World Cup 2018

2018 Golden Ball Candidates: The Forwards

World Cup 2018 is absolutely brimming with goal-scoring quality – Argentina alone boast the talents of Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín, Paulo Dybala and a certain Lionel Messi. Elsewhere, hot-shots like the irrepressible Luis Suárez, the goal-machine Robert Lewandowski, and the Belgian bull Romelu Lukaku will be looking to fire their respective teams out of their groups and beyond.

Having ranked the top five goalkeepers, defenders and midfielders who have the potential to win the Golden Ball award for the best player of the tournament, we now turn our gaze to the men who get the goals (and the adulation) — the forwards. Legends of the game such as Diego Maradona, Pelé, Romário and Paolo Rossi can all lay claim to this honour – now it’s the chance of the current generation to weave themselves permanently into the very fabric of World Cup folklore.

Harry Kane (England)

The new England captain’s international career famously started in fairy-tale fashion, scoring after just 80 seconds on his debut against Lithuania at Wembley. He arrives at the tournament as one of the most potent strikers in world football and his recent England record registers stats of eight goals in only six games.

A quiet tournament two years ago in England’s ill-fated European Championship campaign is the only blip in the Tottenham man’s career so far, and the honour of being awarded the captaincy will have motivated this clinical finisher to even greater heights.

Harry Kane’s story is well-known – loaned out to a variety of clubs and unfancied by managers and fans alike, the 24-year-old combined a steely determination, a tunnel-vision self-belief and an incredible work ethic to break into the Spurs team. Since then the Englishman has not looked back.

Billed as a ‘one-season-wonder’, Kane has racked up figures of 31, 28, 35 and 41 goals in all competitions from 2014/15-2017/18. Lethal with both feet, dominant in the air and able to score from distance and close range, he has added a fine range of passing to his repertoire in the last year.

‘The Three Lions’ confidence has slowly built in the run-up to the showpiece, their mix of versatile, hungry youngsters a welcome relief for a country that is too often held down by the weight of expectation – but it is goals that will push them through, and don’t bet against this man to write a further chapter in his incredible story over the next month.

Antione Griezmann (France)

There are currently few players who are more coveted globally than France forward Antione Griezmann. The Frenchman comes into the World Cup in fine fettle, with a freshly pressed Europa League medal in his pocket (Griezmann scored two-goals in the final) and a mooted transfer to Barcelona looking increasingly likely by the day. Winner of not only the Player of the Tournament award at Euro 2016 but also the top-scorer title, the forward has proven that he can step up to the plate on the international stage when it matters.

The 27-year-old will spearhead arguably the most exciting frontline in the tournament, with the electrifying young talents of Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé on either side of him for ‘Les Bleus’. The pace and movement of this dynamic front-three will undoubtedly create the pockets of space that Griezmann loves to exploit – whether arriving late in the box for a pull-back or ghosting in on the blindside of defenders, the man who measures only 5ft 9 inches is likely to have a big impact.

The French will be rubbing their hands together at the prospect of competing in a Group C that includes Denmark, Peru and Australia. Manager Didier Deschamps has a deep squad to call on so expect to see some rotation as the 1998 winners keep one eye on the latter stages of the competition – it’s easy to predict games where Griezmann is substituted after 65 minutes (replacements include Nabil Fekir, Thomas Lemar, Olivier Giroud and Florian Thauvin) having already bagged a few goals.

Neymar (Brazil)

Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior was billed as the next potential heir to Pelé’s throne as soon as he broke into the team at the same club side, São Paulo’s famous Santos. In Pelé’s first World Cup in 1958 the 17-yeard old upstart burst onto the scene in a blaze of light, scoring six goals including one in the final. Neymar’s first experience of the tournament was somewhat different however. Carrying the full weight of the host-nations expectations on his shoulders, injury ended his dream and he could only watch in horror as the ‘Seleção’ were obliterated 7-1 by eventual winners Germany.

Since then the Brazilian forced his way into the Barcelona team as part of the famous MSN trio and has also become the most expensive player ever with his €222 million transfer to Paris Saint-Germain. At 26 and in his prime, many say that a player of Neymar’s standing has not been tested in Ligue 1, a competition that is considered secondary to the big three of Spain, England, and Germany. Beyond any potential staleness there is the small matter of the serious metatarsal injury suffered in February, a horror that the man nicknamed ‘O Joia’ (‘The Gem’) is only just fully recovering from as his national side make the trip east.

Who would bet against him taking the Golden Ball though? Blessed with a mind-boggling array of skills plus searing pace and cat-like balance, the fleet-footed forward can turn any game on its head in a second. Neymar has the unique gift of being able to single-handedly win games even if none of his team mates are performing, and with a squad that is noticeably stronger than four years ago opposition defences should be quaking at the prospect of facing this true magician. Neymar may not ever emulate Pelé at international-level, but he may yet walk the same path as such luminaries as Romário and Ronaldo.

Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

The numbers become hard to digest with Cristiano Ronaldo – three Premier League titles, two La Liga medals, five Champions Leagues, and the crowning glory from a personal perspective, captaining Portugal to the European Championship in 2016. Then there are the goals. For a man who started his career on the wing ‘CR7’s’ figures for Real Madrid of 311 goals in only 292 games will likely never be surpassed. Throw in five Ballon d’Or victories and an array of other accolades and the man from Madeira can only be considered as one of the greatest footballers in history.

Many predicted that the 33-yeal-old would begin to slow down in the past season, but another Ballon d’or win, another Champions League medal (in which he was top scorer with 15 goals) and a total of 44 goals in the same amount of games in 2017/18 casts massive doubt on the theory that his star is on the wane. The Portuguese superstar has never let-up in the hard work which has got him to this point, and his transition into an out-and-out striker has been measured and effective. Still quicker than many, strong as a bull and with an array of tricks he is a formidable prospect for any defence. Excellent in the air (whether arriving late into the box, or from a standing jump), Ronaldo can score from any angle and is able to conjure chances from nothing, finishing in ways that most footballers can only dream of.

The Portugal captain always backs himself and it is that myopic belief that filtered to his team mates two years ago as the team known as ‘The Navigators’ claimed victory in the Euros. That win will give the Portuguese real belief in Russia that anything is possible, and for Ronaldo a World Cup winners medal (and a Golden Ball) would be one extra feather in his cap against his nemesis and perennial rival, the other guy…

Lionel Messi (Argentina)

When Lionel Messi announced his retirement from international football at the 2016 Copa America it was almost as if he was metaphorically shrugging to say: “I don’t need to succeed at international level to show I am the greatest.” And Messi is right, he is already the greatest player ever – but until he leads his country to a World Cup win like Maradona and Pelé did there will always be a stain on his legend. The fact that at club level the diminutive Argentinian’s achievements far outstrip either of the aforementioned in terms of consistency, and also domestic and European trophies, is not even debateable.

There is also the fact that the Barcelona man is cursed by a national side that either continuously underachieves, or simply doesn’t have enough quality to win major trophies – and that’s why Messi came out of retirement for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, and it’s a good job he did. Going into the final game of the qualifying schedule is was very likely that the Argentines would fail to qualify for the first time since 1970. To add to the problem the game was away in Ecuador, a fixture which is notoriously perilous due to the extreme altitude of the stadium in Quito. From one goal down it was ‘The Flea’ who lived up to his super-hero like nickname and grabbed a fabulous hat-trick to claim victory and drag his country over the line – true Hollywood scripting.

The 30-year-old has invented a footballing style all of his own which will probably never be repeated. His combination of low-centre of gravity, lighting-quick feet, unmatched dribbling and a tigers-eye for goal are the perfect storm, and in honesty words can’t really describe this phenomenon. Over and again Messi has raised the bar higher, smashing records and moving beyond the footballing cosmos and onward, with only Ronaldo for company. For instance in the 2011/12 season he scored 73 goals in all competitions, and 91 for the 2012 calendar year.

There is every chance that the kid from Rosario will still be playing for Argentina in 2022, but there is a feeling that if he is to take his home nation to the trophy on his own steam then this is his big chance – his big opportunity to prove to any doubters that he is the greatest of all time.

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