“Record everything” he told his father in Buenos Aires. The 26-year-old wanted proof of his participation at the World Cup. He might not have been getting a game, but even sitting on the bench for his country was something to be cherished.
Barely ten minutes into Argentina’s second game, however, Goycochea’s life would change forever. Deputising for the injured Nery Pumpido, he would go on to star in Los Albiceleste’s advance to the final, lodging an outstanding display against Italy in the semi-finals. He arrived as a bit-part player, and left as an international star.
In just over a week’s time, 736 footballers will descend on Russia hoping to make a similar impact. Some will disappoint, condemned to lives of rumination and regret. But others will rise above the morass to become legends. Here are five of the likeliest candidates.
Domosh Gilan aren’t a household name, not even in Iran. It was here, however, where one of the stars of Persian football passed on the mantle to the younger generation. Mehdi Mahdavikia was winding down after a glorious career in Germany, striking up a friendship with an impressive young winger who lived for his every word.
Ten goals in 44 appearances convinced NEC Nijmegen into signing an unknown. Alireza Jahanbaksh quickly proved, however, that he was one of the most impressive players to emerge from Asia in recent years. He has been in phenomenal form for AZ Alkmaar – the club he joined in 2015 – scoring 21 goals and assisting 13 in the league alone.
He might not have been blessed with searing pace, but Jahanbaksh’s technique makes jet heels irrelevant. He is a superb crosser of the ball, able to pick out a teammate from anywhere in the final third. He is composed too, unhurried in front of goal with a predator’s instincts. Alongside Sardar Azmoun, he could lead Team Melli to their best World Cup yet.
That’s the word Wilmar Barrios used to describe his own potential in Russia. The Boca midfielder isn’t exactly short on confidence, as he proved in a recent interview with FutbolRed.
Anybody who’s seen the him grace the Bombanera won’t mistake those remarks for arrogance, though. Barrios simply knows how good he is, with the weight of a stunning 18 months behind him as proof. A solid holding midfielder who’s naturally athletic, he provides reliable ballast for Boca’s offensive instincts, an agile and dextrous presence in the middle of the park.
He has found the going tougher at international level, with Carlos Sánchez preferred under José Pekerman for the vast majority of his tenure. This World Cup could finally allow him the chance to shine, however, with his competitor prone to lapses in concentration and fitness at 32-years-old. If he gets regular minutes, the ‘Colombian Mascherano’ will have all kinds of suitors this summer.
Had they not been hosts, Russia would be nowhere near this World Cup. That is the cold reality for Stanislav Cherchesov’s side, who are bereft of proven matchwinners and top-level talent.
Much of the hopes for Russian progress depend on Aleksandr Golovin, and rightly so. The CSKA Moscow man proved his mettle in the Europa League this year, but far less has been said about Aleksei Miranchuk.
A number 10 in the purest sense, the Lokomotiv man is an assuredly refined presence on the ball. Endowed with a cutting left-foot, He makes up for his slight frame with a vision that can splinter defences in an instant. Called up to the Russia squad alongside his twin brother and forward Anton, the younger Miranchuk will have a vital role to play in keeping the Motherland’s hopes alive.
If Jorge Sampaoli were to be asked about Argentina’s strategy for the World Cup, or his team’s style of play; or indeed the most vital player, all the answers would be the same.
It might feel reductive, but such is the lack of élan surrounding Argentina’s chances that the Barcelona icon feels like their only hope. Even Messi, however, can’t do it all by himself.
Step forward Cristian Pavón, The Boca winger is an archetypal inside forward, adept at cutting in from the left flank before rifling vicious finished with his right foot. He is reliably two-footed, with speed to burn and a work-rate to match. Pavón is likely to start on the bench for his country, but expect Sampaoli to call on him regularly to punish tired defences.
Born in Sudan before settling in Northern Denmark, Pione Sisto knows what it means to sacrifice and strive. He and his seven siblings arrived in Europe searching for a better life, but whilst they worked hard in school, he made himself on the football field.
A breakout star of FC Mydtylland’s title-winning season three years ago, the 23-year-old was snapped up by Celta Vigo in 2016. He has been a constant fixture in Galicia ever since, reliably tricky and unpredictable across all of the forward positions.
A guaranteed starter under the affable Aga Hareide, Sisto will look to relieve some of the pressure on Christian Eriksen by using his pace and dribbling to take on unsuspecting defences. Expect him to raid infield from the flanks before unleashing walloping shots and fanciful passes.
Odds are provided at time of writing, please check your betslip to confirm they have not changed before betting.
Also published on Medium.