With the World Cup just five days away, MLSsoccer.com is taking a looking at some of the brightest stars, best young players and toughest group-stage matches to keep an eye on as the tournament unfolds in Brazil. To get our series rolling, we’re breaking down five of the most exciting strikers in the tournament, from the reigning Ballon d'Or winner to a Bosnian giant with the weight of his entire country on his shoulders.
Mario Balotelli, Italy – Considering the giant imprint this 23-year-old has made on the game over the past few years, it’s tough to believe this will be Balotelli’s first shot at the World Cup. Super Mario disappeared at times during the 2012 Euros but showed up with two goals in the semis against mighty Germany (and started endless series of memes with his shirtless celebration) and heads to Brazil after reaching a career-high with 14 goals for AC Milan last season.
But Balotelli’s real appeal is his rampant but still endearing ego, perhaps best illustrated by this Instgram photo he sent out last week. Subtle.
Edin Dzeko, Bosnia-Herzegovina – Few players grew up against the backdrop of a bloody conflict like Dzeko and his teammates, who have led Bosnia-Herzegovina to the World Cup for the first time in the nation’s history. And while there’s certainly sentimental reason to root for Dzeko in Brazil, he’s also an undeniably devastating striker poised for an international breakout if things go well. And given the group his team will face – a favorable draw one in Group F – it’s likely Dzeko will the chance to make his mark.
Romelu Lukaku, Belgium – At 21 years old, the hulking, 6-foot-3 striker is one of the key cogs for a Belgian side that some are pegging as a darkhorse to win the World Cup. He’s been a known commodity in Europe since his days as a teenager with Anderlecht, and a solid season on loan with Everton has reportedly as many as six clubs on the prowl for his services next season. Big, physical and molded in the form of his boyhood idol Didier Drogba, Lukaku is another young goal-scorer on the cusp of something big, should Belgium can get out of a relatively easy group.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal – News that the world’s best player is battling some kind of leg fatigue in the walkup to Brazil gives a sliver of hope to both Ghana and the United States, the two teams faced with the task of stopping Ronaldo if they hope to advance out of Group G. There’s not much more than can be written about CR7 who, at 29 years old, enters the World Cup in his absolute prime, but Portugal are collectively weaker than they’ve been in years past. It’s pretty simple -- stop Ronaldo, you can stop Portugal. Maybe it would be easier to stop his wax statue?
Luis Suárez, Uruguay – A fascinating character through and through, Suárez is back on the World Cup stage after making headlines in 2010 with this controversial but ultimately cunning handball on the goal line in the quarterfinals against Ghana. Since then he’s emerged as one of the top strikers in the English Premier League, but he underwent knee surgery at the end of the season and is racing to get back to full health. And the Uruguayans – who don’t want to depend on 35-year-old legend Diego Forlán – need him fit and ready to go if they hope to topple Italy and England in Group D.