FIFA World Cup 2022: An intimate look at five breakout stars ahead of the tournament

The Hard Tackle looks at five potential breakout players who could leave a mark at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

The FIFA World Cup in Qatar despite its off-field issues represents the grandest stage in international football and provides a platform for players from the world over to make a name for themselves.

The tournament has also acted as a stage for some of football’s biggest talents to burst onto the scene and develop into household names. It could be a moment of magic or a fortuitous incident, both have contributed to moments that live on in World Cup montages.

A solid performance in the tournament also makes top clubs sit up and take notice, hitherto bringing unknown talents to their attention. Whether it be a purple patch of form or the birth of a legacy, the World Cup serves as an altar that displays greatness, even if it is for a fleeting moment.

A 17-year-old Pele announced his arrival at the international stage with the winner against Wales in the quarter-final of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, a game that gave birth to a legend and arguably the greatest goalscorer to play the game.

The image of a teenage Michael Owen holding off Jose Chamot and flat footing Roberto Ayala before slamming home for England against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup in France lives on in memory. More recently, Kylian Mbappe’s heroics in Russia propelled France to the 2018 World Cup and established the then-18-year-old as a top-level footballer.

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have defined football over the last 15 years and the showpiece event in Qatar could prove to be the final culmination of their rivalry on the international stage. The end of one era is nothing but the dawn of another and gives new players a chance to take their spot on the throne.

A new legend could be born in the middle east over the next few weeks and The Hard Tackle looks at five players who could be the next kids on the block.

Andreas Skov Olsen (Denmark)

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The 22-year-old winger came through the ranks at FC Nordsjælland, making his first-team bow for the Danish side in 2017. He spent two years at the club before moving to the Italian side Bologna in 2019. The three years at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara were largely uninspiring and he moved to Club Brugge in 2022.

The move to Belgium marked a turning point in the 22-year-old’s career and he discovered a second wind to his career. A return of eight goals and four assists in 21 games for Brugge has brought him back to the forefront and also secured him a spot on the plane to Qatar.

A winger capable of playing on either flank, Olsen is technically proficient and an excellent crosser of the ball. Proficient at set pieces, the Danish star has an eye for a pass that can carve open opposition defences. This makes him an all-action attacker who can thrive in the modern game.

The 22-year-old has eight goals in 23 appearances for Denmark, one of which came against World Champions France in their 2-0 win in the UEFA Nations League Group A fixture. Both nations have been drawn together in Group D and a repeat performance will certainly see Olsen receive considerable interest.

In a group comprising Australia and Tunisia, Denmark will be expected to at the very least qualify for the last 16. Having made it to the semifinals of Euro 2020, it remains to be seen if they can repeat the trick. Should that come to pass, Olsen might have a big role to play in it.

Karol Swiderski (Poland)

Perennial underachievers at the international stage, Poland have been drawn into Group C alongside Argentina, Saudi Arabia and Mexico. The European nation will pin their hopes on ace striker Robert Lewandowski but the tournament could be the baptism of fire for Karol Swiderski.

The 25-year-old isn’t exactly young and appears to be a late bloomer. He originally played for minnows such as Jagiellonia Białystok and PAOK before moving to the MLS to play for Charlotte FC this year. It proved to be an inspired choice as Swiderski has thrived across the Atlantic.

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A return of 10 goals and four assists in 30 appearances, might now appear too prolific but it only paints a facet of the striker’s complete game. A workhorse of a player, Swiderski doesn’t just represent a goal threat but also backs it up with his energy and relentless movement off the ball.

Improving his finishing skills would be a welcome addition but Swiderski’s all-round game should make life easier for Lewandowski and Poland. The 25-year-old has been attracting attention from clubs in Europe and a solid showing at the World Cup will be in line with his recent resurgence.

Moises Caicedo (Ecuador)

The Ecuadorian international will not be an unfamiliar name for Premier League fans and is primed to explode onto the international stage in Qatar. His performances have already alerted several high-profile clubs, including Chelsea.

A powerhouse of a midfielder, the 21-year-old is a key component of the Brighton & Hove Albion side that continues to impress in the English top flight. A strong tackler with the technical ability on the ball to boot, Caicedo is a difficult nut to crack in midfield.

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As iterated, his performances at The Amex have already seen the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United take notice and one would not bet against scouts keeping a keen eye on him in Qatar. And Caicedo’s no-nonsense approach and ability to run forward with the ball, make him the ideal modern-day midfield ball carrier.

Ecuador have been drawn in Group A against Qatar, Senegal and the Netherlands. While the South Americans will be hard-pressed to make it to the knockout stages, they are well capable of securing a shock result or two. Caicedo certainly will find himself involved should that come to pass. And some brilliant performances might compel Chelsea and others to make a move.

Jamal Musiała (Germany)

England’s loss is Germany’s gain and the Bayern Munich star is well-placed to explode onto the international scene. Just 19, Jamal Musiala is already a first-teamer at Bayern Munich and nigh on undroppable.

Playing in the number 10 role, Musiala has taken his performances to new heights this season and added the goalscoring element to his game. He is the leading goal-getter and assist-maker for the German champions this season and that speaks volumes about his ability.

A largely known name at the club level now, Musiala has the opportunity to become the latest teenager to chisel his name into World Cup folklore. Possessing vision, ability and above all imagination, he could be the attacking piece that was missing for Germany in the last few international tournaments.

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Hansi Flick will be keen to go deep in the tournament at Qatar and does have some exciting talents at his disposal. Musiala certainly stands out among the bunch and also arrives in Qatar on the back of possessing top form.

Drawn in Group E alongside Spain, Costa Rica and Japan, Germany will have to be at their best to avoid any unwelcome surprises. The game against Spain in particular could prove interesting given the Iberian side have their one wonderkids namely Pedri and Gavi. The matchup with Musiala will certainly be something to watch out for.

At 19, Musiala’s legend is just beginning and if what we have seen is the sign of things to come, Qatar 2022 could prove to be the rite of passage for German football’s next international superstar.

Xavi Simons (Netherlands)

The 19-year-old rookie was Louis van Gaal’s surprise pick for the 26-man squad and could be the next Dutch midfield sensation on the block.

Having come through the Paris Saint-Germain youth system, the midfielder moved to PSV Eindhoven in 2022. It proved to be an inspired decision as he has since thrived in the Eredivisie.

Simons has notched up 10 goals and four assists in just 22 appearances this season and comes into the tournament in top form. While he is yet uncapped at the senior level, Simons presents Van Gaal with an inspired option off the bench, capable of adding bite to the attack.

Drawn in Group A alongside Qatar, Ecuador and Senegal, the Netherlands are favourites to secure qualification to the knockout stages. The Dutch have a star student team on paper but have shown the propensity to be unimaginative going forward at times.

Given Memphis Depay’s lack of regular football, the goalscoring burden is likely to fall on Cody Gakpo. The 23-year-old cannot do it all alone and this is where Simons comes in. An excellent dribbler, the 19-year-old has a keen eye for a pass and can thrive in the number 10 role.

He is also a good finisher and gets forward when needed, something that could come in handy should the Dutch be chasing a result. Simons has the ability and the confidence to thrive on the international stage and for other teams is still an unknown quantity. This could work in his favour at the World Cup should Van Gaal show faith in his abilities and throw him on.

Honourable mentions

Jude Bellingham (England), Enzo Fernandez (Argentina), Youssoufa Moukoko (Germany), Cody Gakpo (Netherlands), Noussair Mazraoui (Morocco), Pedri (Spain), Gavi (Spain), Mohammed Kudus (Ghana), Giovanni Reyna (USA), Ruben Vargas (Switzerland), Lee Kang-in (South Korea)

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