The biggest stage in football, the World Cup offers players a chance to elevate their reputation to new heights. We take a look at some of the lesser-known talents who could be set to make a big impression in Qatar this winter.
A product of Ghanaian academy Right to Dream, Kamaldeen Sulemana made his first foray into European football with Nordsjaelland in the Danish Superliga. Catching the eye in Demark with his speed and dribbling skills, Sulemana became the Superliga’s biggest ever export after sealing a €20m transfer to Ligue 1 club Rennes.
20-year-old Sulemana will be hoping Rennes proves to be an avenue to further footballing success, and follow the same path taken by former winger Ousmane Dembele to the top of the European game.
Although yet to fully establish himself for The Black Stars, having received just two caps to date, Sulemana is regarded as a prodigious talent in his homeland and a player with the potential to emerge as a national star.
Ghana’s first World Cup outing since 2014 could present Sulemana the perfect chance to announce himself on the international stage, alongside other dynamic talents such as Inaki Williams and Mohammed Kudus in an exciting-looking Ghanaian attack.
A footballing country with a growing reputation for developing world-class strikers, with frontmen of the calibre of Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Darwin Nunez all having made their mark at the highest level of the sport in recent times, Uruguay may have another star in the making in the form of 19-year-old hitman Matias Arezo.
With all of the aforementioned established strikers set to be on the plane to Qatar, Arezo may find gametime difficult to come by if indeed he is selected in the squad. Having said this, Suarez and Cavani are at the latter end of their careers, and all it may take for Arezo to display his quality is a cameo from the bench.
The Granada forward’s movement and finishing ability has drawn inevitable comparisons to Suarez, with some of Europe’s top clubs having already been credited with an interest in his services.
A prolific goalscorer at youth level for Uruguay, Arezo will be chomping at the bit to be offered a chance to represent the senior side at a World Cup Finals in Qatar.
Hailing from El Paso, Texas, Ricardo Pepi is regarded as one of United States’ most promising young talents. In January, Pepi made the move into European football in a transfer from FC Dallas to FC Augsburg in Germany worth over $20m.
Such is the level of hype surrounding Pepi in his home country, desperate for the emergence of top-level footballing talent, the striker has been nicknamed El Tren – The Train.
Loaned out to Dutch side FC Groningen this season, 19-year-old striker Pepi became the first Eredivisie player in the 21st century to score or assist five goals in his first four league games.
Scoring three goals in his first two games for the United States, Pepi has already shown he has what it takes to make his mark on the international stage.
With United States manager Gregg Berhalter set to take a youthful-looking squad to the World Cup, Pepi may just be handed a chance to impress at the Qatar Finals and display his talent in front of millions around the globe.
Having already drawn significant transfer interest from the likes of Manchester United, Ajax centre-back Jurrien Timber is a player with a fast-developing reputation.
A ball-playing defender with great awareness and an impressive ability to read the game, Timber looks primed to start for the Netherlands alongside Virgil van Dijk and Mathijs de Ligt as part of Oranje manager Louis van Gaal’s preferred back-three setup.
This system should suit Timber down to the ground, with his capacity to play passes through the lines and help launch attacks from the back set to prove a real asset for this Dutch side.
With the Netherlands having been handed a favourable draw in Qatar, Timber could be presented with a real platform to shine at the World Cup and cement his status as one of the most talented young defenders around at the moment.
A footballing nation which has unearthed a plethora of European stars in recent times, Belgium may just have found a new gem in the form of Milan attacking midfielder Charles De Ketelaere.
Joining the Italian giants from Club Brugge in August, 21-year-old De Ketelaere has already made 10 appearances for Roberto Martinez’s Belgium side.
At around 6ft 3in tall, De Ketelaere is an imposing figure who possesses a great turn of pace and a sweet left foot. He is also renowned for his versatility, having played in a variety of attacking midfield roles as well as up front.
With Belgium’s so-called ‘Golden generation’, featuring the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, seen to be ageing, De Ketelaere could help give rise to a new crop of distinguished internationals ready to help inspire their country to success on the biggest stage in Qatar.
With World Cup host nation Qatar a largely unknown quantity for many football fans across the globe, with none of their latest squad currently playing domestic football outside of their home country, it’s difficult to know what to expect when they compete at this winter’s Finals.
One player in their ranks to look out for is fleet-footed left winger Akram Afif. Having previously plied his trade on European soil at the likes of Belgian club Eupen and Villarreal and Sporting Gijon in Spain, Afif is now starring at Qatari champions Al-Sadd.
Despite being only 25 years old, Afif has already made a staggering 86 appearances for his national team, registering 26 goals.
An impressive tournament showing from the technically gifted Afif may just tempt a European suitor to offer the winger a chance to return to the continent where he began his professional career.
Having moved to Napoli from Fenerbahce in the summer as a replacement for outgoing stalwart Kalidou Koulibaly, Kim Min-Jae has been a revelation as Napoli have enjoyed a stunning start to the season both domestically in Serie A and on the European stage in the Champions League.
Nicknamed ‘the Monster’ in light of his size and dominant playing style, Kim has already amassed 44 caps for South Korea by the age of 25. A robust defender, Kim also possesses a goal threat from set pieces and an accurate long pass.
Drawn in a tough group alongside Portugal, Uruguay and Ghana, Kim will have to be at the top of his game if South Korea are to progress through to the knockout rounds.
Even if they are unsuccessful in such a quest, Kim undoubtedly has the ability to catch the eye in his maiden World Cup campaign against some of the sport’s top attacking talents.
A tall and powerful defender, Nico Schlotterbeck’s form for Freiburg in the Bundesliga was enough to see Borussia Dortmund part with around €25m to secure his services in the summer.
As a left-footed centre-back, 22-year-old Schlotterbeck offers Die Mannschaft balance in defence, and is knocking on the door for a starting place in the Germany side for the Qatar Finals having received five caps to date.
Comfortable playing in both a back three or back four system, Schlotterbeck has drawn comparisons with club teammate and Germany stalwart Mats Hummels in relation to his aerial presence in both boxes.
Germany manager Hansi Flick will be hoping Schlotterbeck is able to emulate Hummels’ success at the 2014 World Cup, where Germany secured their fourth title in Brazil.
As one of the most impressive teams at the Euros last summer, defeated in extra-time by England in the semi-finals at Wembley, Denmark will be hoping for further success at the World Cup in Qatar this winter.
A player on the periphery of that distinguished Danish team, winger Andreas Skov Olsen has enjoyed a productive start to life at Belgian champions Club Brugge after transferring from Bologna in January. The 22-year-old already has 12 goals to his name in all competitions, and has been a regular starter in the Belgians’ impressive Champions League campaign so far this season.
As a left-footed winger typically deployed on the right, Skov Olsen thrives when cutting inside to make efforts on goal.
He has been in great form for Kasper Hjulmand’s Denmark of late after receiving increased gametime for the national team, with two goals in their last three outings, and could be set for a starring role for his country in Qatar.
22-year-old Angers midfielder Azzedine Ounahi has the ability to turn heads with his technical quality for Morocco in the Qatar World Cup Finals.
Scoring a brace in his hometown of Casablanca in a 4-1 win against DR Congo in the third round of the World Cup qualifiers to send Morocco to Qatar, Ounahi’s stock in the national side is high heading into this winter’s tournament.
A tall and dynamic midfielder capable of covering a lot of ground, he also possesses the skill and vision to make things happen in the final third.
Although Morocco face a tough ask to progress from a group featuring teams of the calibre of Belgium, Croatia and Canada, Ounahi could be able to make a big statement in his career if he is to perform to his maximum level.Safer Gambling Week (17-23 October) – Let’s talk about safer gambling. Click here for more information on independent resources. Gamble Responsibly.