Manero

Never Saw Them Coming

By: Alfonso Duro

With 2014 coming to a close, it’s time to reminisce. It’s been a year full of emotions, with moments as unforgettable as Sergio Ramos’s header in the Champions League final to tie things up in injury time against Atlético Madrid, or Brazil’s terrible semifinal defeat in the World Cup against Germany, or Colombia’s shockingly beautiful victory against Uruguay.

The usual suspects have once again shined through and so players like Messi, Ronaldo, Ibrahimović or Rooney will continue to call the shots as some of the top talent in the world, but there have also been some newcomers to the great stage that, in all honesty, most soccer fans on the planet had no idea existed a mere 12 months ago. These are the men who will likely rule the sport in the next few years, so you better keep an eye on them.

James Rodriguez: With the looks of Cristiano Ronaldo and the short-field skills of Lionel Messi, James has quickly earned a spot among the top players on the planet. Okay, his outstanding World Cup performance may have also helped, and his six goals in five games, too, plus his 80-million-euro transfer to Real Madrid (where he now wears the legendary number 10 jersey) surely caught the attention of the most unconcerned fans. His life has changed so much in such a short period of time that even his wife seems to be feeling the pressure. But James has dealt with it beautifully, and joined soccer royalty as if he were born with blue blood. Nine goals and seven assists in just three months as a Merengue keep him scaringly close to the numbers of Mesut Özil or Angel Di Maria’s debut seasons with the club, so a great long career can be expected out of this 23-year-old man in Madrid.

Raúl Jiménez: You probably first heard of Raúl Jiménez when he scored a bicycle kick shot from outside the box for el Tri against Panama, to keep the dream of qualifying to the World Cup alive. Miguel Herrera, who saw the striker come up through the ranks at América, gave him the shot with the national team and the young gun didn’t let him down. He spent the early months of 2014 preparing with Las Águilas for two key moments in his life: playing in the World Cup and transferring to Europe. But in-between, tweeting almost got the best of him. Declaring his love for Real Madrid was not the best thing to do when Atlético Madrid was trying to sign him, but Simeone insisted and the forward inked a contract with the Colchoneros. Things have not panned out as expected just yet, as the striker of the future has only managed to score once in La Liga, but everyone at the club is expecting his talents to start flourishing sooner rather than later, so patience with Jimenez will have to be everyone’s best virtue.

Lucas Silva: In Brazil they speak about a midfielder unlike any other ever bred in the country. The Verde Amarela has seen some great defensive talent like Dunga, Mazinho, Emerson or Cesar Sampaio, and some of the best attacking midfielders in the history of the sport, namely Socrates, Raí, Zinho, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho or Kaká, but true box-to-box(ers) rarely do appear near the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. Perhaps that’s why 21-year-old Lucas Silva has gotten everyone so excited in Brazil. The youngster has led Cruzeiro to two back-to-back Brasileirao championships, and he has half of Europe asking for his transfer. Real Madrid seem to be closing in on him, but he is holding out on signing the deal until he understands the role they’d like him to play on the team. Meanwhile, Arsenal, Manchester City and Barcelona wouldn’t mind bringing him on to help their squads, so one thing is clear: the kid will be playing in Europe come June, and then everybody will know his name.

Marcos Rojo: Talk about a low-profile player. At 24, he has spent the last three years in Europe, playing for Spartak Moscow and Sporting Lisbon, making no noise whatsoever on the big stage, and only the lack of quality left-backs made Alejandro Sabella look to him to start for Argentina in the World Cup. In the end, it turned out to be a great idea, as Rojo became one of the sensations of the tournament, and a true leader for the Albiceleste. He did so well that Louis van Gaal, despite arriving to Manchester United after the club shelled out 30 million euros for Luke Shaw, requested his transfer and acquired him from Sporting—for a [another] mere 20 million euros. But the move proved a huge success: Rojo has adapted quickly to England, faster than Di María by his own admission, and is an essential piece of van Gaal’s convoluted formation. Everybody in England loves Marcos Rojo, even if his own teammates (specifically, Juan Mata) are not too keen on conceding him the honor of his first goal as a Red Devil.

Alfonso Duro is a Spanish freelance writer. When he's not managing Google's agency in the United Arab Emirates (his current job), chances are he's watching and writing about soccer.