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ESPN FC World Cup Rank: The 50 best footballers of Qatar 2022

Illustration by ESPN

Here we are: Preparing for a World Cup in November and December. Who would've ever imagined that soccer's showpiece summer event would become a winter wonderland?

The game of football has changed a lot throughout the years: the way it's played, who plays it, how we watch games being played. Slowly but surely the game evolved, and when there's a jarring transformation -- like a winter World Cup -- it can feel like a revolution has happened overnight.

That change is reflected by the 2022 edition of ESPN FC's World Cup Rank. We asked television analysts, reporters, columnists, producers and editors from all over the world to vote on who they believe to be the best players participating in this year's tournament.

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For more than a decade, it came down to a duel between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to top this kind of list, but all of a sudden, this is not a title to be decided by them. This year's list is full of fresh faces, many young but some older, who now have their chance to demonstrate that they're the best that soccer has to offer.

And what better stage to do it on than the biggest sporting event on the planet?

So, with the input of our global network of contributors, these are the 50 best players at Qatar 2022.

Editor's note: This story published before it was confirmed that Sadio Mane would miss the World Cup. All ages are as of the start of the tournament on Nov. 20.


50. Andre Onana

Country: Cameroon
Club: Inter Milan
Age: 26
Position: Goalkeeper
2018 Rank: Not ranked

Weirdly, he just about played more in 2022 for Cameroon than he did for his club sides, Ajax and Inter. But his agility and personality make him one of the leaders of this Cameroon team, and it's not a coincidence that he unseated Inter's longtime captain, Samir Handanovic, between the sticks earlier this year. Onana exudes confidence and has the skills to back it up. -- Gab Marcotti


49. Kalidou Koulibaly

Country: Senegal
Club: Chelsea
Age: 31
Position: Defender
2018 Rank: Not ranked

Senegal have high hopes for this World Cup following their African Cup of Nations triumph in February, and while there'll be plenty of attention around their brilliant forward Sadio Mane, any triumph will be anchored at the back and captain Koulibaly is indispensable. His season has started slowly at new club Chelsea following his summer move from Napoli, but he'll feel right at home in front of Edouard Mendy as the last wall of defence for Senegal. He prioritises the collective over any individual praise. When Senegal won the Cup of Nations, Koulibaly refused to lift the trophy by himself and instead waited to be back with his team so they could celebrate together. -- Tom Hamilton


48. Bukayo Saka

Country: England
Club: Arsenal
Age: 21
Position: Midfielder
2018 Rank: Not ranked

There is plenty of competition for places in wide attacking areas for England, but Saka's impressive Arsenal form gives him a live chance of forcing his way into the starting lineup. The 21-year-old is in the mix with Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Mason Mount -- among others -- for two positions either side of Harry Kane in attack, but Southgate is full of praise for the way Saka recovered from being one of three players to miss a penalty in the Euro 2020 final shootout defeat to Italy. -- James Olley


47. Ederson

Country: Brazil
Club: Manchester City
Age: 29
Position: Goalkeeper
2018 Rank: Not ranked

Brazil have played ten games this year, and Ederson has only appeared once -- in a World Cup qualifier at home to Paraguay that was so easy he could have taken a deckchair. Brave and imposing, with a left foot that combines precision with howitzer power, Ederson would walk into many national teams in Qatar, but he looks set to be the backup for Brazil. He got the nod in the knockout stages of last year's Copa America, but without doing anything wrong, appears to have lost out to Alisson. -- Tim Vickery


46. Christian Eriksen

Country: Denmark
Club: Manchester United
Age: 30
Position: Midfielder
2018 Rank: 19

The fact Eriksen is on the list is remarkable given what happened in July 2021. Eriksen was playing for Denmark in their Euro 2020 opener against Finland, and in the 42nd minute of the match, he suffered a cardiac arrest. He received CPR on the field and in the ambulance he told his fiancée, "I'm not going to play again, no way." Yet here we are ahead of the next major tournament, and Eriksen is Denmark's key player.

Since that day in Copenhagen, Eriksen needed to have an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator fitted, which meant due to Serie A rules, he could no longer play for Inter Milan. So he trained away from the public eye, and in February 2022 he returned to competitive football in the Premier League having signed a short-term deal with Brentford. In the summer he signed for Manchester United and has been key for them this term, but Eriksen featuring in the World Cup completes the full circle of a most remarkable recovery.

He made his international return in March as a substitute against the Netherlands, and scored within two minutes of coming onto the field. "He's back and has the best football in front of him," Denmark manager Kasper Hjulmand said at the time. -- Tom Hamilton


45. Gavi

Country: Spain
Club: Barcelona
Age: 18
Position: Midfielder
2018 Rank: Not ranked

There were complaints across Spain last year when Luis Enrique called up Gavi at the age of 17 after just six Barcelona appearances. The complainers have since been silenced, with Gavi among Spain's best players in each of his 12 caps so far. He is already an established part of the midfield, alongside club teammates Sergio Busquets and Pedri, and his intensity and work rate, not to mention his quality with the ball, will be important in Qatar. -- Sam Marsden


44. Aurelien Tchouameni

Country: France
Club: Real Madrid
Age: 22
Position: Midfielder
2018 Rank: Not ranked

Tchouameni made his big move from AS Monaco to Real Madrid in the summer and is now set to anchor France's midfield in Qatar. Tchouameni, 22, made his national team debut during World Cup qualifying and has now consolidated his position, starting five of France's past six games. He's settled in well in Madrid, making replacing Casemiro look like no big deal. -- Alex Kirkland


43. Romelu Lukaku

Country: Belgium
Club: Inter Milan
Age: 29
Position: Forward
2018 Rank: 33

Lukaku's return to Inter Milan on loan from Chelsea has been disrupted by hamstring trouble this season, but if he recovers in time from his latest setback, he is in with a shout of the Golden Boot at the World Cup. He is Belgium's talismanic striker and the focal point of their remarkable attack. With an impressive record of 68 goals in 102 matches, Lukaku is "irreplaceable," in the words of manager Roberto Martinez. All of Belgium will be hoping his troublesome hamstring sorts itself out in time. -- Tom Hamilton


42. Rodri

Country: Spain
Club: Manchester City
Age: 26
Position: Midfielder
2018 Rank: Not ranked

Spain go into the World Cup with two of the best defensive midfielders in the game with captain Sergio Busquets and Manchester City's Rodri. Alongside the Barcelona player, Rodri provides a defensive shield to coach Luis Enrique's back four and also gives Spain's attacking midfielders the platform to take the game to the opposition in the final third of the pitch. -- Mark Ogden


41. Jamal Musiala

Country: Germany
Club: Bayern Munich
Age: 19
Position: Midfielder
2018 Rank: Not ranked

Without any hyperbole, this teenager might be the best pocket player in the game today. No one is quite as slick when under immense pressure in tight spaces. In fact, Musiala often moves into double or triple coverage intentionally to create room for his teammates. At 19, he is about to become the offensive centerpiece of the Germany national team. -- Constantin Eckner


40. Dusan Vlahovic

Country: Serbia
Club: Juventus
Age: 22
Position: Forward
2018 Rank: Not ranked

The big man has had a rocky time over the past few months at club level, but he's central to Serbia's goal-scoring plans, forming a heavyweight tag team with Aleksandar Mitrovic. At 22, when he's on song, he bristles with energy, athleticism and enthusiasm, outmuscling and outpacing most defenders. -- Gab Marcotti


39. Gabriel Jesus

Country: Brazil
Club: Arsenal
Age: 25
Position: Forward
2018 Rank: 36

Jesus may have been revitalised by his summer move to Arsenal from Manchester City, but his place in Brazil's lineup is in doubt. In fact, he was omitted from the most recent squad in September altogether, although Brazilian head coach Tite confirmed the 25-year-old is very much "in the running" to make the final 26. Jesus' energy and commitment have quickly endeared him to Gunners fans, but his north London rival Richarlison appears to be favoured to lead the Brazil attack at present. -- James Olley


38. Ousmane Dembele

Country: France
Club: Barcelona
Age: 25
Position: Forward
2018 Rank: 49

Dembele was part of the France squad that won the World Cup in 2018, but he has made just seven appearances since. However, the finals arrive with him in the best form of his Barcelona career. Xavi Hernandez has bet big on him and France should see the benefits. Dembele struggles with consistency but is electric when games open up and is likely to be a good option off the bench for Didier Deschamps. -- Sam Marsden


37. Antoine Griezmann

Country: France
Club: Atletico Madrid
Age: 31
Position: Forward
2018 Rank: 8

Griezmann certainly doesn't have the same status as he did four years ago when he arrived in Russia having just won the Europa League with Atletico Madrid and finished one of the best seasons of his career. He was at his peak then. Now is a very different story.

His move to Barcelona two years ago was a disaster and he has struggled with France, too. He needs to recover his best form if he wants to help Les Bleus go far in this tournament -- and keep his place in the starting lineup. With the likes of Ousmane Dembele, Christopher Nkunku and Kingsley Coman on the bench, Didier Deschamps could easily drop Griezmann. It is a huge tournament for him. At 31, this could be his last World Cup, and the French are hoping that the excitement of the tournament will bring the best back out of "Grizi." -- Julien Laurens

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36. Achraf Hakimi

Country: Morocco
Club: Paris Saint-Germain
Age: 24
Position: Defender
2018 Rank: Not ranked

This is Hakimi's second World Cup, and the 24-year-old right-back is ambitious. He is playing well this season with PSG, and Morocco are underdogs with a talented squad and nothing to lose. Hakimi is a big part of what could make them successful in Qatar with his runs and activity on the right. -- Julien Laurens


35. Trent Alexander-Arnold

Country: England
Club: Liverpool
Age: 24
Position: Defender
2018 Rank: Not ranked

While Alexander-Arnold is one of the first names on the Liverpool team sheet, his relationship with England has been less straightforward. He was omitted from their last matchday squad for the match with Germany and has made just three starts for the Three Lions since Euro 2020 -- with none of them coming in his usual right-back spot. His versatility means he is equally adept in central midfield as he is on the right, but England haven't figured out how to play to his strengths. With Reece James ruled out of the World Cup, Alexander-Arnold may yet be given a chance to showcase his rare skillset. -- Tom Hamilton


34. Lautaro Martinez

Country: Argentina
Club: Inter Milan
Age: 25
Position: Forward
2018 Rank: Not ranked

He's the heir to the great Argentina centre-forwards, taking up the mantle of Gabriel Batistuta, Sergio Aguero and Hernan Crespo. But he's as much a provider as he is a finisher, always ready to come short to play a one-two or run behind to stretch a defensive line. -- Gab Marcotti


33. Ilkay Gundogan

Country: Germany
Club: Manchester City
Age: 32
Position: Midfielder
2018 Rank: Not ranked

Gundogan didn't have a great World Cup in 2018, but Germany have rediscovered some of their swagger ahead of Qatar, and the Manchester City midfielder's experience and composure on the ball is important to Hansi Flick's team. He's become one of the on-field leaders for Pep Guardiola and for his national team. -- Rob Dawson


32. Frenkie de Jong

Country: Netherlands
Club: Barcelona
Age: 25
Position: Midfielder
2018 Rank: Not ranked

The Netherlands have plenty of talent in the squad, but no one is as important as De Jong in terms of how the Dutch will play. He is crucial in the gameplay of Louis van Gaal. The way he is able to speed up with a dribble or key pass is vital and he can't be missed during the tournament as no one in the squad has the qualities De Jong has. -- Max Toemen


31. Thomas Muller

Country: Germany
Club: Bayern Munich
Age: 33
Position: Forward
2018 Rank: 28

Muller's hips don't lie, although currently they are causing too much trouble and add to the list of recent injuries. It would, however, fit his career to see him play an outstanding World Cup and prove all doubters, who predict the end of the "Raumdeuter," wrong one more time. His ability to read the field better than almost anyone in the game can help him overcome some shortcomings related to his fitness. -- Constantin Eckner


30. Antonio Rudiger

Country: Germany
Club: Real Madrid
Age: 29
Position: Defender
2018 Rank: Not ranked

Rudiger will almost certainly be one of Germany's first-choice centre-backs at the World Cup. The 29-year-old, who left Chelsea for Real Madrid on a free transfer in the summer, played every minute of Germany's run to the last 16 at Euro 2020, where they were beaten 2-0 by England at Wembley. The lack of a consistent goal-scoring threat will place additional emphasis on Germany's defending, already under scrutiny after a run of just one win in seven games. Rudiger leads by example with his aggressive defensive style, partial to a bursting forward run that helped make him a popular figure at Stamford Bridge, although he has only started roughly half of Madrid's matches this season. Rudiger was one of several players to speak out against FIFA's decision to award the World Cup to Qatar, claiming in September that "it shows money plays a crucial role in the world of football." -- James Olley


29. Marquinhos

Country: Brazil
Club: Paris Saint-Germain
Age: 28
Position: Defender
2018 Rank: Not ranked

It is the defence that will determine whether Brazil will win or lose this World Cup. Marquinhos, 28, will have a big role to play. His partnership with Thiago Silva is very solid, having played together for years at PSG and for the Selecao. They understand each other without a word, and the Brazilians will need them at their best. -- Julien Laurens


28. Rafael Leao

Country: Portugal
Club: AC Milan
Age: 23
Position: Forward
2018 Rank: Not ranked

Speed kills. And you can't coach it. His accelerations down the left flank, his sudden bursts of creativity, his mazy dribbling ... all of these had scouts mesmerized by his skills from a young age. But it's really only recently that Leao has managed to elbow his way into Portugal's crowded front line. -- Gab Marcotti


27. Bruno Fernandes

Country: Portugal
Club: Manchester United
Age: 28
Position: Midfielder
2018 Rank: Not ranked

The Manchester United midfielder has yet to play to his full potential for Portugal due to coach Fernando Santos often favouring Manchester City's Bernardo Silva in a floating role between the midfield and attack. There is also a belief that Cristiano Ronaldo's presence is another complication for Fernandes, but the World Cup offers the 28-year-old the opportunity to finally break out on the international stage. -- Mark Ogden


26. Alphonso Davies

Country: Canada
Club: Bayern Munich
Age: 22
Position: Defender
2018 Rank: Not ranked

Davies is a world-class footballer with the abilities of an Olympic sprinter, an attacking winger playing left-back the majority of the time. He is so out of the ordinary that he naturally creates chaos on the field, particularly within the opposing back line. Some defenders are purposely sitting deep to give Davies as little room as possible to break through towards the byline.

While he is one among many top-class players at Bayern Munich, Davies is head and shoulders above any else at the Canada national team. Les Rouges need the Ghana-born left-footer to make their team truly competitive. If there is any issue that is possibly holding Davies back, it is the fact that his muscular body appears to be prone to injuries. -- Constantin Eckner

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25. Casemiro

Country: Brazil
Club: Manchester United
Age: 30
Position: Midfielder
2018 Rank: Not ranked

Erik ten Hag calls Casemiro "the cement between the stones" at Manchester United, and in a Brazil team full of attacking flair, he is a valuable insurance policy in front of the defence. After taking time to earn a regular spot at Old Trafford, the 30-year-old has become one of United's key players so far this season and he will be vital for the Selecao in Qatar. Tite has built a Brazil that has balance as one of its strengths and Casemiro's role in the centre of the pitch -- alongside United teammate Fred -- is key to it. He's heading to Qatar fit and in form. -- Rob Dawson


24. Manuel Neuer

Country: Germany
Club: Bayern Munich
Age: 36
Position: Goalkeeper
2018 Rank: 25

No one is really able to defy age, not even an all-time great goalkeeper. For the time being, however, Neuer is still the same type of player he was a decade ago, meaning that he shows great reflexes and positional awareness as a shot stopper and is tremendously talented in the role of a sweeper keeper, frequently denying opponents from counterattacks. If there is anything that can stop Neuer, it is his age and mounting injuries. -- Constantin Eckner


23. Ruben Dias

Country: Portugal
Club: Manchester City
Age: 25
Position: Defender
2018 Rank: Not ranked

Dias has emerged as Portugal's number one centre-half since playing a key role in their UEFA Nations League triumph in 2019. The Manchester City defender has forged a formidable partnership at the back with 39-year-old Porto centre-back Pepe, who continues to defy the years for club and country, but Dias is now the senior partner in that relationship with his leadership qualities and ability to read the game. -- Mark Ogden


22. Jude Bellingham

Country: England
Club: Borussia Dortmund
Age: 19
Position: Midfielder
2018 Rank: Not ranked

England's wunderkind plays with more restraint for England than he does for Borussia Dortmund, which is caused by the role Gareth Southgate usually puts him in. While Bellingham cannot show his box-to-box qualities as much, his runs down the field are crucial for the Three Lions to create chances.

Bellingham is the Swiss pocket knife among midfielders, as he can do almost anything from hard-nosed defending to opening the field with clever passes to making penetrating sprints into the box. England have become dependent on Bellingham. If he plays a strong tournament, the doors to the semifinals or even the final are wide open. -- Constantin Eckner

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21. Alisson

Country: Brazil
Club: Liverpool
Age: 30
Position: Goalkeeper
2018 Rank: Not ranked

Alisson was thrown in the deep end in 2015 when, little known and inexperienced, he was surprisingly promoted to become Brazil's first-choice keeper. It proved an inspired hunch. He has developed into one of the world's best in the position, sound and unflashy but capable of the outstanding. He has worked hard at his distribution, and over time has become one of the team's leaders. All of these virtues keep him ahead of the excellent Ederson as Brazil's No. 1. -- Tim Vickery


20. Cristiano Ronaldo

Country: Portugal
Club: Manchester United
Age: 37
Position: Forward
2018 Rank: 2

The Manchester United forward's record-breaking career might finally be on the wane at the age of 37, but he remains a talismanic figure for Portugal ahead of his fifth appearance at a World Cup. Ronaldo goes into Qatar as the all-time leading goal scorer in international football, taking his tally to 117 by scoring twice in the 4-0 UEFA Nations League win against Switzerland in June.

Those are the only goals he has scored for Portugal in 2022, though, and the debate about his importance to his country is beginning to grow in the buildup to Qatar. Yet Ronaldo continues to be the first name on Coach Santos' team sheet and his record of delivering big, important goals for his country cannot be disputed, so he will continue to lead his nation at this World Cup. -- Mark Ogden


19. Pedri

Country: Spain
Club: Barcelona
Age: 19
Position: Midfielder
2018 Rank: Not ranked

The Barcelona midfielder was named the best young player at Euro 2020 and will be central to Spain's hopes in Qatar. He will turn 20 during the tournament and, as is increasingly the case at Barca, everything La Roja do is likely to run through him.

He has a maturity beyond his years, knows when to speed up the game and when to slow it down and, most importantly, rarely makes mistakes with the ball. After an injury-hit campaign last time out, following his exploits at the Euros and the Olympic Games, he is now back in peak physical condition just in time for the biggest competition in the game. -- Sam Marsden


18. Phil Foden

Country: England
Club: Manchester City
Age: 22
Position: Midfielder
2018 Rank: Not ranked

Foden has become central to Guardiola's winning machine at Manchester City, but he's not guaranteed to start for England at the World Cup. If Gareth Southgate decides to play with three centre-backs and a pair of wing-backs, it's likely to mean Foden is left battling for one of two positions either side of captain Harry Kane, and there is plenty of competition from Bukayo Saka, Raheem Sterling, Mason Mount, Jack Grealish and Marcus Rashford.

Foden has been in fine form for City so far this season, but Southgate hasn't always picked his team on form and he may have to wait for his chance. The 21-year-old has a habit of influencing big games for City and it's only a matter of time before he does the same for England. -- Rob Dawson


17. Joao Cancelo

Country: Portugal
Club: Manchester City
Age: 28
Position: Defender
2018 Rank: Not ranked

Cancelo has developed a reputation as one of the most devastating attacking full-backs in the world at Juventus and Manchester City, and will be expected to deliver the service for Ronaldo. He's expected to play in his preferred right-back role despite regularly playing on the left at the Etihad Stadium. -- Rob Dawson


16. Bernardo Silva

Country: Portugal
Club: Manchester City
Age: 28
Position: Midfielder
2018 Rank: Not ranked

There is a feeling in Portugal that if they are to do well in Qatar, it will be because of players like Silva rather than Ronaldo. Portugal have a team of star names but they will need the industry and work rate of the Manchester City man if they are going to make it to the later rounds. -- Rob Dawson


15. Joshua Kimmich

Country: Germany
Club: Bayern Munich
Age: 27
Position: Midfielder
2018 Rank: Not ranked

He is the heart and lung of Germany's midfield. Kimmich rarely breaks under pressure, which makes him hard to separate from the ball. The majority of buildup plays go directly through him and Ilkay Gundogan. The two complement each other greatly in the middle of the park, as Kimmich provides intensity and defensive awareness while Gundogan has proven to be a creative mind. -- Constantin Eckner


14. Federico Valverde

Country: Uruguay
Club: Real Madrid
Age: 24
Position: Midfielder
2018 Rank: Not ranked

Few players have improved so much, so fast as Valverde in the past year. Now one of Real Madrid's key attacking players, he is consequently a star-in-waiting for Uruguay at this tournament. One question mark is exactly what position he will adopt: He has tended to operate more centrally for his country than the right-wing role that has already brought him eight goals for Madrid this season. -- Alex Kirkland


13. Son Heung-Min

Country: South Korea
Club: Tottenham Hotspur
Age: 30
Position: Forward
2018 Rank: 37

South Korea have a deeper talent pool than in recent years, but Son remains the country's superstar, carrying a nation's hopes on his shoulders. So in that context, news that the Tottenham forward required surgery on a fractured eye socket less than three weeks before the tournament began was just about the biggest scare South Korea could endure. They face a tough group with Uruguay, Portugal and Ghana to play, and they will surely need Son back at his best to progress. -- James Olley


12. Virgil van Dijk

Country: Netherlands
Club: Liverpool
Age: 31
Position: Defender
2018 Rank: Not ranked

Van Dijk has had a mixed club season so far. Great performances against Man City and Napoli were combined with matches where he was rightfully criticised for his performances. Along the way he also lost his amazing unbeaten record at Anfield, but whatever happens, Van Dijk is and will be throughout this tournament the undisputed leader of the Dutch national team. -- Max Toemen


11. Harry Kane

Country: England
Club: Tottenham Hotspur
Age: 29
Position: Forward
2018 Rank: 5

Kane is quite simply England's talisman and could become his country's all-time record goal scorer in Qatar (currently on 51, two behind Wayne Rooney). He won the Golden Boot at the 2018 World Cup and will have designs on doing the same again as part of a Three Lions side that was fourth in that tournament, second at Euro 2020 and eyeing the biggest prize of all this month. The problem is, England have struggled for goals of late in a six-match winless run, and Kane has not scored an international goal from open play since November 2021. -- James Olley


10. Sadio Mane

Country: Senegal
Club: Bayern Munich
Age: 30
Position: Forward
2018 Rank: 31

The Bayern Munich forward is arguably Africa's leading player, edging out his old Liverpool teammate and Egypt star Mohamed Salah for that distinction, and Mane's performances for Senegal more than back up his claims to be regarded as his continent's most important player.

The 2022 African Player of the Year struck the winning spot kick in this year's Africa Cup of Nations final penalty shootout against Salah's Egypt and he became his country's all-time leading goal scorer with 32, eclipsing the previous record of Henri Camara, in June. Having been named as the player of the tournament at the Cup of Nations, Mane then delivered for Senegal again by sending his team to the World Cup, scoring the decisive penalty once again in the playoff against Egypt. -- Mark Ogden


9. Thibaut Courtois

Country: Belgium
Club: Real Madrid
Age: 30
Position: Goalkeeper
2018 Rank: 43

A year ago, Courtois felt underrated and underappreciated, overshadowed by high-profile Premier League counterparts like Alisson and Ederson. Not anymore. An all-time great, man-of-the-match goalkeeping performance in Real Madrid's Champions League final win over Liverpool in May -- making a record nine saves -- was followed by a seventh-place finish on the 2022 Ballon d'Or shortlist.

The Belgium stopper is widely recognised as the best in the world right now and he'll have the opportunity to prove that in Qatar. Some of Belgium's veteran outfield players such as club teammate Eden Hazard might be past their best, but Courtois, at 30, is at the top of his game. -- Alex Kirkland


8. Vinicius Junior

Country: Brazil
Club: Real Madrid
Age: 22
Position: Forward
2018 Rank: Not ranked

The young winger has exploded as an international star with Real Madrid, that extraordinary acceleration sowing panic in opposing defences. In contrast with Raphinha on the Selecao's opposite flank, Vinicius has taken time to find his feet with the national team, with one goal from 16 games, and his place in the starting lineup by no means a given.

Brazil have three slight variations in their formation. Vinicius appears in two, but not in the one that looks most likely in the tough games, where Lucas Paqueta operates as a withdrawn left winger. Even so, he still has a huge part to play in the tournament, if only off the bench. He will hope that by the end of the competition he will have made himself undroppable. -- Tim Vickery


7. Luka Modric

Country: Croatia
Club: Real Madrid
Age: 37
Position: Midfielder
2018 Rank: 13

What else is there to say about Modric? Croatia's record appearance holder -- with 154 caps since he made his debut in 2006 -- and arguably greatest ever player will be turning out for his eighth major international tournament in Qatar. Modric was key to Croatia's surprise run to the 2018 World Cup final and at 37, his level hasn't dropped a bit, starring in last season's LaLiga and Champions League-winning campaign for Real Madrid.

A midfield of Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic is a formidable unit and Croatia's chances of coming anywhere close to repeating their heroics last time out will rest on the trio's shoulders. You would say that this will surely be his international swansong, but with Modric, you never know. -- Alex Kirkland


6. Neymar

Country: Brazil
Club: Paris Saint-Germain
Age: 30
Position: Forward
2018 Rank: 3

The pressure will be immense on Brazil's No. 10, who may well overtake Pele as Brazil's all-time top scorer during the tournament. He trails well behind Pele in terms of achievement, though, and this will be the World Cup where he is expected to put that right.

Neymar says this will be his last World Cup, and it will certainly be the tournament that defines his legacy as a national team player.

He benefits from the emergence of a highly promising generation of young attackers, which will take some of the load off his slender shoulders. The timing of the tournament also works to his advantage. He has tended to be at his best in the first half of the season, and there would seem to be no problems about his form and fitness as he marches towards his date with destiny. -- Tim Vickery


5. Robert Lewandowski

Country: Poland
Club: Barcelona
Age: 34
Position: Forward
2018 Rank: 10

There will be few nations in Qatar whose hopes are pinned so much on one player. That's not to say Poland do not have other good players, but the reality is none are close to Lewandowski's level.

Now 34, the striker has seamlessly translated his form with Bayern Munich to Barcelona, where he has already scored 18 goals this season after being signed for €45 million in the summer. Now, his task is to lead Poland out of the group stage for the first time since 1986. A record of 76 goals in 134 caps proves his form carries into international football, but as a forward he is always, to an extent, reliant on the service he gets. Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Argentina will all have him singled out as the man to stop when they take on Poland. -- Sam Marsden


4. Lionel Messi

Country: Argentina
Club: Paris Saint-Germain
Age: 35
Position: Forward
2018 Rank: 1

This is likely his last World Cup and he'll arrive in Doha while playing, at 35, some of the best football of his recent career. Messi is obviously critical to Argentina's success, but, relative to the last World Cup, things are different. Coach Lionel Scaloni has made him the key cog in a well-oiled machine, capable of going 34 games unbeaten. It's a stark contrast to the last World Cup, when he was expected to carry the side amid coach Jorge Sampaoli's chaos.

Messi doesn't run like he did, but the trickery and the ability to find space remains. And his trademark move, when he starts wide right, cuts inside and whips a low, hard finish past the keeper, remains close to unplayable. The Copa America victory in 2021 got the "major international tournament" monkey off his back. Now it's time for the one crown that has always eluded him. -- Gab Marcotti

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3. Kevin De Bruyne

Country: Belgium
Club: Manchester City
Age: 31
Position: Midfielder
2018 Rank: 4

After Belgium's 2-1 win over Wales in September, Belgium manager Roberto Martinez was asked about De Bruyne. Sometimes managers prefer to focus on the collective, rather than the individual, but when it comes to De Bruyne, his ability is so remarkable and abundantly clear, that there's little point in holding back on celebrating his talents.

"It's a message for all our fans, don't take for granted watching Kevin De Bruyne play," Martinez said. "For me he's the most incredible playmaker in world football at this present time."

At Manchester City, Guardiola has recently challenged De Bruyne to improve. A week after Guardiola's ask, the player responded by scoring their winner against Leicester City, to sit alongside his Premier League-leading nine assists this term. He's indispensable for club and country, and his ranking of third in the last Ballon d'Or was the highest spot ever reached by a Belgian player. If the Red Devils make a dent in this year's tournament, then you can bet your house on the fact De Bruyne will be on song. -- Tom Hamilton


2. Karim Benzema

Country: France
Club: Real Madrid
Age: 34
Position: Forward
2018 Rank: Not ranked

Benzema, at the age of 34, has had to wait eight and a half years to feature again in the World Cup. He wants to make up for lost time.

After all that time away from the national team, he came back with a bang at the Euros in 2021 with four goals in four appearances, but the last 16 elimination left a sour taste in his mouth. Now, after winning the 2022 Ballon d'Or, he is ready to make this World Cup count. It is likely to be his last one, so this marks his biggest opportunity to write his name in the competition's history books.

Benzema is ultra motivated and he knows that his partnership with Kylian Mbappe up front is the key to France's success. They get on well and complement one another on the pitch. Benzema is a role model for Mbappe, and together, they are ready to lead France. -- Julien Laurens


1. Kylian Mbappe

Country: France
Club: Paris Saint-Germain
Age: 23
Position: Forward
2018 Rank: 15

Russia 2018 was the World Cup where Mbappe truly announced his arrival. He was 19, up and coming, still not necessarily known worldwide, and he took the competition by storm to become the first teenager since Pele to score in the final and to win it. Qatar 2022 will be the World Cup confirmation for the French prodigy; confirmation of his world-class status, of his superstar image, of his superstar talent.

There will be more pressure, the expectations will be higher and his role with France will be bigger. On the pitch, the 23-year-old has to redeem himself after not scoring a single goal for Les Bleus since missing the decisive penalty in the last 16 shootout defeat to Switzerland in the 2021 Euros some 18 months ago. Now he has to deliver, like he did in 2018. -- Julien Laurens