It isn’t unlikely that Di Maria will ever be the biggest star on any team he plays on, even if Diego Maradona anointed him Argentina’s next big thing back in 2009. That’s because he plays on a club, Real Madrid, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso, Gareth Bale and so many other luminaries in the side. And for a national team, Argentina, revolving around Lionel Messi. Yet for all that star power surrounding him, Di Maria is invariably invaluable. Chiefly because there’s little he can’t do. Playing either out wide or centrally, the workmanlike winger is fast, possesses a pin-point cross and can play the short or long game. He isn’t often noticed, but not lightly overlooked.
Andrea Pirlo, Italy
Another player with wonderfully evocative nicknames: “The Architect,” and “The Professor,” or, more simply, “Mozart.” Pirlo has been weaving genius from his legs for years. But at 34, this very deep-seated playmaker has hardly lost a step. That may well be because his game was never premised on speed or any other sort of physicality in the first place. Rather, Pirlo is the man with the laser-guided long balls and shots. No defense can play a terribly high line against any Juventus or Italy side with Pirlo pulling the strings, because as soon as the ball turns over, he’ll drop a perfectly-placed pass over the top to send another lucky attacker in on goal. And that makes the game a good deal easier for his teammates.
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The baby-faced Brazilian is one of those rare players who doesn’t run or dribble so much as float, insouciantly fluttering about England’s hallowed grounds in his Chelsea jersey. Brazilians have historically had a rather poor success rate in the Premier League – just about the only league they haven’t taken by storm – but Oscar was an instant hit. An effortless sort of playmaker, he adds zip to the attack. And with the ferocity and jaw-dropping accuracy of the long shots he discharges from that skinny body, he adds real menace to the teams he plays for.
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Paul Pogba, France
Arturo Vidal isn’t the only Juventus midfielder with a heavy burden to carry. Pogba will run the French midfield after emerging as one of the most exciting prospects in Europe over the past few years. His drive and his linking play will prove crucial for a France side still reeling from the withdrawal of Franck Ribéry through injury.
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Eden Hazard, Belgium
As Belgium has suddenly and swiftly risen to the top of the international game, so too has Chelsea’s Hazard, perhaps the finest talent to roll of the conveyor belt of Belgians taking over the world’s biggest leagues. A whirl of dribbles, passes and shots, Hazard is fairly well unstoppable when cutting inside from the wings with the ball at his feet or splicing up the opposing penalty area with his savvy passes. Certainly, Hazard still has a tad of maturing to do at 23, but like his countrymen, he has the talent to be remembered for his greatness.
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Luka Modric, Croatia
Some would say that a player such as Modric is sort of a thing of the past. He’s an old-school playmaker, regulating the speed of the game. But the Croatian Real Madrid man can win a ball or two as well, making him compatible with the latter-day game. Sitting deep, he pulls the strings of the teammates-cum-puppets in front of him, making them dance to his tune, dictating rhythm and pacing. With a single pass, he can change the sway of an entire game. But he isn’t necessarily the man to light up the stat sheet. He sits so deep that he doesn’t deliver the final ball or score all that often. But underestimate his influence on a game at your peril.
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Bastian Schweinsteiger, Germany
Another all-rounder in the Touré mold, Schweinsteiger is all of those German clichés: precise, accurate and reliable. Like a nice car. Inexhaustible and seemingly impervious to drops in form, Schweini – which translates to “Piggy” – is the engine that makes Germany and his all-conquering Bayern sides run. What’s more remarkable yet is that he can seemingly play in every single conceivable position or role in midfield – centrally, out wide, advanced or deep; conservative or attacking; making the play or blocking traffic.
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Yaya Toure, Ivory Coast
It is too often said that an athlete is the future. But Touré does seem to embody all of the virtues of the modern midfielder. He can play two ways, it goes without saying – he rose to prominence as a holding midfielder at Barcelona – is strong, fast, agile and technical, he has the endurance to play in a congested four-competition schedule such as Manchester City’s, and he scores goals in spades. Touré isn’t just the sort of player you can rely on; he’s the sort you build a team around.
Getty ImagesDean Mouhtaropoulos
Call him the Ernest Hemingway of soccer players. Xavi is one of the best ever at what he does, has won every imaginable team award and most of the individual awards. But what’s most notable about him is his style: clean and austere. There’s no waste in his game. None. Everything he does is functional. A barrage of short and long and diagonal balls serve to move Barcelona or Spain’s game forward or shift its point of attack. He aims to complete 100 passes per game. And he typically wastes very few. Some games he doesn’t waste any. It takes a well-trained eye to appreciate him. But if you do, there’s nobody quite like him.
Getty ImagesClive Mason
Arturo Vidal, Chile
He isn’t the most high-profile or the flashiest of players, but anybody at Juventus, which has run the Italian Serie A for a few years now, would tell you that you could scarcely find a more useful player than Vidal. As a box-to-box midfielder, he helps shield the defense and joins up in the attack. He scores a surprising number of goals and seems to bag assists in his sleep. Moreover, he’s the heart and soul of Chile, which, like him, is incredibly solid all the way around without being particularly remarkable.
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Andres Iniesta, Spain
Sometimes a player’s nicknames paint a more vivid picture of his playing persona than any sort of elaborate description could. This certainly seems to be the case with Barcelona and Spain’s Iniesta, who has won two Euros and a World Cup with his country and every imaginable club prize with Barca – at least three times. “The Illusionist,” they call him. And “The Brain.” Also: “The Pale Knight.” Enough said. Or if you do want to say more, you could point to his uncanny ability to shuttle between the midfield and forward lines, assisting in both building and finishing attacks, from either out wide or moving centrally.