Position: Central midfield
A product of Manchester United’s youth system, little was made of Paul Pogba’s move to Italian giants Juventus back in 2012. At the time Pogba had only made 3 senior appearances but he was still highly rated by the club and was touted to be a future first team regular. A grievance with the club’s management, in particular Sir Alex Ferguson, appeared to be the young Frenchman’s motivation to move on and seek regular first team football, especially as he was getting to an age where he could begin to think about playing for his national side at a senior level.
It didn't take long for Pogba to settle in Turin and he quickly gained a reputation as a hard working but also technically gifted midfielder. His range of passing and ball control rivaled that of his team mates and Antonio Conte’s policy of squad rotation allowed him to flourish alongside, and sometimes start ahead of, players such as Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio. His penchant for spectacular long range goals also made him the star of many a Youtube compilation.
By the end of the 2012/13 season Pogba had racked up 27 appearances; scoring 5 goals in the process and establishing himself as one the brightest prospects in French and, some might argue, world football. During the summer, despite having already made appearances at senior level for France, he captained the Under-20 side to victory in the World Cup in Turkey; winning the player of the tournament award in the process.
The 2013/14 season has been more of the same for Pogba and at the end of 2013 his achievements were recognised by Italian newspaper Tuttosport, who gave him the Golden Boy award for the best under-21 player in Europe. Previous winners include Wayne Rooney, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Aguero and Mario Gotze.
He has already beaten his goal tally for last season and has all but cemented his place in the bianconeri first team. At the time of writing, he has made 7 appearances for France since the start of 2013, scoring his first goal in a World Cup qualifier against Belarus. As with almost every player that features on this list, the World Cup in Brazil is possibly the biggest stage for Pogba to showcase his talents and with rumours of bids from his old club it could prove to be the tournament that truly sparks off his career.
Club: AZ Alkmaar
A graduate of the Florida IMG Academy - whose alumni include a decent portion of the best of the USA men's national team, including Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan and Oguchi Onyewu - Jóhannsson's career began with Fjölnir in Iceland, where he grew up. He rapidly proved himself a stand out player in the Icelandic league, being named both Best Player and Most Promising Player for his team as well as being their top scorer in the league for the 2009/10 season.
His form in his last year at Fjölnir led to interest from abroad with a transfer to AGF Aarhus. In his first season at his new club, Jóhannsson cemented his place as starting striker and, despite a poor goalscoring record, led them to promotion to the Superliga. He made an inauspicious start to life in the top division, going on a poor run of form for a large part of the 2011/12 but the following season went on to score 14 goals in 18 Superliga games, including the fastest hattrick ever scored in the league at 3 minutes and 50 seconds, in a game where he went on to score 4 goals in just 16 minutes. Having proved himself in the Superliga, he moved to the Dutch Eredivisie for the second half of the 2012/13 season, signing for AZ Alkmaar.
A tally of 3 goals in 5 games in the league was enough to draw the attention of Jurgen Klinnsman and the USMNT, making his first appearance as a substitute in a 4-3 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina and proving himself and exciting player, willing to get forward and attack with pace. To date he has had 7 appearances for the national team, scoring the winning goal in their final World Cup Qualifier against Panama.
This season has undoubtedly been his best to date. With 17 goals and 6 assists in 32 Eredivisie games as well as 6 goals in 4 in the KNVB cup and 2 in AZ Alkmaar's Europa League campaign - they were knocked out be finalists Benfica in the quarter finals - he has been one of few to shine for AZ in a fairly poor year which has seen them with a chance of finishing outside the lowest European spots.
Whilst unlikely to be a starter for the USMNT at the World Cup, with more established options such as Jozy Altidore and Landon Donovan to play in advanced roles, Jóhannsson will be a brilliant option off the bench for Klinnsman. As a relative unknown to Germany, Portugal and Ghana and with both the ability to beat defenders and to play as a poacher he will be important as a US wild card and, with reports of interest from Celtic, Stoke and Arsenal already, there is every chance that a good showing in Brazil this summer will lead to further upward moves in his career. Of course it is not 100% that he will even go to Brazil, but regardless he should be one to watch for the future of the USMNT, along with Max Diskerud and Julian Green.
Club: FSV Mainz 05
Much of the hype surrounding Japan’s World Cup campaign rests on the shoulders of two men who are both plying their trades at traditional powerhouses of European football – Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda. However, neither of these players can claim to have had a stellar 2013/14 season, with both of them suffering from being displaced from their natural central positions and failing to prevent their once great sides slipping down the table.
If you are looking for a Japanese player coming into this tournament in good form, then Shinji Okazaki is probably your best bet. The striker has been a revelation for Mainz this season, netting 15 times in 33 league games, breaking several records and being named the Bundesliga’s most improved player in the process. At home to Hamburg on the final day of the season, his goal – a deft chip over the keeper after some clever footwork – secured European football for Mainz for only the second time in their history. This is in stark contrast to his previous two and a half years spent at Stuttgart, where he struggled to make a major impact, scoring just ten times.
Okazaki was a bit-part player for Japan in the last World Cup, appearing as a sub in all four of Japan’s matches, and scoring one goal. Since then he has since cemented his place in the starting eleven, starting all three matches in last year’s Confederations Cup and finishing as the top goalscorer in the Asian section of World Cup qualification. Even when he’s been struggling at club level, Okazaki has remained consistent on the international stage – he has an impressive record of 38 goals in 76 appearances, making him Japan’s third highest scorer of all time.
In qualifying Okazaki has mainly been used on the right of an attacking midfield three, partly due to his workrate and defensive stability, and partly due to the understanding he has developed on the pitch with Honda and Kagawa. However, his recent goalscoring form has led to calls for Japan’s manager, Alberto Zaccheroni, to start Okazaki in his more natural striker position over less experienced and prolific strikers such as Yūya Ōsako and Hiroshi Kiyotake.
The 2014 World Cup is an opportunity for Okazaki to showcase his abilities on the biggest stage there is. Regardless of position, he will be Japan’s main goal threat, and his link-up play with those around him could make him one of the most exciting players of the tournament.
Club: Free agent
One of an ever decreasing handful of young talents to have survived the teachings of the Newcastle United Academy, Foluwashola ‘Shola’ Ameobi arrived on the scene a fresh-faced and somewhat lanky attacking player with the pace and power to strike fear into his opposition when debuting in 2000.
It wasn’t until the 2002-03 season that Ameobi announced himself on the world football stage, under the tutelage of the late Sir Bobby Robson. Having garnished European experience in the Intertoto Cup the year before, scoring an impressive 3 in 6 including a memorable brace against Sporting Lokoren, Ameobi took no prisoners the following year when unleashed upon the Champions League, bagging a goal at the Nou Camp before helping himself to two more in a crucial game against Leverkusen which set up one the most famous comebacks in the club’s history. And it wasn’t just European clubs that were reeling from Ameobi’s strikes as the Nigerian-born forward struck no less than 7 times in his domestic League. Somewhat staggeringly, and later to Nigeria’s benefit, a full England International call-up proved elusive for the powerful forward, despite Shola’s 7 goals in 20 appearences for the England U21 side.
Injuries began to blight the striker, as they have continued to do so throughout his career, but a purple patch was around the corner as Ameobi hit 6 goals in the last 12 games of the 2005/06 season, snatching an Intertoto Cup place for his club in the process. The Intertoto Cup would once again feel the full force of Ameobi the following year as he yet again proved he could mix it with the big boys by helping himself to a brace at Lillestrom SK, becoming his club’s second highest European scorer of all time, behind only the arguably more talented Alan Shearer. Bravely delaying a hip operation for as long as possible didn’t help the striker’s form and, following a number of change’s to management in a short period, Shola took the decision that he needed a fresh challenge.
A successful loan stint at Stoke followed and forced Newcastle into refusing all offers for their man as he was welcomed back into the fold with open arms by club staff and fans alike. The managerial turmoil continued and it was no surprise to see the club relegated at the end of the following season. Shola valiantly put any aspirations of European or International football side to stick with his team and his 10 goals were fundamental in securing promotion back to the top tier at the first time of asking and included an utterly unforgettable ‘perfect’ hattrick against possibly Leicester or Reading.
Since then Shola’s career has gone from strength to strength and although he’s had to reinvent himself as a canny and experienced target-man he’s adapted his game perfectly. With a reputation as a ‘big game player’ following countless goals against Newcastle’s arch-rivals Sunderland, it was no surprise to see Nigeria come calling in 2012. Goals, as with everywhere Shola’s played, followed. With a feared reputation from the spot and also for getting assists to wonder-goals, Ameobi looks set to light up football’s biggest stage this summer. Nigeria look highly probably to qualify from their Group, which consists of Argentina, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Iran, and the 1500/1 SkyBet offer on Ameobi to top score looks somewhat insulting for a player who can score with either foot and with his head. With his contract up in the summer there’s bound to be interest and, with a track record of saving his best for the final few months of his contract, Foluwashola ‘Shola’ Ameobi is undoubtedly one to watch at the 2014 World Cup.