The World Cup is mostly a chance to show your national pride. But it also showcases the world’s best athletes in their sport playing for its greatest prize.
It’s no secret the United States doesn’t go crazy over the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga or the German Bundesliga. So there’s a good chance you haven’t been following the world of soccer (yes, football) over the past four years.
Much has changed among the stars of the sport. The winner of the Golden Ball as best player, Uruguay’s Diego Forlan, is over the hill and Brazil’s Neymar is king.
And if you think David Beckham is still a star, you’re stuck in 2006.
Club: Barcelona (La Liga)
Honors: 2011 and 2012 South American Footballer of the Year, Golden Ball 2013 Confederations Cup
If you lived in Brazil, you would know Neymar (full name: Neymar da Silva Santos Jr.) like you know LeBron James and Peyton Manning.
He is, quite simply, the hottest star in the world’s biggest sport. He’s also really, really good.
Neymar developed a bit of a bad reputation as a very young player, because he appeared to be content to play his soccer — and dominate — in Brazil, as opposed to joining one of the major clubs in Europe.
But he finally jumped across the pond last year, when he signed with Spanish superpower Barcelona, alongside fellow superstar Lionel Messi. No surprise, there have been very few people chirping about Neymar’s lack of skill now that he’s tearing up La Liga too.
He has nine goals and eight assists in 26 games for Barcelona. Neymar has been even better when he pulls on the No. 10 of Brazil, with eight goals and eight assists in 16 international games this year. He has 31 goals in 49 games with the national team since 2010.
With his spiked hair and flair for the dramatic, he’s likely to be a favorite for all newcomers.
2. Lionel Messi
Club: Barcelona (La Liga)
Honors: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 Ballon d’Or (best player in the world)
There are very few things to be said about Lionel Messi which haven’t already been said.
He is the best player in the world and you’ll find few arguments to the contrary. With him winning his first La Liga title in 2004-05, it’s easy to forget Messi is only 26 years old and playing in his third World Cup this month.
The 5-foot-6 dynamo is unmatched on the pitch in terms of offensive skill. And he isn’t just a threat to score every game, he pretty much does score every game. Messi has played in 36 games for Barcelona this season, split between La Liga and the Champions League, and has 36 goals. He also has 11 assists.
But that is actually a slowed pace from last season, when he had an astounding 46 goals and 12 assists in 28 La Liga games.
Messi gives every person who wasn’t born a 6-foot-3 athletic freak someone to root for. Just know it’s a very large bandwagon.
3. Robin van Persie
Club: Manchester United (EPL)
Honors: 2012 PFA Players’ Player of the Year, two-time EPL Golden Boot
Manchester United is the biggest soccer club in the world and Robin van Persie is its best player.
He’s also the captain of a Dutch national team which is a dark horse to win the 2014 World Cup.
His country’s all-time leading goal scorer had a somewhat pedestrian EPL campaign (12 goals and three assists in 21 games), but led all players with 11 goals in qualifying for the World Cup. If he is on form this month, the Netherlands has a chance to upset some of the favorites.
4. Luis Suarez
Club: Liverpool (EPL)
Honors: 2014 PFA Players’ Player of the Year, 2013-14 Premier League Golden Boot (top goal scorer)
Uruguay doesn’t carry the same American recognition as Brazil or Argentina as a soccer superpower, but they’ve had plenty of success — and stars.
Suarez eschewed La Liga, like many South American players choose, to play for Dutch clubs Groningen and Ajax before signing with EPL side Liverpool in 2010 for about $38.3 million.
He has received a bad reputation, probably with reason, for multiple suspensions in his tenure. He was suspended on separate occasions for biting a player and for racist comments made toward an opponent. He also had an infamous, uncalled handball in the 2010 World Cup quarterfinals.
But he’s proved his worth on the field even if he’s been controversial off the field. He had a league-leading 31 goals for Liverpool last season.
5. Cristiano Ronaldo
Club: Real Madrid
Honors: 2008 and 2013 Ballon d’Or (best player in the world), two-time La Liga top scorer, 2007-08 EPL Golden Boot
Cristiano Ronaldo is known as much for his slicked-back hair and playboy style as he is for his on-field skills. But he has talent to spare as well.
The 29-year-old striker carries a burden unlike Messi, however, because of his off-field reputation. He is not loved for his skill or even always respected, due to a propensity to be seen as a diva. He’ll take dives and complain about calls, drawing the ire of opposing fans, who often want to see him fail. But he rarely does. Ronaldo has won the Premier League title three times in a row (2006 to 2009) while he was a part of Manchester United. They also won the Champions League in 2007-08 and was part of an FA Cup winning side in 2003-04.
Ronaldo made the very expensive (read: a $132 million transfer fee) jump to La Liga and Real Madrid in 2009, where he won a league crown in 2011-12.
Portugal has had less success on the international stage, often coming up short against rival Spain. But Ronaldo has rarely been to blame. He has an all-time national team record 49 goals in 110 appearances.
Follow Metro New York Sports Editor Mark Osborne on Twitter @MetroNYSports.