Kylian Mbappe (France)
Mbappe was superb for France as Didier Deschamps’ side sealed the world title in 2018, but the PSG star has moved to another level in the last two seasons and should be one of the standout performers for the defending champions.
Lionel Messi (Argentina)
With the mercurial Messi demonstrating his talents in a deeper role at PSG, all eyes will be on him as he looks to finally add a World Cup to his glittering list of individual and team accolades in what he has already confirmed will be his last World Cup appearance.
Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium)
De Bruyne will be charged with the task of finally helping Belgium lose their “nearly men” tag in Qatar. The Manchester City man will be determined to prove himself as the No 1 midfielder in world football.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Despite a troubled time at Manchester United, expectation will still be intense around Ronaldo in Qatar as he competes in a record-equaling fifth finals. The 2016 European champions will look once again to Ronaldo’s ability to lead their attack as a huge focal point. At 37, this will in all probability be Ronaldo’s last World Cup which his team have never won.
Vinicius Jr (Brazil)
Despite the pressure of establishing himself as a key player for both Real Madrid and Brazil in the last two years, Vinicius Jr has risen to the challenge spectacularly. His partnership with Karim Benzema in Madrid is the deadliest pairing in Spanish football, and his world-class potential could see him become one of the star names of Qatar 2022.
Takefusa Kubo (Japan)
At the age of only 21, Takefusa Kubo has already made quite the name for himself — having emerged with a “wonderkid” label in La Liga first with Barcelona and then at Real Madrid. The Japanese midfielder moved to Real Sociedad in the summer transfer window this year (although Real have retained 50 per cent ownership of him, and can bring him back to the Spanish capital until 2025) and is proving consistently the potential that those in Asia always knew he had. He will likely be a pivotal figure for the Blue Samurai and could be set for a breakthrough tournament.
Virgil van Dijk (Netherlands)
Despite playing the consistent role of Liverpool’s defensive rock, Van Dijk has never featured at a World Cup with his country. The Dutch are much stronger at the back and in midfield than they have been in recent years, and similarly to Premier League rival De Bruyne, Van Dijk will be aiming to solidify his tag as one of the best players in his position in world football.
The mercurial Brazilian continues to shoulder the burden of his country’s hopes on the biggest stage, and Qatar 2022 will be no different. A nation expects whenever Neymar pulls on the shirt and he will be desperate to lead Selecao to their first world title since 2002. Neymar has failed to match the heights he might have expected with PSG in recent times, and injuries have not helped, but he remains the focal point of the attack for the 2021 Copa America beaten finalists.
La Roja star Pedri is the latest midfielder off the Spanish production line, which has previously produced Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Xavi. However, there are suggestions around the Camp Nou that Pedri could one day exceed his Barcelona predecessors and he will be looking to build on a fantastic breakthrough showing at Euro 2020.
Luka Modric (Croatia)
Modric, who led Croatia to the 2018 World Cup final and received the Golden Ball award for best player of the tournament, is likely to follow those such as Ronaldo, Messi and Benzema in probably calling time on his international career after the World Cup, but the 37-year-old midfielder will be determined to lead Croatia to success in Qatar, and despite his advancing years, he remains a match for anyone in world football.
Alphonso Davies (Canada)
Canada have qualified for the World Cup for the first time since Mexico 1986, and did so without their talisman for the final push. Davies was ruled out after suffering myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, following a Covid-19 infection. The Bayern Munich man’s emotional reaction on social media to Canada securing their place in Qatar showed how much it means to him and he will be desperate to shine on the biggest stage.
Christian Pulisic (US)
If the US are to go deep in the tournament they will need their talisman Pulisic to lead them. The Chelsea playmaker has been the standout of their qualifying campaign, and he will hope to take his big-game experience at club level with him onto the world stage as part of Gregg Berhalter’s talent-packed roster.
Son Heung-min (South Korea)
Son has shown time and time again throughout his career with Tottenham in the Premier League that he is capable of individual brilliance, scoring some of the most spectacular strikes the league has seen. At international level, he is just as ruthless, with more than 30 international goals to his name, and though nursing a facial injury around the eye, he will be among the strikers expected to shine in the Middle East.
Harry Kane (England)
England captain Kane will be the key man for Gareth Southgate’s side as the Three Lions aim to build on their semi-final appearance in Russia 2018 and Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy. Kane edged himself back into top form in the second half of the 2021-22 Premier League season and has started the new campaign in a fashion that suggests he can once again thrive on the biggest stage.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.