Today is the day. Prepare yourselves to be surrounded by football for the next month, watching players you’ve never heard of before.

Don’t get us wrong, we love to watch the likes of Ronaldo, Messi et al, but there’s something satisfying about discovering the next Emmanuel Amunike, too. We’ve already picked out five players who are going to tear it up this summer. Here are another bunch, including some with interesting back-stories.

Aleksandr GOLOVIN (22)

Central Midfielder for Russia & CSKA Moscow

It would be rude not to select a player from our host nation, although it was slim pickings. Worsened by injuries to key players, this Russian squad is one of the worst in recent history and along with their Group A opponents Saudi Arabia they are one of the lowest ranked teams in the tournament. Having automatically qualified, they’ve played a minimal amount of competitive football over the last 2 years and their friendly results make for grim reading, having not won for 7 matches. It’s safe to say the trophy is unlikely to be staying in Moscow following the final on the 15th of July.

That being said, if Russia are to do anything at this World Cup, then it’s likely that their new talisman Alexandr Golovin will be at the heart of it. The midfield maestro has a great pedigree at youth level, leading Russia’s U-17s to a European Championship title in 2013 as well as coming second at the U-19 Euros in 2015. Golovin can play in a number of midfield roles and is incredibly comfortable on the ball, having spent his formative years playing futsal in his Siberian home town. Golovin burst onto the international scene in 2015, scoring just 16 minutes into his full debut against Belarus. With 19 caps, he is now the first name on Stanislav Cherchesov’s team sheet.

The midfielder is one of many players this summer who will be hoping to catch the eye of some of Europe’s big names. Juventus are rumoured to be the front runners for Golovin, with Chelsea, Arsenal, Man Utd and Monaco also hot on the trail.

KEITA Baldé (23)

Winger/Striker for Senegal & Monaco

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Another Football Manager icon, Keita was born in Catalonia to Senegalese parents and is a product of Barcelona’s famous La Masia academy. In 2011 aged just 16 Keita made the brave move to Rome and signed for Lazio, going on to play 110 times in Serie A, scoring 26 goals. Seen as the perfect replacement for Kylian Mbappé, a €30M move to Monaco followed in the summer of 2017 where he has scored 8 goals in 23 Ligue-1 games.

Having opted to represent the nation of his parents, his impressive goal scoring record from the wing has seen him become a mainstay for the West Africans since his debut in 2016. Senegal have frightening pace up front. Keita is likely to play in a less familiar central role, with Sadio Mané (Liverpool) and M’Baye Niang (Milan) either side of him. He does however, face competition from Diafra Sakho (West Ham) and Mame Biram Diouf (Stoke City). Senegal’s squad also boasts one of the world’s most sought after defenders in Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli) as well as a midfield partnership of Idrissa Gueye (Everton) and Captain Cheikhou Kouyaté (West Ham). The talent in the squad has led to comparisons with the heroes of 2002, who against all odds reached the quarter finals. Manager Aliou Cissé was part of that famous squad and will be looking to channel the spirit of 2002 in Russia.

LEE Seung-Woo (20)

Winger/Forward for South Korea & Hellas Verona

At just 12 years old Lee was dubbed “the great hope of Korean football” after he left his homeland as a schoolboy, destined for Barcelona’s La Masia. Excitement in both Korea and Catalonia only continued to grow when 12 months later he had broken a goal scoring record belonging to some kid named Lionel. From there-on he was known as “the Korean Messi”. Yet more pressure heaped on such young shoulders.

In 2014, aged 16, it all started turning sour for Lee. His move to Barcelona, amongst others, was deemed to have broken rules regarding the international transfer of minors. As a result Barca were hit with a transfer ban by FIFA and worse still for Lee, he was banned from playing competitive football until his 18th birthday. Playing only a combination of friendlies and exhibition matches for two years unsurprisingly stalled his progress. When he did eventually return, he was miles from reaching the standards required for the first team.

Surplus to requirements at Camp Nou, in September 2017 Lee was sold to Serie A minnows Hellas Verona for a fee of just €1.5M (including a buy-back clause). 14 appearances later and Verona were relegated however, there was a general feeling that Lee’s form was one of very few positives for the side. Not many expected Lee to be selected for the tournament but injuries in South Korea’s forward line mean that he is likely to start alongside Son Heung-Min (Tottenham) in the opener against Sweden. It’s a huge chance for the pacy winger/forward to prove to the world that he is more than just unfulfilled potential. The tournament represents a turning point, if it goes well then he puts himself in the shop window for a move back to Europe’s big time. If it goes in the other direction, then the comparisons will start to turn from Lionel Messi to Freddy Adu.

Manuel AKANJI (22)

Centre Back for Switzerland & Borussia Dortmund

Touched down 🇷🇺 #gruppelügner #silewobisch #brigante #vatoslocos

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Akanji is thought of as one of the world’s best young centre-backs and is often described as “the complete defender”. The Dortmund man is incredibly strong and quick, while also being comfortable with the ball at his feet. Don’t be surprised to see him this summer striding out of the Swiss back four, before spraying the ball effortlessly out to the flanks.

Born to a Nigerian father, by 18 Akanji was a regular in the Swiss top tier for hometown club Winterthur. A move to Basel shortly followed, a club which has been the launching pad for the careers of many before him, including the likes of Salah, Rakitic, Shaqiri, Xhaka and Elneny. He continued to impress in Switzerland and it’s his all-round game which tempted Dortmund into parting with €18M to prize him away from his homeland in January 2018.

Despite having just 6 caps to his name, Akanji will already be one of Switzerland’s key players this summer. He started both of their warm-up games in a mean-looking defence which also includes Lichtsteiner (Arsenal), Schär (Deportivo) and Rodriguez (Milan). It’s likely that he will continue his development with Dortmund for the next couple of seasons however if he continues on his current trajectory then it may not be long until one of Europe’s elite come knocking with huge money. Perhaps worth noting that he is a huge Manchester United fan…

Rodrigo BENTANCUR (20)

Central Midfielder for Uruguay & Juventus

Rodrigo Bentancur is the player Uruguay have been waiting for. The perennial “dark horses” have always had a frightening forward line and rock solid defence. It’s the midfield area where they have always looked weak. With a lack of depth in the middle, recent tournaments have seen them rely on a combination of veterans and players playing out of position. While they never lacked passion, they equally never really had the quality to give the likes of Suarez, Cavani and Forlan the service they deserved.

Bentancur, along with seemingly Arsenal bound Lucas Torreira (Sampdoria) and Matias Vecino (Inter), has brought some much needed youthful vitality to that problem midfield. At 6ft2in, the Juventus man can play in a number of midfield roles. Intelligence on the ball coupled with terrific physicality and dynamism make him a fearsome proposition for any opponent. Not to mention his typically Uruguayan aggression and bite in the tackle (no pun intended).

A prominent part of Juventus’s title winning season, it looks like Bentancur will be a firm favourite in Turin for years to come. His signing in from Boca Juniors in 2017 was a terrific bit of business from Juve. Way back in 2015 when Carlos Tevez returned to his boyhood club, as part of the deal the Italians inserted a first option for a then 17 year old Bentancur. Two years later his performances in Argentina had made him hot property across Europe, prompting Juve to swoop and activate an estimated £9.5M release clause.


So there you have it, the low-down on some of the hot prospects in Russia. Feel free to show off your new found knowledge and impress your mates when Golovin smashes home the opener on Thursday…

Missed someone from the list? Don’t be shy, let us know who you think will be lighting up the World Cup via Facebook and Twitter.

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