With the greatest show on earth peaking over the early summer horizon, it’s easy to conjure up memories of World Cup superstars from the past: From a 17-year-old Pelé tearing onto the scene in 1958 (including a goal in the final), to Johan Cruyff turning defenders inside out with never seen before tricks in 1974. Many may also think about Diego Maradona single-handedly (literally against England) dragging Argentina to the title in 1986, or Zinedine Zidane peaking in 2006 before ultimately head-butting himself (and France) out of the tournament.
2018 brings the opportunity for the current cream of the crop to write themselves into football folklore, with the ultimate individual prize coming in the form of the player of the tournament: the Golden Ball award. So who are the leading candidates? Here in the first piece of four we look at five goalkeepers who will aim to follow German stalwart Oliver Kahn as only the second goalkeeper to ever win the prize.
5. Keylor Navas (Costa Rica)
At 31-years-old Navas is truly in his prime as a goalkeeper. Fresh from clinching yet another UEFA Champions League medal, the Real Madrid stopper couldn’t be more confident coming into the World Cup. It’s easy to write off Costa Rica, but the Central American side have form, reaching the Quarter-Finals in their last tournament outing in 2014.
Fighting their way out of a group containing Italy, Uruguay and perennial underachievers England, Navas was the hero in the round of 16 against Greece where he saved a vital penalty in the shoot-out to win the game. The ‘Ticos’ fell in the next round to Holland, but Navas emerged the hero having only conceded two goals in five matches from open play, earning himself a well-deserved transfer to Los Blancos. Could he lead his nation a step or two further this time around?
4. Jordan Pickford (England)
The 24-year-old Everton tender has seized upon the number one jersey left vacant by the formless Joe Hart, stealing a march on rivals Jack Butland and Nick Pope. Pickford has given manager Gareth Southgate a relatively easy choice, with his mature performances and immunity to pressure meaning that Hart’s demise will hopefully not be felt.
Pickford’s calmness and technical ability with the ball at his feet make him the perfect fit in a side whose three-man defence betray an ambition to play out from the back. The Sunderland youth product is an agile shot-stopper and his kicking whether from the ground or from his hands could prove a potent weapon in setting up rapid counter-attacks.
History suggests that ‘The Three Lions’ will flatter to deceive, but a good tournament from this young man will announce his arrival on the world stage, with a mooted move to Bayern Munich becoming a real possibility.
3. Hugo Lloris (France)
The current joke about France is that they have so much quality they could have picked two squads which could challenge for the 2018 trophy: they literally have four superstar players for every position. One individual whose selection in the starting eleven is rarely in doubt is captain-fantastic, Hugo Lloris. The Tottenham goalie is a sweeper-keeper who reads the game ahead of him with the wisdom of a coach, patrolling the outer-limits of his penalty area with the authority of Franz Beckenbauer.
Many feel that the time has again come for ‘Les Bleus’ to reclaim the title last won by a Zidane-inspired side in 1998, and with a spine including a potent young forward-line (Griezmann, Mbappé, Dembélé) a high quality midfield (Pogba, Kanté, Matuidi) and a solid defence (Varane, Umtiti) it is hard to bet against them.
Lloris’s empty trophy cabinet at club-level will spur him on even more to ensure that 2018 has not been a fruitless year. Things to look out for from the man nicknamed ‘Saint Lloris’ include last-ditch sliding tackles, cat-like reflexes and impossible finger-tip saves at full stretch.
2. David de Gea (Spain)
Many observers of the Premier League last season questioned how a Manchester United side which lacked fluency, and all too often failed to perform in keeping with their star-studded line-up, managed a second placed finish: the answer to that question is David de Gea. The 27-year-old Spaniard was impeccable in everything he did for Jose Mourinho’s side, his ability to consistently make saves of which few others are capable, proving as valuable as the goals of Romelu Lukaku.
Spain will see themselves as excellently placed to recapture the title they won in South Africa eight years ago, their rich mix of experienced heads (Iniesta, Ramos, Silva), players in their pomp (Isco, Thiago Alcantara) and young upstarts (Asensio, Saul) providing as daunting an opponent as exists in this tournament.
It can be argued that de Gea may have little to do, with the twin peaks of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué creating a wall of stubborn defence in front of him, but when the heir to the legendary Iker Casillas’ throne is called into action do not expect the net to ripple.
1.Manuel Neuer (Germany)
It may seem a bold claim to think that this German World Cup winner can reach the Everest-like heights he has climbed in the past, having just finished the 2017-18 season playing only 360 minutes of competitive football for club side Bayern Munich. The fact that the man known to his friends as ‘Snapper’ is not only on the plane to Russia, but is nailed-on to start Germany’s first game against Mexico in Moscow tells you everything you need to know about Neuer’s mental-strength.
Long-term injuries are the loneliest periods of any professional footballer’s career. The battle for ‘Manu’ following a severely fractured foot was as much in the mind as in the treatment room. The fear of missing out on what is likely to be his final World Cup would have been enough to force many players back too early: but Neuer’s faith in the process, in doing things correctly and thinking positively have made his dream a reality. These same traits are what sets him apart from most of his counterparts.
They say that winners are born and not made and Neuer is the epitome of that theory. If this super-human stopper has his way, there is no reason why he cannot claim the coveted Golden Ball.