With an astonishing 89 days before South Africa and Mexico kick-off the 19th World Cup in Johannesburg on June 11th, BPF hand pick fifty players everyone will have to keep an eye out for in a four-part series. From some of the world’s top players, to some emerging talent, to some national favourites, these fifty players will be a must-watch bunch this summer.
50 Shinji Okazaki Japan
We kick-off the Top 50 with a virtually unknown striker in this side of the world, Shinji Okazaki. The 23-year-old plies his trade with J1 side Shimizu S-Pulse where he’s bagged twenty-nine goals in ninety games. But what makes the exciting young forward interesting is he was named the World’s Top Goal Scorer in 2009 by the IFFHS for his fifteen international goals throughout the calendar year, more than any other international player. Another interesting fact is Okazaki has never been on the losing side of a Japanese game in which he’s scored in, a record that runs ten games. That’s what makes Shinji the man to watch out for in the white of Japan this summer.
49 Leo Bertos New Zealand
Another unknown name makes the list, New Zealand midfielder Leo Bertos. It was his corner that set up the goal that would send New Zealand to the World Cup. Bertos is known for his dribbling and dazzling ball skills. This was shown in a game against Brazil game when he dribbled around two defenders to win a corner, before getting a tap on the back from a Brazilian opponent for his effort. The twenty-eight year old has had spells all over England, and currently plays down under with Wellington Phoenix. Thanks to his stunning skill on the ball, Leo is the man to watch out for when the All Whites kick-off their campaign against Slovakia on the 15th of June.
48 Zoran Tošić Serbia
The twenty-two year old might not yet be established in the Manchester Utd squad, but he is firmly in Serbia’s plans after their qualification for the competition ahead of France and Austria in Group 7. The exciting left winger is currently on loan at German side Köln, where he’s played five games since joining up in January. Tošić has notched four goals for the Serbs thus far, including a double against World Cup hosts South Africa last August.
47 Carlos Vela Mexico
Arsenal’s Mexican sensation has been banging in the goals regularly since topping the 2005 FIFA U’17 World Cup with five goals. Arsenal fans have only seen Vela’s ability on occasion, but at twenty-one he is held in high esteem by Arsene Wenger and the players at the Emirates. In the Gold Cup final, Vela was brought on at half time with the score deadlocked at 0–0 against the USA. Vela’s inclusion immediately impacted the game, as Mexico ended up 5-0 winners with Vela providing the pass to Giovani Dos Santos for the first penalty, creating the second goal, scoring the third and assisting the fourth.
46 Lee Chung-Yong South Korea
Bolton’s South Korean midfielder has turned out to be a true gem since his arrival from FC Seoul last summer. At just twenty-one years of age, Lee has established himself as one of the most exciting young Premier League players with four goals in just twenty three appearances at the Reebok Stadium. His impressive displays with the South Koreans in the U-20 World Cup in 2007 against sides like Brazil and USA were rumoured to have caught attention from a number of Europe’s top sides, before Bolton managed to sweep in and pick him up. Chung-Yong was one of his nation’s most important players as they grasped World Cup qualification for a record seventh consecutive time.
45 Ki Sung-Yong South Korea
For South Koreans, when you have Lee Chung-Yong you must tag him with fellow young star Ki Sung-Yong. The pair is affectionately known as “Double Dragon” in their home country after their meteoric rise together with FC Seoul and taking their football to Europe this past season. Ki plays with Celtic after a transfer was agreed last August, but due to the K-League season he only joined up this January where he’s already played eight games. Ki is known for technique and vision on the ball, and is particularly dangerous from set pieces. Both he and Lee Chung-Yong are a must watch at the World Cup in their group against the Netherlands, Denmark and Cameroon.
44 Charlie Davies USA
America’s exciting young striker has had a couple of setbacks in his career, none bigger than the car crash he was involved in last October. But the Sochaux forward is up there as one of the US’ biggest stars and is expected to return with a bang this summer. Davies set a number of high school and college records. Instead of drafting with an MLS team, Davies decided to fare his career in Europe where he now plays with French side Sochaux. Due to his crash, Charlie has only made six appearances where he’s scored twice, but has netted four international goals in seventeen for Team USA.
43 Tim Cahill Australia
Socceroos star Cahill came to prominence during Millwall’s FA Cup run of 2005 that saw them reach the final where they lost to Manchester United. He subsequently joined Everton for a bargain £1.5 million and has become something of a legend at Goodison Park. Averaging roughly a goal every four games, Cahill knows where the net is and has also banged in 19 goals in just 37 internationals for Australia. The Sydney-born star is a renowned header of the ball and will looking to repeat his World Cup performance of 2006 where he bagged a brace against Japan in the group stages.
42 Lukas Podolski Germany
German striker Podolski is a strange one. His record at international level is superb (70 games, 37 goals), yet he couldn’t get in the Bayern Munich team on a regular basis and returned to his home town club of Köln last summer. He has hardly set the world alight there either, scoring just twice in twenty games, but he remains an integral part of the national side. He bagged three goals in the 2006 World Cup, and made the 23-man Squad of the Tournament for Euro 2008 after scoring another three goals in that competition.
41 Ashley Cole England
Will he be fit? That’s the burning question at the moment. Cole is arguably the best left back in the world, and with Wayne Bridge opting not to make himself available for World Cup selection, England are basically screwed if he fails to recover from injury in time. The next in line for the position, Leighton Baines and Stephen Warnock, don’t even come close to matching Cole’s all round ability and the team would be very much weakened without him. Rarely puts in a bad performance, is solid in defence, and contributes well in attack. If only he was so flawless off the field.
40 Eljero Elia Netherlands
Hamburg winger Eljero Elia exploded onto the view in his home nation at a very early age. Beginning in the Netherlands U19 team in 2005, Elia was also selected by Bert van Marwijk for the senior national Dutch team’s friendly encounter with England. Elia made his debut for Holland against Japan where his first match for Oranje went very well, with assists in the 3-0 victory. In just his second match, Elia scored the only goal in a win over Scotland. Elia is known for his pace and attacking skills, and plays mostly up front or out wide.
39 Jozy Altidore USA
The American forward burst onto the scene at last summer’s Confederations Cup and managed to net a goal against European Champions Spain. With his massive frame and powerful physique, you’ll be surprised to know the Hull City striker is just twenty-years-old, and has already made an astonishing twenty-eight appearance for the States. Altidore is on loan from Villareal, where he joined from New York Red Bulls with fifteen goals in the MLS. Along with Davies , Altidore is one of the United States’ brightest stars and is expected to impress in South Africa.
38 Ramires Brazil
The first Brazilian on the list, and certainly not the last is Benfica midfielder Ramires Santos do Nascimento. The exciting young midfielder was an ever present in last summer’s Confederations Cup, as well as having a huge part to play in Brazil’s path to World Cup qualification. Ramires’ has become an integral part of the Benfica midfield and has already become a fan favourite at the club, as well as being regarded as one of the top players in the Portuguese Liga. Ramires is expected to play a huge starting role for Brazil as they go in search of winning their sixth World Cup.
Tune in tomorrow for the second part of our series, as we introduce the first goalkeeper in the list, a marauding South American full-back and probably the most controversial player who will line out in South Africa. No prizes for guessing who it is!