Next month’s World Cup presents an opportunity for an incredible selection of forwards to elevate themselves to a whole new level of stature in the sport’s history books. While the Champions League has become the competition with this highest concentration of quality, nothing comes close to the World Cup for a player etching their name into the pantheon of the game.
A forward hitting form at just the right time can be decisive, as it was for Italy with Paolo Rossi in 1982, or Brazil and Ronaldo in 2002. Here are the 10 leading forwards with the potential to leave their mark on soccer’s biggest stage in Brazil.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Ronaldo heads to Brazil as the current best player in the world and having just won the Champions League. He will now be desperate to show that ability at a World Cup for the first time. The Real Madrid star cut a frustrated figure as Portugal were eliminated limply in the second round four years ago, and this time around must be a leader of a team rather than merely its standout player. Portugal’s talent, while not at the same level as his teammates at club level, means it is far from a case of Ronaldo having to do everything single-handedly.
2. Lionel Messi (Argentina)
It has been a difficult 18 months for a player who remains in a league of his own as the best player of his generation. After injuries blighted him through much of 2013, he was unable to assert the same influence upon the Barcelona team since his return, despite still scoring 28 goals in 29 La Liga games last season. There were even signs that Messi was protecting himself while in Barcelona colors for the upcoming World Cup. And he will double be relishing the chance to get away from a troubled atmosphere at the Camp Nou and join up with an Argentina team that, under Alejandro Sabella, has been designed to get the best out of him. Something it did so emphatically in qualifying.
3. Luis Suarez (Uruguay) Suarez confirmed in a superb past season that he was one of the very few players in the world capable of regularly deciding games single-handedly. His 31 Premier League goals earned him a share of the European Golden Boot. In a Uruguay side built to contain and strike on the break, he will be crucial to his country’s chances of getting out of a difficult group containing Italy and England. It is a major blow then that a knee injury threatens to hamper his participation in Brazil.
4. Neymar (Brazil)
No player will have as much pressure on his shoulders as the golden boy of home nation Brazil this summer. Given that, it has hardly been an ideal first season at Barcelona for Neymar heading into the World Cup. His initial encouraging performances following his transfer faded after an injury in the New Year and scrutiny about the details of his transfer. However, he could well relish being able to leave that behind with a chance to cement his legacy as an all-time great by inspiring Brazil to the trophy for the first time on home soil. He gave every indication at last year’s Confederations Cup that he was capable of thriving under the weight of expectation.
5. Sergio Aguero (Argentina)
It is a testament to the incredible quality Argentina possess going forward that the incredibly talented Aguero is not their most gifted forward. The Manchester City striker had an injury-hampered season, but when he was on the pitch he was usually decisive, scoring 28 goals in just 34 appearances. His relationship with Messi, which was first forged at the Under-20 World Cup nine years ago, was crucial in qualifying and will again be so if Argentina are to take home the trophy on enemy territory.
6. Robin van Persie (Netherlands)
It has not been an easy season at Manchester United, with Van Persie troubled by recurring muscle injuries as well as the team’s overall struggles. Crucially, the 30 year old now appears to be fit and will be desperate to have a real impact at a World Cup for the first time in what is likely to be his final chance. While the Netherlands reached the final in 2010, Van Persie scored just once. But having been made captain by Louis van Gaal, he responded by becoming the top European scorer in qualifying and will be expected to be a driving force for an inexperienced squad in Brazil.
7. Radamel Falcao (Colombia)
He scored nine goals for Colombia in qualifying to help Colombia finish second in South America and to see them so often referred to as “dark horses” for the World Cup that the tag soon became redundant. However, having ruptured his cruciate ligament injury while in action with Monaco in January, his World Cup dreams were thought over. Incredibly, he has fought to get in contention for a miraculous return and is in Colombia’s provisional squad. If fit, he is one of the world’s deadliest strikers and deserves to show his prowess on the biggest stage. But, if not fully recovered, Colombia and their still considerable forward talent would surely be better off moving on without him.
8. Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
The doubts over Suarez’s fitness elevates the importance to Uruguay of Cavani. It may also mean that, having so often performed a selfless role tracking back, he finally gets to take center stage. His first season at Paris Saint-Germain has also been characterized by sacrifice, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic remaining the team’s focal point. The 27-year-old will need to be more clinical than he was in a rare chance to lead the line in the Champions League quarterfinal against Chelsea, but his sensational goal-scoring return over recent seasons suggest it was merely an ill-timed blip.
9. Diego Costa (Spain)
Costa warrants a place on this list after a sensational season with Atletico Madrid in which his goals fired them to the Spanish league title and to within touching distance of winning the Champions League. Still, plenty of questions remain about whether he can make a similar impact at the World Cup. First is just how fit he is after a climax to the club season blighted by niggling injuries. And, even if at his peak, it remains to be seen whether he can fit into a Spain team that has never had a striker of Costa’s physical attributes and often hasn’t had a striker at all. Finally, can he deal with the hostile atmosphere he is sure to encounter when returning to the country which he turned down to play for Spain?
10. Wayne Rooney (England)
It was Euro 2004 that Rooney announced himself as a potentially truly elite performer with his swashbuckling, fearless style. But 10 years on, the now 28 year old has never even come close to matching those performances at a major tournament and has yet to even score a World Cup goal. After a decent season with Manchester United, this will be his last chance to put that right when at his peak. At his best he can both be creator and scorer and is the one player who can elevate England to the latter stages of the tournament. If he replicates his form from recent major tournaments, though, then he will become merely a disruption to the balance of a young England team.
Alexis Sanchez (Chile)
Scored an impressive 21 goals for Barcelona last season, despite strangely not being trusted in the very biggest games, and will be the main scoring threat for a Chile team that could cause plenty of surprises in Brazil.
Karim Benzema (France)
Has not got the credit he deserves for his performances for Champions League winners Real Madrid this season, but has not yet delivered the goods for his country.
Gonzalo Higuain (Argentina)
After a fine first season with Napoli, the former Real Madrid striker will complete an incredible front three for Argentina, alongside Messi and Aguero.