Meet the fearless debutants ready to seize their moment
Still only 21, Pogba has never been afraid to make a brave choice on or off the pitch. Many wondered whether this midfielder was jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire when leaving Manchester United for Juventus in 2012, in search of first-team action.
Instead, he has deposed local hero Claudio Marchisio in La Vecchia Signora’s midfield, and his form in Serie A catapulted him into making a full France debut in March 2013 against Georgia. By the time he played a role in helping France to Under-20 World Cup glory in July that year, it was difficult to imagine Les Bleus going to the World Cup without him.
Pogba’s power and personality has quickly made him indispensable, and the good news is that he will have the freedom in Brazil to reproduce the adventure that has epitomised his successes in Italy. The presence of Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi in midfield will allow Pogba off the leash to drive France forward.
Frederic Lipka, the academy director that brought the teenage Pogba through at Le Havre before he left for England, said in 2010 that he had “more technical quality” than Patrick Vieira at the same age. We’re about to see exactly what he meant.
Out with the new, in with the old; that’s been the credo in the Netherlands since the last World Cup. Bert van Marwijk’s controversial midfield double pivot is a thing of the past, with 4-3-3 and its reckless abandon back in vogue thanks to Louis van Gaal.
That’s good news for Joel Veltman, a very Ajax type of defender. Van Gaal gave the 22-year-old his full international debut in November's goalless draw with Colombia, and if Ajax’s return to their roots under Frank de Boer is good news for Van Gaal’s supply line, the national boss’s taste for youth is good news for them.
Veltman is part of an uncommonly young Ajax side, but he doesn’t look it. His poise on the ball, and mastery of short and long passing, suggests he’s been there for years. In fact, he made his first-team debut just a few weeks into the 2012-13 season, and settled quickly. This season, he has fully established himself as first choice.
He may soon do the same for his country. Van Gaal’s risky tactical system (especially from a defensive standpoint) needs mobile defenders who can read the game and anticipate well. This is Veltman all over. He also needs them to keep the ball moving. As time goes on, Veltman looks like the perfect fit for the World Cup.
At €25m, nobody could quite call Bernard a bargain, but few baulked at the price when the time came for him to leave Atlético Mineiro after their Libertadores triumph last year. When Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk were trying to woo the midfielder last summer, they treated him and his family a week’s hospitality in Donetsk, willing to play the long game to secure his signature. Shakhtar are convinced their efforts have been worth it, despite Bernard’s very gradual adaptation to life outside South America. Bernard’s game is about pace and invention, stretching the game wide on the right or dropping into the No.10 position to dictate. He only counts three starts among his 10 international appearances to date, and is likely to be used as a pinch-hitter again in the tournament this summer.
This will suit him just fine; his choice of club means he continues to fly under the mainstream radar, but those who look at his 5ft 6in height and 63 kg weight expecting a pushover will be disappointed: Bernard is surprisingly tough. “Shakhtar won’t want to let me go yet,” he warned in a recent interview with O Globo when Arsenal and Tottenham’s interest was again mentioned. They must expect suitors to redouble their efforts if Bernard makes the impact he can.
Sporting Clube de Portugal are famous for their prolific youth academy, but William Carvalho is proof that they’re branching out from star wingers after Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Figo & Co. The 21-year-old is an imposing defensive midfielder, and has made a huge impact in Lisbon after returning from an extended loan spell at Cercle Brugge.
The biggest tribute that one can pay to Carvalho’s character and responsible nature is repeating the circumstances of his Portugal debut. He came on for Raul Meireles in the World Cup play-off second leg against Sweden in November, with Portugal having just gone 2-1 down and facing a baying Stockholm crowd. Carvalho adapted with admirable sangfroid, helping to batten down the hatches as Ronaldo led Portugal home. His full debut, against Cameroon in March, was less a reward than an inevitability. Paulo Bento is pleased that Porto’s Fernando finally has a Portuguese passport but the sense is that with Carvalho’s emergence, he may not need him.
Manchester United have been scouting Carvalho to the point of stalking, and his pedigree is such that the mooted fee in any transaction (somewhere north of £30m) seems like common sense rather than a fanciful demand by Sporting. Bento is a creature of habit, but it wouldn’t be unsurprising to see him take a chance on Carvalho by starting him for the World Cup opener against Germany.
With the abrupt April 2013 announcement of Götze’s move from Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich, many found it difficult to get their heads around the news. For them, the youngster was Jürgen Klopp’s side personified: a bright, intuitive, wholly natural talent. Götze possesses those attributes, but also has plenty of sangfroid. In fact, he is typical Bayern.
The pressure of becoming Germany’s most expensive player ever at 21 (at a cool €37m), or indeed the ensuing opprobrium from disappointed Dortmund fans, never looked like throwing him off his stride. Götze is ice-cool, on and off the pitch, as he proved when scoring a crucial opening goal for Bayern on his first return to the Signal Iduna Park last November.
With Germany’s recent dazzle at major tournaments not quite matched with a killer instinct to force them over the line, they hope Götze can provide it this time. He has magic about him, as we see in his flowing dribbles and his electric sprints to the byeline, but he also has considerable finishing power.
This came to the fore again in March’s friendly with Chile, when he scored the latest of his seven international goals (and the night’s winner) from a pass by Mesut Özil. Some have suggested Götze should supplant the Arsenal man as Germany’s creative hub, but his spell deputising for Franck Ribéry on the Bayern left this season showed his versatility. Germany are lucky to have him.
This 23-year-old is leading a new generation in Russian football. He’s media-friendly, playful and accessible – but above all, he’s a huge talent. Anzhi certainly thought so, paying his €19m release clause but selling him straight back to Dinamo Moscow before he could play a first-team game.
Kokorin, as his way, took it all in his stride. Quick, intelligent and nimble, he has become a composed finisher in recent seasons, and is improving the aerial side of his game too. He scored some important goals in qualifying to help get Russia to Brazil (four in seven starts overall). With Fabio Capello’s side in a fairly open group containing Belgium, Algeria and South Korea, they would benefit from a positive approach, which Kokorin is all about.
As Russia attempt to lay the ghosts of their Euro 2012 implosion, it looks like the Dinamo forward is favourite to partner the experienced Aleksandr Kerzhakov up front. Given Kerzhakov’s nervy displays in Poland two years ago, many will look to Kokorin to give Russia the spark to reach the second stage. As his cheeky backheel in March’s friendly win over Armenia showed, it is a responsibility that this bright young thing will not just embrace but enjoy.
Continuing a Croatian tradition of gifted midfield technicians including Luka Modric, Robert Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban, at 19 years old Mateo Kovacic is being hailed as the man to knit Croatia’s play together for years to come.
Need proof? Ask his predecessors: “a professor of football” was the verdict of Niko Kranjcar, while even Boban himself says the Inter prodigy “has the potential to become better than me”.
Not that it has been plain sailing for Kovacic since Inter agreed a €15m deal with Dinamo Zagreb for him in January 2013. Two different coaches have used him sparingly and struggled to find an exact role for him. Kovacic being given Wesley Sneijder’s No.10 shirt offers a clue as to how Inter might have seen him, and he has all the tools of a trequartista par excellence – an elegant touch, the ability to beat players with ease – but he’s had to be content with bit parts in a variety of positions.
There have been no such issues for his country, however: the teenager was thrown into the pressure-cooker environment of grudge-match qualifiers against Serbia as a holding midfielder before excelling in the World Cup play-off against Iceland, laying on a goal after a mazy dribble from deep. Now, Brazil awaits – and possibly the shop window…
If Hazard’s sensational form for Chelsea - which looks like even surpassing his stellar final season at Lille – has raised expectation on him before the World Cup, the widespread hopes in his team mean that he is not alone in the Belgian camp in that sense.
Hazard has come a long way. Looking back now, it seems extraordinary that it took him until his 23rd appearance for Belgium – nearly three years after his debut – to score his first goal for Les Diables Rouges, against Kazakhstan in a Euro 2012 qualifier.
In his early steps with the full national side, it seemed he was suffering for having grown up in France’s academy system instead. His talent was treated more with suspicion than excitement by coaches, led by Georges Leekens, who didn’t really know what to do with him.
Nowadays, there is no disputing his status. Hazard’s principal role is to create from the left and the centre, though his modest goals total (two during World Cup qualifying) is perhaps the only legitimate criticism of him. Yet he’s proving for Chelsea that playing wide is no barrier to him scoring. If Hazard fires at this tournament to the extent that we can expect, so will Belgium.
With Colombia’s top scorer in qualifying, Radamel Falcao, failing to recover from a serious knee injury in time for the World Cup finals, the South Americans will have to look elsewhere for goals as they look to negotiate what should be a fairly straightforward group.
The most obvious candidate amongst a plethora of capable replacements (including Hertha Berlin’s Adrian Ramos and Teufilo Gutierrez of River Plate) is Jackson Martinez. Having succeeded Falcao in Porto’s No.9 shirt, Jackson has outstripped his illustrious international team-mate in terms of numbers, scoring 41 times in 53 Liga starts for Porto since arriving from Jaguares in 2012.
Maybe the call to responsibility is something he needs at international level. Martinez started only four times in qualifying, and didn’t score at all. It is inconceivable that this run will continue for much longer, given the service from those other ex-Dragao stalwarts Fredy Guarin and James Rodriguez, and Jackson’s own qualities.
Jackson’s physical power and heading ability is no secret, but his inventiveness is perhaps his greatest asset. He scores a great variety of goals for Porto, domestically and continentally, and is a highly intelligent player. The 27-year-old could be just the man to overpower some resilient defences, and to ease that Falcaodependencia.