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World Cup 2022: 11 ‘unknown’ players that could take showpiece tournament in Qatar by storm

Finding the next big star in football is one of the trickier things to do. The history of the game is littered with stars who were meant to be the generational talents, only to dramatically fizzle out.

Sometimes it all works out perfectly and a player’s trajectory goes exactly as it should do. Sometimes however, a player explodes out of nowhere, in a way no-one could have predicted.

The perfect example of this is Napoli and Georgia winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who was practically an entire unknown – bar to a few hard-core members of the scouting community – before this season. Now however, he is a household name across Europe.

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Of course one thing that can elevate players like Kvaratskhelia in rapid time is a World Cup.

So ahead of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, this writer was charged with trying to come up with eleven players who might be ‘the next Kvaratskhelia’.

Here are some prerequisites and context to the list:

  • They should be players who the average fan won’t have heard of
  • A lot of these players have already made moves
  • Only four of the eleven are outside Europe at the moment
  • There is one who has absolutely lit up the Champions League this season but hasn’t yet taken a step into the general consciousness.

As ever there might be players that could be deemed controversial picks – if that is the case, tweet us @Eurosport and @PeteSharland – particularly if you’re a fan of Iran, Senegal, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Cameroon or Costa Rica who all have some very exciting young players coming through.

Caveats done, let’s get cracking.

Moises Ramirez – GK (Independiente del Valle / ECU)

Moises Ramirez plays for Independiente del Valle.

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A little over a decade ago, the club was promoted to the top division in Ecuador but they had financial difficulties. They were taken over by a local businessman – Michell Deller – who wanted to reshape the club’s focus to being youth-orientated. The results have been outstanding. They won the Ecuadorian Serie A in 2021 and the Copa Sudamericana in 2019 and 2022 and reached the Copa Libertadores final in 2016. Prior to this, the club had only reached two Sudamericana finals and three Libertadores finals in their entire history.

Their academy products are now plying their trade across the world and the jewel in the crown is undoubtedly Moises Caicedo. Already a star for Brighton & Hove Albion, he will be key for Ecuador at the World Cup.

At the back though there is another star waiting for his chance in Europe. Moises Ramirez is 22 and is one of the best goalkeepers in South America; he will almost certainly move on in January or the summer to Europe.

Ramirez is the archetype of the modern goalkeeper: Confident, lightning reflexes, quick off his line and comfortable with the ball at his feet. He still needs a little bit of work in the aerial game as well. But all the tools are there. He’s going to be a superb pick-up for a European club in the not too distant future.

Alexis Vega – FW (MEX)

It was a real struggle trying to figure out which Mexico player to pick. Mexico are particularly interesting for this article as the high level of wages in the domestic league means that players often move to Europe later – if at all. That left us with a cluster of five or six players who are in their early/mid-twenties who are poised to leave Mexico in the next couple of windows.

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Eventually, Vega was settled on, and here’s why. One we really like is Fernando Beltran – and there are some in Mexico who think he is better than Edson Alvarez – but for some reason Tata Martino has decided he won’t be taken. Santi Gimenez was another considered, but – spoiler alert – there is already a Feyenoord player on the list. Finally with Raul Jimenez struggling there could be a chance up front.

So that brings us to Vega. So what kind of player is the Chivas forward? Pure, unadulterated chaos. Whether he plays on the left, on the right or through the middle, Vega is absolute electricity every time he steps onto the pitch. Beating players, flicks, cracking off shots from distance and smart finishes. He’s not the biggest but he’s surprisingly strong when shielding the ball. If he starts alongside Jimenez and ‘Chucky’ Lozano in a front three, it could be a lot of fun.

He looks set to leave Chivas and while Mexican teams are reportedly leading the way, a big World Cup could see a European move.

Sebastian Szymanski – MID (POL)

It’s Feyenoord player time! In many ways Szymanski could be considered the ultimate comparison with Kvaratskhelia. He left Russia last summer, plumping for the Eredivisie, and the move has worked out: he’s playing regularly and making a mark.

Best as a No 10, Szymanski can also play out wide or slightly deeper. He has a wand of a left foot and his brilliant passing range, coupled with his ability to drive at defences, makes him a dual-threat midfielder.

Poland manager Czeslaw Michniewicz likes to use a back three but is flexible further forward; he alternates between a midfield three behind Robert Lewandowski and another striker or a midfield two and then two attacking midfielders behind the Barcelona man. Szymanski can fill either role but he is undoubtedly better further forward.

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He is currently on-loan from Dynamo Moscow, with an option to buy. It remains to be seen how that option will be impacted by a stellar World Cup.

Gimenez, Timber, Szymanski

Image credit: Getty Images

Andreas Skov Olsen – FW (Club Brugge / DEN)

Andreas Skov Olsen has a growing profile. However, plying his trade for Club Brugge, that profile is not as prominent as it should be.

He has trodden a slightly odd career path. He came through the renowned FC Nordsjaelland academy and was signed by Bologna in 2019. The move seemed a smart one; not moving to a big club too soon gave him a chance to develop. But he was part of a strange Bologna team that looked decent on paper but never seemed to be able to put things together properly.

So this summer he left and joined Brugge, which has proven to be an excellent decision. New manager Carl Hoefkens has implemented a back-five system and has slotted Skov Olsen, a left-footed player, in at right wing-back. It has been an inspired call, with Skov Olsen ripping defences apart, bombing forward and picking up space between midfield and defence.

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For Denmark he will play further forward as a right-winger, opposite Euro 2020 breakout star Mikkel Damsgaard. You’re not going to want to miss watching those two in action.

Andreas Skov Olsen (Denmark)

Image credit: Getty Images

Ismael Kone – MID (Montreal / CAN)

The first of two MLS players. For those familiar with MLS, this will not be a new name. But a lot of people are not. So, Ismael Kone from CF Montreal makes the list.

The son of immigrants to Canada, Kone had to convince his mother to let him go professional and that decision has more than paid off. In the first round of the MLS play-offs, Kone became the fourth-youngest player to score a game-winning goal in the play-offs and was named man of the match as Montreal saw off Orlando City.

He’s smart, thoughtful and sees the game expertly. He has all the attributes of a modern midfielder, and can perform any role in a midfield two or three. However, he is undoubtedly best when he is given the chance to push forward and join the attack. He can even play as a winger when needed.

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In John Herdman’s 3-4-3, Kone will be fighting for one of those two central spots, but, realistically, it seems as if Samuel Piette and Stephen Eustaquio are locked in. But Kone will be first reserve for those midfield spots and will be confident of making an impact when he comes on.

Kone was very close to joining Sheffield United on deadline day and the Championship club are expected to go back in for him as the MLS window re-opens in the next couple of months. It has also been reported that a lot of Bundesliga clubs have picked up interest and are looking to snap him up.

Manuel Ugarte – MID (Sporting CP / URG)

Ugarte is another midfielder who might not be starting but probably should be. However, even if he comes off the bench, he’s likely to have a massive impact.

Ugarte made his debut at just 15 for Fenix in Uruguay and he went to sign for Portuguese club Famalicao, a team looking to try to establish themselves under Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer and the Quantum Pacific Group.

The signing was a smart one. Ugarte easily took to European football and in August 2021, then league champions Sporting CP made their move. He began as an understudy to Joao Palhinha but such were his performances, the club were happy to let the veteran leave this summer to join Fulham.

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Ugarte is an absolute terrier in midfield and loves a tackle. This year in the Champions League no player is averaging more tackles per game than Ugarte’s 4.8 – the next closest is Devyne Rensch of Ajax with 4.3. He’s no slouch on the ball either, and is more than capable of splitting open defences with a well-placed pass – it’s just not the primary facet of his game.

In terms of a transfer after the World Cup, it does feel likely, although, given their slow start to the league season, Sporting will likely try to hold out for a summer move.

PSG – who seem to want to collect all the central midfielders – and Liverpool are two teams reportedly interested. Both don’t seem like necessarily natural fits given the existence of players like Vitinha and Fabinho, but, at the same time, Ugarte is that good that these big clubs might not be able to pass him up.

Sporting Lisbon’s Uruguayan midfielder Manuel Ugarte (R) fights for the ball with Marseille’s Turkish forward Cengiz Under with during the UEFA Champions League group D, football match between Olympique Marseille (OM) and Sporting Lisbon at the Stade Velo

Image credit: Getty Images

Abdul Fatawu Issahaku – FW (Sporting CP / GHA)

It’s back-to-back Sporting players! Issahaku made waves when, as a 17-year-old, he played every game in the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations for Ghana earlier this year. He is not a guaranteed starter, but whether he starts or comes off the bench, he will be a key player for Otto Addo.

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In a 4-5-1/4-2-3-1 system, Issahaku is best playing as the right-winger, where he can cut inside onto his left foot. He’s very skilful, but still very raw. In fact, he might be the rawest player on this list. One of the main areas he needs to work on is in front of goal, but his delivery is already pretty good considering his age.

But the main thing to get excited about (even if it doesn’t sound fun) is his willingness to track back. It is striking how often you see him in his own third, helping the wing-back or wide centre-back – Sporting play a 3-4-3 – and doing the dirty work. Simply put, that is something that you just don’t see from every young attacking player – it’s a standout trait.

In April, Sporting moved quickly, snapping him up from his club Steadfast in Ghana. He signed a five-year contract and they put in a release clause of €60 million (c. £53 million). He still has a long way to go but Sporting obviously have a great track record with development, so it bodes well.

Ritsu Doan – FW (SC Freiburg / JAP)

It feels as if Japan are on the cusp of breaking out in a major way. The reason for that is that there is some serious talent in this squad. In the defence you have the likes of Takehrio Tomiyasu, Ko Itakura and Yukinari Sugawara; in midfield there’s Daichi Kamada, Junya Ito and Take Kubo amongst others; and don’t forget Celtic superstars Kyogo Furuhashi and Daizen Maeda up top.

But the player we’ve picked is Ritsu Doan, perhaps the least well-known of the exciting attacking options available to Hajime Moriyasu. Doan began his career in Europe with FC Groningen where his performances earned him a move to PSV. However, after a tough start to life with the Dutch giants, he spent the 2020-21 season in Germany with Arminia Bielefeld. That’s where you’d imagine he came to the attention of Freiburg and Christian Streich (although such is their scouting prowess they probably had tabs on him long before that).

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This summer Freiburg brought Doan back to Germany and he has become one of their key cogs. Often playing either as the No. 10 or out on the right depending on what formation Streich uses, Doan has a lovely touch, can beat a man and has a fierce shot. Don’t look at the stats with Doan, watch him on the field as Freiburg are all about the collective, and in their system Doan is thriving.

It is hard to say definitively whether or not Doan will start. He prefers playing on the right which is also where Ito and Kubo want to play. Ito started right and Kubo on the left against the US, but Doan started the other match against Ecuador. Kamada is expected to play in the No 10 role, so three will have to go into two. Whether it’s from the start or off the bench though, keep an eye out for Doan.

Ritsu Doan

Image credit: Getty Images

Ivan Ilic – MID (Hellas Verona / SRB)

There’s a lot of talk about bargains in modern football, and with some of the obscene amounts of money flying around it can be harder to find them. But the reported €7.5m (c. £6.6m) that Hellas Verona paid to turn Ivan Ilic’s loan from Manchester City permanent in the summer of 2021 might well turn out to be an incredible snip. It was a big surprise that one of the bigger clubs in Italy didn’t look to bring him in. There were reports this summer that Lazio wanted him but nothing came of it, likewise for PSG.

Full disclosure here. Serbia are this writer’s dark horses for the World Cup. Realistically not to win it, but they should make a lot of noise and upset a lot of bigger teams. Just ask Portugal. Their 3-5-2 is perfect for their players. It means they can play Dusan Vlahovic and Aleksandar Mitrovic together up top with Dusan Tadic in the 10, plus it gives Filip Kostic the freedom of the left flank from wing-back.

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And Ilic should start as one of the two deeper midfielders in front of the three central defenders, although there is a chance that Torino’s Sasa Lukic might get the nod alongside Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. Ilic’s role for Serbia perfectly outlines his versatility. Although he can play in the attacking third very well, he has to play a more defensive role alongside players like Tadic and Milinkovic-Savic. He’s best with the ball at his feet but his work defensively is getting better and better, and the way he moves the ball forward to turn defence into attack is a real strength.

You’d imagine it’s merely a matter of time, be that in January or next summer, that some club is going to pay Verona €20-30m for Ilic as they look for a midfielder of the future. He won’t be staying there forever, that’s for sure.

Sandro Tonali, Ivan Ilic, Verona-Milan, Getty Images

Image credit: Getty Images

Lovro Majer – MID (Stade Rennais / CRO)

Here we might have the best player on the list. Majer has been one of the best midfielders in France for Stade Rennais in the last couple of seasons and he certainly falls into the category of ‘best player most people don’t know’. At 24 he’s one of the older players on this list, but he’s only just entering his peak.

Classy, clever and elegant on the ball, watching Majer is an absolute joy, whether he’s spreading the play, cutting through defences with quick passing or feinting to get space. Majer is one of those players who gets football and is destined to play at the top of the game for many years to come.

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However, he is another who we probably won’t see from the start. Croatia’s midfield three in their 4-3-3 is pretty clear at this stage with Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and of course, the ageless Luka Modric. Majer will be an important substitute though, someone who can take advantage of tiring opposing midfields.

As for his future, well that seems sorted for now, with Stade Rennais wisely locking up the blossoming star before the World Cup rather than after. His new contract runs until 2027 and should ensure that Stade Rennais get a nice juicy figure when he eventually leaves. Last summer Paris Saint-Germain and Atletico Madrid were both extremely keen whilst it’s been reported that Real Madrid are keeping tabs as well. It should be pointed out that he hasn’t quite found the form this season that he showed last, but that feels as if it’s only a matter of time rather than a real concern.

Lovro Majer, buteur pour Rennes face à Fenerbahce

Image credit: Getty Images

Jesus Ferreira – FW (US)

MLS and USMNT fans know all about this player. But most fans outside of North America will probably have limited to absolutely no idea who Jesus Ferreira is. Some Bundesliga fans – who are fuming at the fact that he is going to the World Cup whereas Jordan Pefok isn’t – are aware of him, mind.

Personally this writer would take both but USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter seems enamoured with Ferreira. And in fairness that faith isn’t misplaced.

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Ferreira finished fourth in the MLS golden boot race with 18 goals, behind Hany Mukhtar, Sebastian Druissi and Daniel Gazdag – an impressive return for a player who in his previous three seasons had scored 17 COMBINED. And also not bad for a player who won’t turn 22 until just after the World Cup.

Ferreira will lead the line in Berhalter’s 4-3-3, likely flanked by the likes of Gio Reyna, Brenden Aaronson, Christian Pulisic or Tim Weah. Ferreira is a good finisher who can act as a hold-up player and is developing his passing nicely. The pipeline between MLS and Europe is well-established at this stage, so expect Ferreira to be one of the next ones to make the move.

– – –

To celebrate the 2022 World Cup, we have launched our new bracket game, where you can give your predictions, challenge friends and create mini-leagues.

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