After months of anticipation, the 2014 World Cup finally kicks off this Thursday when host Brazil takes on Croatia. That will be followed by 63 additional matches, culminating with the World Cup final on July 13 at the legendary Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro.
These are the names you need to know to this summer.
1. Lionel Messi, Argentina
Cristiano Ronaldo may be in the best current form, but most fans and pundits will still tell you Messi is the world’s top player. Messi is not the biggest or most powerful guy, but he has savant-like skills and is a goal-scoring machine for FC Barcelona. His play for Argentina has never matched his quality at Barca, however, and leading La Albiceleste to its third World Cup title would put him in the conversation with Pele for greatest soccer player of all time.
2. Sergio Aguero, Argentina
Messi’s running mate at the front of the Argentine attack, Aguero is an extremely dangerous scorer in his own right. With opposing defenses doing all they can to key on Messi in Brazil, look for Aguero to put in a strong — and prolific — performance.
3. Mario Balotelli, Italy
Balotelli’s antics are the stuff of Internet legend and his tempestuous nature can get him in trouble. But the big, strong forward is one of the world’s best players — as well as the Italian most responsible for scoring goals this summer in a tough Group D. He also takes a lot of selfies.
4. Andrea Pirlo, Italy
At 35, Pirlo doesn’t have the burst he once did. But his game was never based on athleticism — guile, skill and remarkable passing ability are how he made his name and led Italy to the 2006 World Cup title. Even at a relatively advanced age, Pirlo is still key to Italy’s attack. Judging by these excerpts from his autobiography, he also may be the world’s most interesting footballer.
5. Paul Pogba, France
Just 21 years old, Pogba is an explosive and skilled midfielder. He’ll be even more important to Les Bleus after established star Franck Ribery was recently ruled out of the World Cup with a back injury. Pogba isn’t yet known to the casual soccer fan — but that will change this summer.
6. Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
Ronaldo was named the world’s best soccer player for 2013, finally ending Lionel Messi’s four-year monopoly on the award. Fresh off leading Real Madrid to the Champions League title, Ronaldo will now look to get Portugal out of its Group of Death. He’s skilled, strong, fast and a fearsome scorer — just the type of player capable of putting a team on his back to lead a deep run into the knockout stage.
7. Yaya Touré, Côte d’Ivoire
Touré has quietly become one of the world’s top 10 players. He’s equally menacing on offense and defense. With Ivorian legend Didier Drogba in the twilight of his career, Touré will be critical to Côte d’Ivoire’s chances of reaching the knockout stage.
8. Luis Suarez, Uruguay
A true striker who’s singularly obsessed with scoring goals — something he does extremely well — Suarez is just a hair behind Messi and Ronaldo in the debate for world’s best player. Knee surgery on May 22 jeopardized his World Cup chances, but he looks on track now. That’s great news for him, Uruguay and soccer fans the world over. It’s bad news for Uruguay’s opponents in Group D.
9. Neymar, Brazil
Neymar is only 22 years old, but he’s seen as the next in a long line of thrilling, creative offensive stars from Brazil. Can he lead the Seleção to glory on its home soil? Doing so would make him nothing short of a national hero.
10. Eden Hazard, Belgium
Belgium has long been touted as a dark-horse contender this summer — and living up to the hype will hinge on Hazard, the team’s most dynamic player. The 23-year-old midfielder should be able to guide Belgium out of Group H, but how far it can go after that is anyone’s guess.
11. Shinji Kagawa, Japan
Japan faces a tall order in getting out of Group C. But behind the dynamic Kagawa — an attacking midfielder who plays professionally for Manchester United — the team definitely has a shot.
12. Clint Dempsey, USA
Jozy Altidore is the USA’s chief goal-scoring threat, but Dempsey may be its most creative player. He’s skilled, tough and — as coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s captain — will need to provide strong leadership to guide the Americans out of a deadly Group G.
13. Jozy Altidore, USA
Altidore was US Soccer’s player of the year in 2013, then went on an epic goal scoring drought for both club and country that began Dec. 4 of last year and only ended this Saturday in the USMNT‘s final World Cup tuneup against Nigeria. He was still a quality player during his scoreless streak, but we’ll see if his two goals against Nigeria can lead to a hot streak in Brazil. The Americans could certainly use that.
14. Andrés Iniesta, Spain
Iniesta isn’t the quickest player. He’s not the biggest. And he’s certainly not the most athletic. But the Spanish hero — his late goal clinched La Furia Roja‘s 2010 World Cup title — is truly a footballer’s footballer. He comes up huge in the most important moments, beautifully sets up teammates for scoring strikes and generally plays soccer in the most aesthetically pleasing way possible.
15. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Germany
Schweinsteiger has one of the World Cup’s funnest names to say, and is arguably Germany’s most dangerous threat on goal. The German squad is stacked with offensive threats, meaning opposing defenses can’t load up against Schweinsteiger and — at least in theory — he’ll find plenty of scoring chances in Brazil.
16. Mesut Özil, Germany
Schweinsteiger’s running mate in the German midfield is another of the highly skilled offensive players who make Die Mannschaft a nightmare to defend against. Özil starred for Germany as just a 21-year-old at the 2010 World Cup, so we’ll see what he has up his sleeve this time around.
17. Edin Džeko, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina qualifying for its first World Cup after a war-torn past is one of the tournament’s most powerful stories. But it’s largely on Dzeko to lead the team out of Group F and into the knockout stage. A physical striker, Dzeko scored 10 of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s 30 goals in its 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign.
18. Wesley Sneijder, Netherlands
Dutch midfielder Sneijder is equally adept with both feet, quick with the ball, a pinpoint passer and one of the world’s top dead-ball specialists. After reaching the World Cup final in 2010, many have written off the Oranje‘s chances of doing so again this time around — some say they won’t even make it out of a tough Group B. Can Sneijder help prove the doubters wrong?
19. Xherdan Shaqiri, Switzerland
Just 22 years old, Shaqiri is another young player who will likely be much, much more well-known after this World Cup. Stuck behind Franck Ribery at Bayern Munich, he’ll be able to unleash his full arsenal in looking to steer Switzerland out of Group E and into the knockout stage.
20. Javier Hernandez, Mexico
“Chicharito” hunts goals with an assassin’s eye. Equally dangerous with his head and feet, his scoring hasn’t exactly been up to par for Mexico in recent national team appearances. But Hernandez will need to be in top form if El Tri is to advance out of Group A.