He isn’t the easiest of characters, but Kokorin, a fleet-footed forward, has displaced playmaker Alan Dzagoev as Russia’s most promising young player. At 22, Kokorin has found himself suspended for instigating on-field brawls and strangely left his long-time club Dynamo Moscow for Anzhi Makhachkala last summer, only to return after just 34 days when the plug was pulled on Anzhi’s ambitious “project.” Nonetheless, Kokorin became the youngest player to score for Dynamo in the Russian Premier League at 17 and 199 days, already has four and a half seasons as a regular under his belt and is now a fixture in Fabio Capello’s Russian front line.
Getty ImagesPaul Gilham
When Shakhtar Donetsk signed this Brazilian winger last summer, they paid Atletico Mineiro more than half a million dollars per inch. Bernard is only 5-foot-5, you see, yet nevertheless deemed worth a $34 million transfer fee. This wasn’t always the case. In his youth, Bernard was twice dismissed by the club he joined at 14 for being too short. But each time he convinced Atletico they had made a mistake. At 21, he has little convincing left to do concerning his potential. After coming off the bench a few times during the Confederations Cup, Bernard is ready for a bigger role with Brazil.
Getty ImagesMichael Regan
James Rodriguez, Colombia
While he is hardly an unknown quantity in European club soccer any longer, following 2 ½ triumphant seasons at FC Porto and a $62 million move to AS Monaco before his 21st birthday last summer, James now gets his chance to shine on the world stage. He was instrumental in pushing his side into its first World Cup since 1998. And his dazzling dribbling, passing and versatility in midfield are the foundation whereupon all the excitement about this Colombian generation is built. At last, a successor to Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama has been found.
Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium
As perhaps the most underrated player on the most underrated team at the World Cup, De Bruyne stands to gain a great deal from this tournament. Playing as a central attacking midfielder or out wide, he collects bags of assists with his crisp passing. But Chelsea deemed him surplus to requirements after just half a year in the first team, in spite of a great previous season at Werder Bremen, selling him to Wolfsburg for a fat profit last January. Presumably playing on a wing opposite Eden Hazard, the 22-year-old De Bruyne will get a chance to prove the doubters wrong.
Getty ImagesDavid Rogers
Ross Barkley, England
The pressure is on for Ross Barkley. At just 20 years of age he already has the weight of England on his shoulders - echoes of when a young Jack Wilshere burst onto the international scene in 2011. Barkley has impressed in his first full season in the Premier League with his direct running and intelligent passing. This has led to some circles of the English media declaring him to be the next Paul Gascoigne – one of the most talented players to wear the Three Lions – and sadly, it’s these burdens that have destroyed previous talents. Nevertheless it will be exciting to see if the new darling of English soccer flourishes on the world’s biggest stage.
Getty ImagesMike Hewitt
Mateo Kovacic, Croatia
They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Kovacic is a throwback – a classical number 10 who orchestrates the flow of traffic from his spot in the heart of the attack. In January 2013, he left Dinamo Zagreb for Inter Milan at just 18 and has thrived in the tactically-oriented Serie A. That’s mainly because he can do just about anything on the field and play in most any midfield role. But he thrives when handed the keys to the offense, a daring thing to entrust to a 19-year-old. But Croatia hasn’t regretted it yet, and it might pay out spectacularly this summer.
Getty ImagesHarold Cunningham
Paul Pogba, France
He knew what he wanted. He wasn’t going to serve some kind of apprenticeship and wait for his chance to gradually work his way into Manchester United’s first team. Even at 18, he knew that he was ready to play now. So Pogba let his contract with United run out, to the horror of then-manager Sir Alex Ferguson, and signed with Juventu. He became a sensation during the 2012-13 season and hasn’t relented since. A physically gifted two-way central midfielder with a facility for scoring goals, Pogba, now 20, has emerged as the second-coming of Yaya Touré and has become a regular in France’s crowded midfield mix as well.
Getty ImagesJohn Berry
Aron Johannsson, United States
Having been born in Alabama and raised in Iceland, a trajectory arcing towards the game’s elite never seemed in the cards for Johannsson. Yet the 23-year-old AZ forward, who only made the switch to the USA from Iceland last summer, continues to rocket up the ranks, courtesy of his daring runs and nose for goal. It’s perhaps a long shot for the United States to make it out of the group, and Johannsson isn’t presently projected as a starter. But he should seem ample time off the bench, and if the Americans do make a run, chances are he’ll have something to do with it.
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY SportsWinslow Townson
Jasper Cillessen, Netherlands
It isn’t uncommon for Dutch players to be called up to their national team after just a smattering of first team appearances. But even within that tradition Cillessen’s promotion to Holland’s starting job seemed premature. He had just spent two seasons backing up Kenneth Vermeer in goal at Ajax, after all. And he still isn’t a regular, exactly. But Louis van Gaal sees things in the small-town goalkeeper. Tall, blond, acrobatic, good with his feet and impossibly cool under pressure, he does indeed remind of Edwin van der Sar, the highest possible compliment for a Dutch goalie. And if he starts in Brazil, which he well might, we could witness that second-coming made manifest.
Getty ImagesCharlie Crowhurst
Julian Draxler, Germany
When he made his debut for Schalke back in January, 2011, Draxler was the fourth-youngest player to ever turn out in a Bundesliga at 17 years and 117 days. But soon enough, he belonged. He’s still only 20 and already one of the finest playmakers in the world. With his immense savvy for the game, athleticism and pure technique, he could play just about anywhere. And so it’s perhaps not surprising that Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger desperately wants him to join in to the summer... so that he can convert him to a striker.