Juan Carlos Paredes, Ecuador, 26
Right-back who has been one of the manager Reinaldo Rueda’s most trusted players during his tenure. Mainly confined to defensive duties in the last group game against France but even without the licence to break forward – as he did so well against Switzerland – Paredes showed excellent anticipation skills and took pressure off his defensive colleagues by almost deputising as a third centre-back after Antonio Valencia was sent off. An experienced and steady performer in the local Ecuadorian league who, at this point of his career, deserves a move to a bigger stage. Maybe not one for the big boys – recently linked to Watford.
Enner Valencia, Ecuador, 25
While everyone was expecting another Valencia, Manchester United’s Antonio, to provide the attacking impact for Ecuador it was the Mexico-based forward who proved the real problem for Group E defenders. The warning signs were already there before the tournament: not only had he enjoyed a magnificent first season with his Mexican side, Pachuca, but he also scored freely in the pre-Brazil friendlies. A tremendous athlete – exceptionally quick with an incredible leap – he scored all his country’s (three) goals in Brazil. Resembles a hybrid between Antonio Valencia and Faustino Asprilla (in their prime). Already attracting plenty of interest from European clubs.
Divock Origi, Belgium, 19
A surprise inclusion who has made a massive impact on a Belgium team that have looked stale and slow off the mark. Uncapped and fast-tracked from the under-19 side before securing a last-minute call-up, the young forward with African roots (his striker father, Mike, was a regular for Kenya) has – with his blistering pace, physicality, opportunism and enthusiasm – practically turned the game for Belgium twice after coming off the bench for the ineffective Romelu Lukaku. As a product of the Lille academy, Origi is walking in the footsteps of his big idol, Eden Hazard. A player that already has Premier League scouts drooling.
Muhamed Besic, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 21
One of the most remarkable stories of the World Cup, the young German-born player was selected by the manager, Safet Susic, on the eve of the tournament after a near two-year absence from the national team (“punished” for missing an under-21 call-up). Rejected by Hamburg after only three first-team appearances as a centre-back, he was given a free transfer to the Hungarian side Ferencvaros in 2012. Brazil 2014 has proved to be some redemption for Besic; he excelled in his defensive-midfield role, keeping Lionel Messi quiet in the opening fixture and providing measured, composed performances throughout. Unlikely to stay in Hungary beyond this summer.
José Juan Vázquez, Mexico, 26
The midfielder has been one of Mexico’s top performers in Brazil, despite only securing a place in the starting lineup following an injury to the presumed regular, Juan Carlos Medina. A late bloomer to professional football, Vázquez spent his early twenties in the Mexican second division and is now making up for lost time with some first-class performances for his country. A fierce, combative, holding midfielder, he is good at reading the game, intercepting passes and distributing the ball efficiently. He proves that mobility and a sense of anticipation often outweigh pure physicality in the defensive midfield role.
Charles Aránguiz, Chile, 25
While Arturo Vidal of Juventus and Barcelona’s Alexis Sánchez have grabbed the headlines, the energetic, creative and supremely versatile midfielder can rightfully claim a chapter in the Chile success story in Brazil. Already on the books of the Italian Serie A side Udinese – the club that introduced Sánchez and Mauricio Isla to European football – Aránguiz, who is able to play practically anywhere in midfield, has stood out with a wonderful blend of precise, high-tempo passing, stamina and combative spirit. Due to join Udinese from his successful half-year loan spell in Brazil in time for the start of the Serie A season.
Giancarlo González, Costa Rica, 26
One of the real Cinderella stories of the World Cup this far, the gangly centre-back was discarded by the Norwegian club Valerenga earlier this year after failing to impress during a two-season stint in Scandinavia. Having embarked on a new adventure across the Atlantic with Columbus Crew, González has stood out as one of the top central defenders in Brazil. Faced with the task of coping with a devastating mixture of the world’s greatest forwards, the focal point of the Costa Rica back five has performed impeccably, always operating with composure and a great sense of positioning and anticipation.
Ahmed Musa, Nigeria, 21
Brazil 2014 has represented not so much a breakthrough as a return to the spotlight for the Nigeria winger. On the wishlist of many big European clubs before moving from Dutch football to CSKA Moscow, the fast forward, who can play anywhere off a main striker, has re-emerged as a prime target on the back of being the Super Eagles’ top performer. Though not always as incisive for his club side, Musa’s performance against Argentina – humiliating the vastly experienced right-back Pablo Zabaleta in the process – was nothing short of an exhibition of pace and skill.
Kostas Manolas, Greece, 23
Already on the shortlist of many high-profile clubs, the Greece centre-back has confirmed his status as one of the most wanted defenders outside the top-five European leagues, and his performances in Brazil have made the wider world – not only football insiders – aware of his potential. Apart from the disappointing opening fixture (losing 3-0 to Colombia), Manolas has appeared assured and confident enough to suggest that he is ready to slot into the heart of even a Premier League defence. With strong, commanding centre-backs few and far between, the young Olympiakos defender will not be short of suitors over the next few months.
José María Giménez, Uruguay, 19
Thrown in at the deep end against England in place of the unimpressive captain, Diego Lugano, the young central defender has been the defensive revelation of the tournament. From the typical “streetwise” Uruguayan school, he is mobile, aggressive and an excellent reader of the game. A perfect size for a centre-back, he seamlessly slotted in as understudy to his club colleague Diego Godín in the middle of Uruguay’s back line. Snapped up by Atlético Madrid after his excellent showing at last summer’s Under-20 World Cup, next season he looks certain to add significantly to his one La Liga start – that is, if Atlético manage to retain their gem.