The son of two artists, van Persie grew from troubled teen – he was so difficult that Feyenoord practically offloaded him to Arsenal for a bag of balls (okay, $5 million) – into an artist in his own right. In a decade in the Premier League, he has scored 172 goals for the Gunners and now Manchester United, in spite of spending his first years as an attacking midfielder. Now that he’s perhaps the world’s most complete striker, it’s incumbent upon him to carry the country that had vilified him in his youth. He certainly did so in qualifying, as worldwide joint-top scorer with 11 goals.
VI-Images via Getty ImagesVI-Images
Mario Balotelli, Italy
Another player who careens from brilliant to baffling, Balotelli is the game’s most electric yet mystifying talent. With his rock-chiseled physique and soft feet, he is among the world’s most devastating strikers. Yet every now and again a red fog descends before him, and he gets himself sent off with an inane tackle, violent act or impermissible utterance. Off the field, meanwhile, the AC Milan man’s life is a bit of a circus. Do make sure you buy a ticket to it though. It’s good value for money. And if the New Jersey-born Giuseppe Rossi can overcome his injury troubles, they’ll make a formidable pair up front.
Getty ImagesClaudio Villa
Wayne Rooney, England
It speaks to the fall from grace of the English in the game they codified that it’s fairly noteworthy that even one of their players makes it onto a list such as this one. But Rooney has always stood head and shoulder above his peers for his technical ability and playing intellect. And if the local tabloids have a grand old time ripping the Shrek lookalike to shreds over his sometimes tumultuous off-field life, they nevertheless acknowledge that if England are to avoid disappointinging yet again, his performance will be paramount.
Bongarts/Getty ImagesAlexander Hassenstein
Edin Dzeko, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Hear us out. Dzeko doesn’t always blow everyone away with his play at Manchester City. Certainly, he’s been serviceable over the years and 14 league goals each in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons is nothing to scoff at. But he hasn’t been a world-beater, exactly. With Bosnia, however, he’s used entirely differently, and the results are spectacular, with 33 international goals in just 58 appearances. Rather than pigeonholing him as a target man on account of his height, the way City do, he gets to run rampant for Bosnia, drifting wide and running at the penalty area from various angle.
Alvaro Negredo, Spain
This one may seem like a stretch, since The Beast of Vallecas, as he is lovingly nicknamed, only started the last one of Spain’s qualifiers. Consider, however, that he did score in all three of their final games and that the last two of those were match-winners. Spain’s offense was uncharacteristically unproductive on the road to Brazil, producing just 14 goals in eight games. That was the fewest of any European group-winner – and if you counter that Spain’s group I only played eight games, Spain still had three fewer goals than Switzerland. With Negredo on the field, however, more danger emanated from them. His form for Manchester City has been resplendent and his ability with both head and feet are a perfect fit for Spain’s attack, which has often played with a false-9 in recent years. In Negredo, they have a real 9.
Getty ImagesGonzalo Arroyo Moreno
Edinson Cavani, Uruguay
Just as Suarez is rounding into his prime, his fellow Uruguay striker Cavani – who was named for Thomas Edison, with an inexplicable bonus-N – is doing the same. The Paris Saint-Germain man is the perfect complement to Suarez and his mosquito-like movement. Cavani, more of a target man, keeps the defense honest by staying high, threatening aerially and finishing as clinically as anyone in the game. You’ll hardly find a better strike partnership in the world.
Getty ImagesFriedemann Vogel
Luis Suarez, Uruguay
The most controversial player in the game perpetually straddles the line between brilliance and lunacy. One moment he’ll bite an opponent or racially abuse him, the next he’ll score a goal of such stupefying difficulty that you vow never to miss another of his games. Such is the confusing dichotomy of the yin and yang inside the Liverpool forward. What is clear as day is that with Suarez, Uruguay is a global force. A country of just 3.3 million people, they placed fourth at the 2010 World Cup, fourth at the 2013 Confederations Cup and they won the 2011 Copa America. And it all starts with Suarez’s inexhaustible runs. To wit: he was the joint top-scorer in qualifying world-wide, with 11 goals.
Getty ImagesGetty Images
Sergio Aguero, Argentina
Nicknamed Kun, for a cartoon character he liked as a kid, he has delivered some storybook moments in his career. Like the time he shot Manchester City to the Premier League title with a 94th-minute goal on the final day of the 2011-12 season, ending the club’s 44-year title drought. The otherworldly goalscoring prowess of the one-time son-in-law of Diego Maradona is to be deployed alongside Messi’s to win Argentina its first World Cup since Maradona lifted it in 1986.
It’s been a strange year for Neymar. He starred at the 2013 Confederations Cup, leading to Brazil on home soil. He then turned in a sterling maiden campaign for Barcelona. But he was also embroiled in a scandal of sorts surrounding his murky megabucks transfer from Santos – was it for $78 million or $130 million; or was it $113 million after all? So opaque and convoluted was this deal that Barca’s president Sandro Rosell quit his post rather than explain where all the money had gone. What’s clear is that Neymar and his agent-cum-father made a pretty penny and that, whatever the fee was, the 22-year-old was worth it. He’ll be expected to put all that explosiveness and trickiness in the service of keeping the World Cup in Brazil.
Getty ImagesGallo Images
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
The world’s other bestest player hasn’t claimed any silverware with Portugal either – they did come second at Euro 2004 in their home country, when he was just 19 – in spite of picking up trophies in bulk with Manchester United or Real Madrid. Since 2000, the Portuguese have made the semifinals of three Euros and one World Cup. With Ronaldo’s swishing play – the long, swerving shots and free kicks; the thunderous headers; the newly-added bicycle kicks – they are contenders. But he too, needs to get his country over the hump this summer, when they face the USA in the group stage. Ironic, since Ronaldo was named for Ronald Reagan. (True story.)
Lionel Messi, Argentina
Who? He may be unknown to you now, but this young Argentine upstart could see his stock rise considerably this World Cup. Terrible jokes aside, this World Cup is a bigger deal to the tiny, uncatchable dribbler than you might think, considering that he’s won everything there is to win with Barcelona. Because that’s just the thing, other than the Olympics with the under-23s, he hasn’t won anything with Argentina yet. The knock on one of the world’s two best players has long been that he doesn’t deliver for his country’s senior team, with inferior teammates. Now, then, is the time him to fill the lone gap in his resume.