had a breakout season for Liverpool, setting a Premier League record for goals scored (32 in 38 games) while also helping lead the team to the UEFA Champions League final. Despite an injury suffered in that final, Salah is expected to play in the World Cup. Egypt’s hopes of advancing beyond the group stage rest on one of the world’s top goal-scoring threats.
Club team: AS Monaco
Many are bullish on Belgium’s World Cup chances. For good reason, the team is loaded with players you’ve heard of, featuring a healthy dose of familiar faces for fans who follow the English Premier League. There’s also young talent on this squad. Tielemans is a star in the making for the Red Devils.
Club team: RB Leipzig
Playing for one of the Bundesliga’s most disliked teams, Werner is often the anti-hero as Leipzig’s prodigious goal-scoring threat. Werner could parlay a strong World Cup showing into a move to Liverpool, Manchester United and, of course, Bayern Munich.