With only a few short days until the 2018 World Cup kicks off in Russia, the greatest footballers on the planet are currently preparing themselves to cast off into the unknown. The teams who contest the final on July 15th will be away from home for well over a month, but lose their first two games and some nations (the members of Groups A and B for instance) could be on their way home as early next week.
Only one of the 736 players heading east can take home the Golden Ball, awarded to the best player of the tournament – having already taken a look at the goalkeepers and defenders who are likely to be in the running, we now turn our attention to the top five midfielders who have it in their locker to walk away with this legendary individual honour. England midfield hero Bobby Charlton took the prize in 1966, the Dutch-master Johan Cruyff was crowned in the 1974 World Cup, and the one and only Zinedine ‘Zizou’ Zidane was the Golden Ball winner in 2006 – that in-spite of his famous head-butt in the final.
N’Golo Kanté (France)
Most people would see the nickname of ‘The Rat’ as offensive, but the moniker given to N’Golo Kanté by his Chelsea team-mate Eden Hazard does somewhat fit the description for the Frenchman. The 27-year-old is the master of scurrying around the pitch, sniffing out danger before it arises and snuffing out the oppositions creative players. In his first season with the West London club his consistency and flawlessness with and without the ball gained him the individual recognition of PFA Player of the Year, as well as Chelsea’s fans and Club Player of the Year awards.
Only three years ago Kanté was playing for minnows Caen in France’s top division – cut forward to June 2018 and the picture is very different with the midfielder boasting Premier League winner’s medals with both Leicester City and Chelsea: he can now look forward to a World Cup he can be quietly confident about adding to his collection. Unflappable regardless of the occasion Kanté has an almost prophetic ability to read situations before they happen whilst his aptitude at recycling the ball to launch counter-attacks will be invaluable to a side whose pace going forward is such a weapon.
In a star-studded squad that includes such superstars as Paul Pogba, red-hot Antoine Griezmann and the electric Kylian Mbappé it is Kanté who the French will rely on to drive ‘Les Bleus’ through the rounds.
Christian Eriksen (Denmark)
It was Tuesday 14th November 2017 in the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Denmark had fluffed their lines in the World Cup playoff first-leg against a resolute Ireland, and the Irish masses waited expectantly as the game kicked off. 112 minutes later Christian Eriksen was walking off with the match-ball, a superb hat-trick firing the Scandinavians to a legendary 5-1 victory to secure only their second qualification from the last four attempts. The three goals were the Dane’s ninth, tenth and eleventh in a campaign that saw him finish third in the overall scorers list behind only Robert Lewandowski (16) and Cristiano Ronaldo (15).
Always somewhat weighted down by the tag of ‘the next Michael Laudrup’, it finally felt like the Tottenham star had come of age. The Danish national team carry a certain mystique since their famous European Championship win in 1992, and whilst unfancied to get very far in Russia their squad contains a range of players plying their trade in Europe’s top premier leagues – they won’t roll over easily.
Eriksen is viewed by many as Spurs most important player and his flawless technical ability has drawn much attention from Barcelona and Real Madrid. An expert with the dead ball, the 26-year-old moves effortlessly between the lines of opponents, always popping in space and rarely giving the ball away. Denmark will be happy If they get out of a group that contains France, Peru and Australia and should that happen you can expect this midfielder at the peak of his powers to leave a real mark on this tournament.
Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
The term ‘golden generation’ has never been more appropriate than for Belgium’s current crop of players. England’s equivalent containing David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard wilted-under the pressure of the label and there is a feeling that if ‘The Red Devils’ do not perform over the next month they will also be remembered as failures. In a roster that contains so much talent it is Kevin de Bruyne who holds the keys to any potential success.
First on Pep Guardiola’s team sheet at club-level and fresh from a season in which Manchester City cantered to the Premier League title, it is obvious why Belgium manager Roberto Martinez has set up his side to revolve around this true midfield general. Strong, athletic and dynamic de Bruyne strikes a football with the power of a golfer and the precision of a snooker player. Always at the centre of the action, expect the 26-year-old to revel in the space that will be created by those around him.
Whilst calm in demeanour off the field the man who was cast out by Jose Mourinho at Chelsea is fiercely competitive on the pitch – look out for pinpoint passes, lung-busting runs and the powerful distance shooting. It is perhaps fitting that this international ‘golden generation’ will meet England in their final group game on June 28th in Kaliningrad, a game which may decide how history remembers this assemblage of talent.
Andrés Iniesta (Spain)
Andrés Iniesta sat barefooted alone on the Nou Camp pitch until 1am after his final game for Barcelona, his ghost-like figure an inversion of a time next season when the stadium will be full, but he will be absent. Sometimes in football it is only when a player retires that people realise just how special they were – as the saying goes “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Andrés Iniesta falls into a category all of his own though. The Spaniard has always been appreciated by club and country, his high standards of quality and consistency an essential ingredient in the all-conquering ‘Barca’ and Spain sides.
With one goodbye over it’s time for the 34-year-old to bid farewell on the world stage and the man who scored the winner in the 2010 final will be more determined than ever to make his mark. At 5ft 7 inches and 68kg the man dubbed ‘The Brain’ does not seem the perfect choice physically as a midfielder, but his use of space, flawless technical ability and full passing range put Iniesta pretty high on any list of the best midfielders of all time.
Iniesta’s is a career littered with trophies, his style and capability unique, his knack of making those around him improve so valuable that Lionel Messi (at club-level) and all of the Spanish squad may be rather worried at this legend’s exit. World watch out though, don’t expect this born winner to go out quietly, there is still one chapter to be written in this fairy-tale story.
If this tournament represents the last few pages of Andrés Iniesta’s story, then for Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez (aka – Isco) the World Cup 2018 is the point of the story where the hero fulfils his destiny. At 26-years-old Isco is at the peak age for an attacking midfielder and the man who has represented his national side from the age of 15 will certainly feel that this tournament is his to seize.
With the first touch of a cushion, Isco is a master of disguise whose balance and feints make it impossible for opponents to know the Spaniard’s next move. Able to turn on a six-pence, there is never a moment where the ball is not completely under his spell and with a deep box of tricks rarely seen in the modern game, it is no easy task to corner the Real Madrid superstar. Whilst Isco’s languid style is reminiscent of former club manager Zinedine Zidane he harbours a wicked ability to accelerate away from tackles, his fleet footed dribbling a tool which makes him equally adept when running at defences as he is at picking an inch-perfect pass.
Having almost constantly endured challenges to fight his way into the notoriously competitive and politically influenced Real Madrid side, this 5ft 9 inch dynamo never takes for granted the necessity to push himself to ever further limits. With four Champions League winner’s medals in his locker this man is a certainty to be right in the mix for the Golden Ball award. If you happen to watch Spain in action this summer, take time to appreciate a player who could be remembered as one of the greats.