World Cup wildcards out to catch the eye

In the past the likes of Italian striker Salvatore Schillaci has arrived as an Azzurri new boy with little experience of international football to star in 1990. While former African Player of the Year Samuel Eto’o and three-time FIFA World Player of the Year Ronaldo both rolled into France 1998 and USA 1994 respectively with decidedly fresh faces.

With less than five months to go until the first ball is kicked at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, now is the time these wildcards will begin to emerge. Coaches will be keeping their eyes peeled as they keep themselves open to bringing something new – or a less renowned game-changer – into their squads and now is the time to start grabbing some attention.

One coach blessed with an array of untested talents is France coach Didier Deschamps, who has already incorporated Paul Pogba, captain of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013-winning Les Bleus, into his side but he has more at his disposal should he wish to use them.

Besides the adidas Golden Ball-winning Juventus midfielder, Marseille playmaker Florian Thauvin was one of the shining lights during the run to the title and kept his momentum going into the 2013/14 season. He has since appeared in all six of the south coast side’s UEFA Champions League games and has five goals to his name in Ligue 1.

Saint-Etienne central defender Kurt Zouma impressed in behind Thauvin and the imposing figure, who made his club debut at 16-years-old, has been touted by Deschamps as a future captain of the national team. Meanwhile, Clement Grenier and Antoine Griezmann, veterans of Colombia 2011, are both being tipped for potential inclusions after playing starring roles for Lyon and Real Sociedad who are both brimming full of assists and goals respectively.

Across in Mexico a fellow participant at Colombia 2011, Alan Pulido, is throwing his hat into the ring after impressing for Tigres, where he is top scorer for the side this season. Arguably making even greater waves though is Carlos Fierro of Guadalajara. The adidas Bronze ball winner at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011, earned while helping his nation to the title on home soil, has been deployed down the right wing in recent months – as opposed to up front – and has been putting in the kind of performances that are getting him noticed.


“He has great pace, he is two footed, he can finish with his right and left. He has a lot in the locker.”

Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger on German winger Serge Gnabry

Another who provided a precursor to his talents at Turkey 2013, albeit in a much less successful campaign than France’s, was England’s Ross Barkley. The 20-year-old Liverpudlian burst onto the scene for Everton back in 2011 and his talent has been no secret around the north-west of Englandfor some time. “Ross, for me, should be absolutely nailed on to be on that plane. And if he continues like this, I’m sure he will be,” said Toffees team-mate Gareth Barry. “I’m sure the England manager knows enough about Ross to know that he could go out there and surprise a lot of teams, because he has that natural ability.”

Across Stanley Park, rivals Liverpool have an aspiring England talent of their own in the shape of slight speed merchant Raheem Sterling. Signed from Queens Park Rangers at the tender age of 15-years-old, the right winger has been terrorising full backs with his direct approach and lightning pace since first stepping out at Anfield at the end of the 2011/12 season, while current national team boss Roy Hodgson gave him his international debut during the Zlatan Ibrahimovic-inspired 4-2 defeat to Sweden in 2012.

Sterling’s chances at going to Brazil were increased when Theo Walcott – a surprise pick himself back at Germany 2006 – suffered a recent knee injury, but his absences has seemingly given another a chance prove himself in the shape of Arsenal team-mate Serge Gnabry. The precocious 18-year-old has filled the void left by Walcott impressively showing a confidence that his manager believes could take him into the Germany squad.

“There is more than a small chance, there’s a big chance,” Arsene Wenger said on Gnabry’s likelihood of making the cut. “We are looking at a guy who has good individual talent, he can pass people, is a good finisher, and has a very good football brain with good vision. He has great pace, he is two footed, he can finish with his right and left. He has a lot in the locker.”

He may have to battle beyond with more than just the already-established stars littering Joachim Low’s midfield to get a spot however. Back at former club Stuttgart, Timo Werner, a former youth team colleague of Gnabry’s, is leaving his mark on the German Bundesliga. With four goals and four assists in 15 appearances for Stuttgart he could seize a place should a spot open up and when asked if he has thought about being part of the squad he simply said: “There’s no harm in dreaming.”

Werner is not the only youngster in that particular division dreaming of a summer trip to Brazil. Over at Hertha Berlin, USA defender John Brooks is hoping he too can stake a late claim after impressing last season as his club stormed to promotion from Germany’s second tier. Inconsistencies this campaign could blight his chances, but he remains hopeful, saying: “I’m young. I’m 20. It would be a dream if I could make it for the World Cup. I want to play every game now and it’s up to the coach.”

One looking more likely to be amongst Jurgen Klinsmann’s side is the Icelandic-American forward Aron Johannsson. Having made his debut for the Stars and Stripes in August he scored the dramatic third goal to end Panama’s hopes of qualification in a 3-2 victory for USA two months later. “He’s still fresh to our team,” Klinsmann said, “he’s getting more and more comfortable in the group, and I think you see the qualities that he has.”

Luis Gil, who helped Real Salt Lake reach the MLS Cup last season, is another to be touted as a potential inclusion, and the South America former favourite could be brought in from the international wilderness. The recent injury to Radamel Falcao is a huge blow for Colombia’s chances at the global finals, but it might just give former Seattle Sounders forward Fredy Montero a way back into the national team.

It is four and a half years since the pacey forward last featured for Los Cafeteros, but, on loan at Sporting CP and currently top scorer in the Portuguese Liga alongside compatriot Jackson Martinez, he might have a window of opportunity. Juan Quintero, another standout performer at Turkey 2013 and a fellow Colombian plying his trade in Portugal, will also be waiting with baited breath for the squad announcement in May.

Another has followed Montero’s lead in by pleading their case for inclusion from the top of scoring charts as Michy Batshuayi is doing all he can to grab Belgium coach Marc Wilmots’ attention in his native division. While not having the same scoring impact north of the border, Memphis Depay – dubbed the new Arjen Robben by some – is also making a late bid for the Netherlands squad with some sterling performances with PSV Eindhoven.

A four-goal haul for Sassuolo’s Domenico Berardi against AC Milan has catapulted him into the Italyframe, particularly with fellow forward Giuseppe Rossi’s return to form with Fiorentina being cut short by injury. Coach Cesare Prandelli is playing his cards close to his chest as he looks to avoid heaping pressure on the 19-year-old. “It’s about proving quality,” he said, “let’s let him grow up, and not give them too much responsibility.”

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