2014 World Cup: Ten young stars to watch out for

Can you hear the sound of the world’s biggest carnival yet?

When it wheels into the newly-built Arena Corinthians on June 12 over one billion viewers will be gripped by World Cup fever.

Home nation Brazil will take on Croatia in Sao Paulo to begin the month-long festival of football.

Of course, there is much expectation and pressure on the Brazilian team to win on home turf and there have also been well-documented clashes and protests surrounding the judiciousness of the finances released by the Brazilian government to host this magical tournament. (There will be more on that in a later blog).

To help get your football juices going this blog will be the first of ten special World Cup blogs to supplement your enjoyment of the greatest sporting event on the planet.

Blog number one previews ten of the best young footballers to feature at the World Cup this summer.

To qualify, there are two criteria: A player must be aged 23 or under and must be making his World Cup debut.

So, let’s start the countdown. Who is set to be the brightest young talent of the World Cup?

10. Fabian Schär – Switzerland, age 22, centre-back (5 caps, 3 goals)

Perhaps a surprise inclusion at ten on this list, Schär is arguably one of the most exciting defenders in the world. His aerial ability from set-pieces is allied to an instinctive reading of the game and his impressive pace serves him well when faced with one-on-one duels. Recent performances for Basel in the Europa League suggest that Schär excels on the big stage and will be in contention for a starting place in Switzerland’s first game against Ecuador.

9. Mario Götze – Germany, 21, attacking midfielder (27 caps, 7 goals)

Undoubtedly one of the best German talents, of which there are many, but will he get a regular starting spot in Brazil? The competition for places in the German midfield could hinder Götze’s chances of making a big impact on the tournament but he has proven his goalscoring prowess at international level despite being in and out of the Bayern Munich side this season.

8. Son Heung-Min – South Korea, 21, attacking midfielder (23 caps, 6 goals)

After an impressive season with Bayer Leverkusen, Son will be carrying the affection of South Korea on his shoulders. Son usually plays just off the lead striker but such is his versatility and talent he can switch positions across a forward three and is also deployed on the wing. Son’s flexibility rids South Korea of a rigidity which had plagued their game in recent years but with their new hero they should be a threat to Belgium, Russia and Algeria in group H.

7. Adnan Januzaj – Belgium, 19, attacking midfielder (0 caps, 0 goals)

At just 19, Januzaj is part of a youthful and promising Belgium squad in Brazil. A long wrestling match between several countries is to blame for his lack of international experience but, after opting for Belgium, manager Marc Wilmots has wasted no time in including the Manchester United star in his plans. With the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas and Kevin de Bruyne ahead of him in the pecking order Januzaj could make a significant impact coming off the bench against tiring opponents with his jinking runs.

6. Ross Barkley – England, 20, attacking midfielder (3 caps, 0 goals)

Barkley’s place on this list is dependent upon Roy Hodgson giving him the playing time many onlookers are craving. The precocious young talent has drawn comparisons with Paul Gascoigne but his technical ability stretches far beyond that of Gazza’s. Even if Hodgson prefers to be conservative in Brazil he is set to make substantial contributions when coming off the bench, particularly with his energetic and creative game.

5. Paul Pogba – France, 21, central midfielder (8 caps, 1 goal)

An authoritative and commanding presence in midfield, Pogba is very much in the Yaya Toure mould of footballer. He can rampage forward and score goals as a stellar season at Juventus has proven. Doubts still remain about his mentality but bearing his age in mind that is a problem he will overcome with maturity and should that process happen this summer he could be France’s star player in Brazil.

4. Mario Balotelli – Italy, 23, striker (29 caps, 12 goals)

Commeth the spotlight, commeth the maverick. Balotelli relishes attention and a World Cup in Brazil presents him with an opportunity to display his skills in the biggest arena of them all. His superb performances at Euro 2012 saw a coming of age for the rebellious striker and he has built upon that with some assured displays at AC Milan. He will be the spearhead of Italy’s attack versus England but can he control his temper to replicate his Euro 2012 showing?

3. Thibaut Courtois – Belgium, 22, goalkeeper (15 caps, 8 clean sheets)

Some may be surprised that a goalkeeper makes third place on this countdown, but Courtois will be one of the stars of the tournament. His potential is staggering and his acclimatisation to Spanish football with Atletico Madrid at a young age has been exceptional. A series of assured displays coupled with some outstanding saves shows why Chelsea paid €9m for him when he was just 19.

2. Eden Hazard – Belgium, 23, winger (43 caps, 5 goals)

A world-class talent but inconsistent with it, Hazard has the chance to exorcise his critics with a memorable display in Brazil. His tally of five goals in 43 games for Belgium is underwhelming but after enjoying a spectacular season for Chelsea there are signs he could flower into an international star this summer as part of a dangerous Belgium team.

1. Neymar – Brazil, 22, forward (47 caps, 30 goals)

There has been no expectation as high as this on any player in history. A home World Cup in a land where football is a religion. It seems made for Neymar and all his astonishing skill, but can he deliver under such a burden? His goal-laced performances at the 2013 Confederations Cup would offer a resounding yes to that question, even after an unconvincing opening season at Barcelona. Despite that, the Brazilian team is built to utilise his incredible talent with some tipping him to earn the Golden Boot. Could this tournament belong to the darling of Brazil?

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

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Cüneyt Cakir, the stage is yours

It is said that good referees are invisible for the duration of a football match.

Yesterday night, Turkish official Cüneyt Cakir was anything but.

Maybe that was down to the 36-year-old’s garish turquoise shirt? Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t.

Mr Cakir created a frenzy of disbelief inside Old Trafford when, with Manchester United 2-1 up on aggregate against Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16, he sent Luis Nani off for serious foul play.

United were incensed because the decision allowed Madrid back into the game, before they cruelly killed the hosts off with two goals in three minutes from Luka Modric and ex-United star Cristiano Ronaldo.

To the letter of the law, Cakir was probably correct to show a straight red. Nani’s right boot made contact with Madrid right-back Alvaro Arbeloa’s rib cage in an aerial duel and after a brief break in play to allow both players to gather themselves, Cakir brandished red.

FIFA’s law 12 on fouls and misconduct provides that “A player is guilty of serious foul play if he uses excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball.”

So, Nani was justifiably sent off? Perhaps not.

It is widely held throughout the global footballing community that part of the art of refereeing is the official’s ability to apply the laws of the game with judgement of the footballing situation in question.

With the ball coming over Nani’s shoulder, the Portuguese winger’s eyes were fixated on the ball, with Arbeloa making a late entrance onto the scene. There was no intent to commit “excessive force or brutality” on Nani’s part.

Does there have to be? Once more, perhaps not. Taking everything into consideration, most referees would have realised that it was a 50/50 challenge, there was no malice involved, and that it had not been a high-tempered match up to that point.

This makes Cakir’s decision all the more robotic – and he has previous history.

Cakir, an insurer with a love of table tennis, became an elite referee in the 2007/08 season, and has since officiated several matches in the European Championships, Champions League, Europa League and Club World Cup.

What is immediately recognisable when glancing through his record is that, in the 134 games he has refereed since the 28th of March 2007, he has failed to give a card in just four of those games.

The plot thickens further when Cakir’s habits are examined more closely, and how predictable his style of officiating is.

Cakir would have first come to the attention of English fans when he officiated Chelsea’s 4-1 win over Spartak Moscow in the 2010/11 Champions League. It was a straightforward match to referee, with only four bookings dished out.

His next European match came three months later – a Europa League tie between Villarreal and Napoli which finished 2-1 to the hosts. It was marred by nine bookings, six of those coming in the second half.

Exactly three weeks later he sent off Manchester City’s Mario Balotelli in the same competition,  booking eight other players as City went out 2-1 on aggregate to Dynamo Kiev, despite winning 1-0 on the night.

Such a high volume of bookings means that Cakir’s style of refereeing is to adhere as closely to FIFA’s rulebook as possible.

Perhaps he enjoys the limelight when he flashes cards about. For certain, it is an inorganic approach to refereeing, and the statistics reinforce that point.

Last season, Cakir took charge of 34 games in the domestic Turkish Superlig and both elite European competitions.

He managed to show 172 yellow cards in that time, complete with nine red cards for good measure.

Across the 34 games, that is an average of 5.32 cards per game – an unusually high figure.

Those who have followed Cakir’s eye-catching refereeing since that time will have noticed his style of observing the match and the players in it during the first half, before unleashing a flurry of cards in the second period.

Last season he showed 61.3% of all his cards in the second half, and there were some high-profile matches during that time.

The infamous 2-2 draw between Barcelona and Chelsea at Camp Nou was famous for John Terry’s needless sending-off – a decision which Cakir got right – and the fractious nature of the match, with an additional eight players booked.

In Cakir’s homeland, the notorious Istanbul derby between Fenerbahce and Galatasaray is almost always an ill-tempered affair. So it proved in 2012 too, when Cakir sent off two players and booked 12 others.

His form continues into the current 2012/13 season when, after officiating just 25 games, he has already sent off eight players in all competitions, and has brandished 110 yellow cards.

That is an average of 4.72 cards per game – again, an unusually high figure.

When his performances are compared to that of England’s most card-happy referee, Martin Atkinson, Cakir’s super-strict manner is exposed again.

Atkinson has taken charge of 27 matches in all competitions this season, amassing a total of 107 cards, just one of which has been red. His average of 3.96 cards per game is a staggering 0.76 cards beneath the level of his Turkish colleague.

Cakir’s performances also seem to be more negatively prolific as the profile of the match amplifies. In his first major international tournament – Euro 2012 – he only officiated three games.

Yet, he still managed to brandish 18 yellows and one red, 13 of those coming in the second half and nine coming in the derby between Portugal and Spain. Ireland’s Keith Andrews was the man dismissed in a 2-0 loss against Italy.

In a World Cup Qualifying match between England and Ukraine, under three months later, Cakir showed 10 cards, sending off Steven Gerrard in the 1-1 draw at Wembley with (yes, you guessed it) all 10 of the bookings coming in the second half.

Cakir has also sent off Sergio Busquets for Barcelona in the Champions League this season, and Gary Cahill for Chelsea in the Club World Cup final. He now has Nani to add to that list of big, game-changing decisions.

With atmospheres no more hostile than those in his homeland, you would think Cakir has the necessary mental qualities in a referee to officiate in the biggest of occasions. All the matters discussed in this blog seem to suggest otherwise, but still FIFA and UEFA continue to give him high-profile games.

Perhaps that’s because he is a limpet to the rulebook. With that in mind, does he do a good or a bad job?

Does the fact that he gives a high amount of cards mean that he sees fouls no other referee does and should therefore be given credit for doing so?

One thing that seems certain is that Cakir will officiate at his first World Cup in Brazil next summer, and because of his latest attention-grabbing decision the weight of one billion eyes will be upon him.

If he continues to make similarly mechanical decisions in Brazil, he should probably turn his hand to officiating table tennis matches instead.