As every team has completed two games in the FIFA World Cup, it is a good time to take stock of which players are excelling in the tournament. While most of the discussion surrounding World Cup awards pertain to the ‘Golden Boot’- awarded to the top scorer, more interesting is the race for the Golden Ball- the award for the best player in the tournament. Previous winners of the prestigious award include the who’s who of footballing history: Ferenc Puskas, Bobby Charlton, Pele, Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and Lionel Messi- to name just a few. So who have been the best players in Russia this summer up to this point?
The number of fantastic performances by players in this World Cup is so exhaustive that it was almost impossible to narrow this list down to 10 players. Even these honourable mentions exclude quite a few players who have excelled in Russia.
At 19 years old, one would expect Kylian Mbappe to struggle at his first major tournament. The reality has been completely different as the Paris St Germain forward has excelled for France. Mbappe has been a constant spark for a talented yet often toothless French attack. His tap-in against Peru was crucial for Les Blues’ chances of finishing first in the group. Slightly less important has been his link-up play with Antoine Griezmann, his clever movements and his creativity (averaging one key pass per game).
Aleksandr Golovin (who has been heavily linked to Arsenal) has been among the best young players of the tournament so far. While much of the discussion surrounding the Russian has pertained to his exquisite free-kick against Saudi Arabia, his contributions have been so much more than that. The Russian has contributed two assists while creating five chances against Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Such performances bode well for the host nation’s hopes later in the tournament.
The recent uproar surrounding Xherdan Shaqiri’s goal celebrations against Serbia has overshadowed the Swiss winger’s excellent performances in the World Cup so far. The Stoke City player was a constant threat on the counter against Brazil before whipping in an excellent corner for Steven Zuber’s equalizer. Shaqiri’s performance against Serbia was even better as he was the best player on the pitch before scoring the winner in the 90th minute. While the Swiss’s performances have not been as spectacular as those who made the list, he continues to be a player to watch as Switzerland look to shock some favourites later in the tournament.
#10 Eden Hazard
When Eden Hazard went down with an apparent injury in a warm-up against Costa Rica, all of Belgium gasped. For good reason too, even with the emergence of Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne, Hazard continues to be both the heart and the main creative outlet of the Belgian side. This has been shown in the first two games of the tournament as the Belgian has contributed two goals and one assist against Panama and Tunisia. Granted, one of the goals was a penalty and the opposition hasn’t exactly been the strongest.
Nonetheless, Hazard’s raw attacking production is incredibly impressive. The Belgian averages 3 key passes per game, which is tied for 8th in the tournament. The Chelsea winger also hasn’t been shy in taking on defenders as he has averaged 4.0 dribbles per game- tied for 9th in the tournament.
Perhaps more important has been how the Belgian has attracted the attention of opposing defences, as evidenced by the fact that he has been fouled 4.5 times per game (including the penalty)- 2nd in the tournament. This attention has also allowed Dries Mertens and Kevin De Bruyne to create chances for Romelu Lukaku. Hazard has been particularly excellent on the counter, as shown by his composure for his second goal vs Tunisia and his brilliant through ball for the Lukaku’s second against Panama. This bodes well for the knockout stages when Belgium will face stronger opposition and will need to convert all the counterattacking opportunities they get. If Hazard can replicate these performances, then perhaps he will be a true contender for the Golden Ball.
#9 Denis Cheryshev
Now that’s a name that many did not expect on this list. Having replaced Russia’s great big hope Alan Dzagoev in the first half of the opening game of the tournament, Cheryshev has flourished on Russia’s left side. The Russian was brilliant against Saudi Arabia as he grabbed one of the most impressive braces you’ll ever see. His second strike was particularly excellent as he combined technique and power to score from a half-volley.
Not content with that double, Cheryshev continued his brilliant form against Egypt when he side-footed a low cross into the Egyptian goal. However, Cheryshev’s contribution to the host nation’s wonderful start has been so much more than goals. His runs down the Russian left side have been a thorn in the defenses of both Saudi Arabia and Egypt as the Villareal midfielder has averaged 1.7 dribbles and 0.7 crosses per game. To be perfectly honest, Cheryshev isn’t really a contender for the Golden ball- as Russia are unlikely to make into the latter stages of the competition. Nonetheless, his performances have been good enough to make this list.
#8 Phillipe Coutinho
When Cristiano Ronaldo gets the ball anywhere in the six-yard area with a little bit of space, one expects a goal. When Robert Lewandowski steps up to the penalty spot, one expects him to convert the penalty. When Roberto Carlos took a free kick, goalkeepers would already start picking the ball of the net. Similarly, when Philippe Coutinho gets the ball at the left edge of the penalty area with some space, one should expect a goal. Coutinho has scored quite a few world-class goals in his career from precisely that spot. Yet perhaps none of those goals were more important than Coutinho’s goal vs Switzerland. Aesthetically the goal was perhaps the best of the tournament.
However, Coutinho’s contributions to the Brazilian team have been so much more than that goal. The midfielder has been the creative hub of the Selecao as his passing has split opposition defenses. What makes him unique is that he combines the majestic passing of a midfielder with the intelligent running of a forward. This has been evident in the World Cup as Coutinho has had a ridiculous pass success percentage of 90.9% while averaging 82 average passes per game (tied for 15th in the tournament). Coutinho has also created 3.5 key passes per game, tied for 3rd in the World Cup. Moreover, Coutinho’s aforementioned threat from distance has helped attract defenders, allowing his teammates to make runs behind the defence. It is little wonder that Barcelona paid the third largest transfer fee of all time for the Brazilian.
#7 Paul Pogba
Perhaps there’s nothing more frustrating for a Manchester United fan (including this writer) than to see Paul Pogba’s excellence at this World Cup. After seeing the French midfielder’s excellence against Australia and Peru, one can’t help wondering why he can’t match that production for Manchester United on a consistent basis. But that’s a conversation for another day.
France probably has the most talented squad in the tournament, which is why their performances continue to feel underwhelming. A team which left Anthony Martial and Alexandre Lacazette out of their squad should really be doing better than three goals in total against the likes of France and Australia. Yet, even those three goals are almost entirely due to the genius of Paul Pogba.
The first goal against Australia was a penalty which was earned after a Pogba through-ball split the Australian defense- forcing Josh Risdon to make a rash tackle. Then when all seemed lost against the Socceroos, Pogba played two one-twos with Kylian Mbappe and Oliver Giroud before toeing in a winner (a deflection meant that it was considered an own goal). In one move, Pogba had encapsulated the attacking responsibilities of a modern midfielder: measured dribbling, accurate passing, intelligent movement and a finish to cap it all off (along with a bit of luck). Even France’s goal against Peru was due to the Manchester United man as his through ball set up Giroud whose shot was saved only for Mbappe to tap it in.
In 2014, Pogba won the “Young Player of the World Cup” award as he was the spark for a French side that made the quarterfinals. In 2018, he will be looking to win the big prize: both individually (the Golden Ball) and for his team.
#6 Romelu Lukaku
In a strange way, Romelu Lukaku was underrated over the past season as his 16 Premier League goals and 7 assists were overshadowed by the exploits of Mohammed Salah, Harry Kane and basically every Manchester City forward. Yet in the World Cup, the Belgian seems eager to make a mark as he has already scored four goals in two games. It doesn’t always seem this way as the Manchester United striker was criticized by captain Hazard for his performance in the first half against Panama.
Since then, Lukaku has looked like a different player. He has constantly looked to receive the ball around the box and has converted his chances at an alarming rate. Lukaku’s movements within the box have been particularly excellent as he has freed himself for through balls by the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Dries Mertens. The 24-year-old has amassed the perfect mix of striker goals: two chips in one-on-one situations, one header and a low drive into the right corner.
Almost as important as Lukaku’s goals has been his consistent running, allowing for the attacking runs of Mertens and Hazard. Moreover, the Belgian has also contributed with 1 key pass and 1 dribble per game. If Lukaku is able to continue his goal-scoring and lead Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ to the World Cup, then he could be the first player since Salvatore Schillaci in 1990 to simultaneously win the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot.
#5 Harry Kane
Scoring goals in the World Cup is supposed to be hard work. Theoretically, you are playing one of the 32 best teams in the world as you try to evade defenders who have spent their lives preparing for that particular game. Then you have to score a goal past a goalkeeper who has visualized that particular moment for decades. The general belief is that you have to produce something special if you are going to score on World Football’s biggest stage.
Tell that to Harry Kane, who has poached five goals in his first two games in Russia. All the Tottenham Hotspur striker has done is convert two penalties, finish two tap-ins and score a goal off a deflection he knew nothing about. Nonetheless, five World Cup goals is more than many footballing legends have managed in their career.
Being in the right position at the right time is a skill- Kane’s positioning for both goals against Tunisia as he pounced on opportunities like an old-fashioned goal poacher. It is no wonder that Gareth Southgate was seen mouthing “Where’s Harry” right before Kane popped up to score the first goal against Tunisia. The English striker’s penalties against Panama were also excellent as he deposited both into the top corner. While the last goal of his hat-trick was pure luck (even Kane looked confused after the ball entered the net), Kane’s goals no matter how “easy” they seem should not be underestimated.
Even then, Kane’s impact apart from his goals has been very little and that will have to change if Kane is to be a true contender for the Golden Ball (he seems to the favourite for the Golden Boot though).
#4 Hirving Lozano
Among players not named Cristiano, Hirving Lozano probably had the game of the tournament against Germany. The 22-year-old was dominant on the counter-attack, as he decimated a rather old German defence. The Mexican winger’s industrious passing, accurate crossing, clever running and link-up play helped crush the Die Mannschaft. It was only fitting that it was Lozano’s well-placed shot was the winner for the World champions. Such play is why Lozano has been subject to so much transfer speculation.
The Mexican was almost as good in El Tri’s second game against South Korea. This time, counter-attacking opportunities were sparse as Mexico were favourites against an inferior Korean side. Lozano showed that he can also be a threat in front of defence as he continuously created chances for his side. Another excellent performance culminated in a brilliant run and assist as Lozano set up Javier Hernandez for a goal that sealed the victory for El Tri.
Lozano’s overall statistics are excellent: two chances created per game, a remarkable 91.4% pass success percentage (especially for a winger) and three dribbles per game. Yet, what makes Lozano 5th in this list (and propels him above Kane) is how he has contributed in multi-faceted ways. The youngster has been excellent when getting back on defence, as he has averaged two tackles and two interceptions per game. At 22, Lozano is a year too old for the Young Player of the World Cup Award, but he has played so well that he is instead a contender for the Golden Ball.
#3 Diego Costa
There is nothing as antithetical to Spanish tiki-taka football than Diego Costa’s first goal against Portugal. Costa received a long ball, then proceeded to manhandle (or foul depending on your perspective) Pepe before outmuscling Jose Fonte to rifle home the equalizer. While Spain’s football usually involves technical excellence, this goal was a victory of brute force. This is perhaps what has made Diego Costa so effective in the World Cup.
Costa’s double against Portugal single-handedly kept Spain in the game as Portuguese manager Fernando Santos’s defensive system almost managed to stymie ‘tiki-taka’. Such a performance against one of the best sides in the tournament is what propels Costa above those who have been feasting on Panama, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. A similar pattern was repeated against Iran where manager Carlos Queiroz has installed one of the best defensive systems in the world (considering the talent at his disposal). Again the more attractive play of Isco, Andres Iniesta and David Silva was nullified only for Costa’s determination to yield a goal (albeit due to a lucky touch). If Costa can continue his form, then perhaps Spain can live up to their status as one of the pre-tournament favourites.
#2 Cristiano Ronaldo
The Golden Ball remains one of the few awards that Cristiano Ronaldo has not won in his illustrious goal. There is no doubt that it grates the Portuguese striker that his archrival Lionel Messi has won the award. Previous World Cups have not been great for the Portuguese as he has only scored one goal in each of the three previous editions of the competition. In 2006, he was a young exciting prospect for a Portugal team that made the semi-final, in 2010 he struggled as Portugal were defeated by Spain in the quarterfinal while in 2014, the Iberian side were eliminated in that competition’s “Group of Death”. 2018 has already seen him be more effective than the previous three World Cups put together.
Having converted himself from an inside forward to a pure striker in recent years, Ronaldo has been outstanding this tournament. While his first two goals against Spain were nothing out of the ordinary: a penalty and a goalkeeping mistake, his free-kick was perhaps one of the all-time group stage moments. The fact that David De Gea did not move an inch after Ronaldo struck the ball tells you all you need to know.
Less aesthetically pleasing yet just as important was Ronaldo’s header against Morocco- crucial in a game where Portugal were on the back foot for the most part. Ronaldo has done almost everything in a legendary footballing career- winning the Golden Ball and the FIFA World Cup might be enough for him to finally rise above Messi as this generation’s best player.
#1 Luka Modric
The Golden Ball usually goes to a forward- the only non-forwards to win the award over the past 50 years are Zinedine Zidane and Oliver Kahn. The award also tends to go to a player who makes the final of the tournament: only two non-finalists have won. Luka Modric is not a forward and Croatia will most likely not make it to the World Cup final. Yet when it is all said and done, Modric might still be one of the top contenders for the award- that’s how good the little Croatian has been.
For years, Croatia have underperformed as Modric and Ivan Rakitic have failed to fulfil their potential in midfield. This World Cup has been a different story as Croatia first dismantled a promising Nigeria side before absolutely crushing one of the favourites for the tournament: Argentina. Modric has been the engine of the Croatian side from an advanced position. The Real Madrid man has been at the centre of everything Croatia have done in this tournament as his through passes have decimated fragile Nigerian and Argentine defenses.
But let’s not pretend that Modric has done anything in this tournament which comes close to his wonderful strike against Argentina. What made it remarkable was how closely defended Modric was- there was literally only one way Modric could have scored from that position and he found it. It would take a brave man to doubt him and Croatia going forward.