Despite all the money spent and the rise in the quality of club football, the World Cup remains the biggest stage for footballers to shine. Some of the biggest players in the history of the sport never managed to bring their A-game to the World Cup, whereas other players made their names as one-tournament-wonders. For those looking to move to a new club, the biggest competition in football remains an excellent opportunity to upgrade their status. In 2014, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, and James Rodríguez leveraged a great tournament to sign excellent contracts for Manchester United and Real Madrid.
Certain players’ status in their national team provides them with a chance to “sell their goods” while they’re going through a tough period at their club. Others, already on the rise, just need the World Cup to assure that they can thrive under the pressure. Here’s a list of five different Qatar 2022 participants, each with a different story, who are likely be the in the center of rumors and talks in the next two transfer windows.
5. Eden Hazard – Belgium
Current club: Real Madrid
Clubs linked: Chelsea, Aston Villa, Newcastle
Market value according to Transfermarkt: €12.00m
In 2019, Eden Hazard moved from Chelsea to Real Madrid for €115.00m with the status of one of the best players in the world. A bit more than three years later, he’s high on every list of biggest flops in football history. His fall from grace at the Bernabeu can slightly be attributed injuries, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Mentally, every time he is on the pitch, he looks as if he lost his drive and confidence. Luckily for him, Belgium manager, Roberto Martinez, comes from a school that believes a national team should have a solid squad that doesn’t change according to the current form.
This grants Hazard complete immunity. Not only does he open for the Red Devils, but he will also play as captain, leading the golden generation to their last dance. A year ago, in Euro 2020, he paid back for Martinez’s trust with a strong performance. But that didn’t generate momentum in Madrid, with Carlo Ancelotti making it pretty clear that he shouldn’t expect a lot of game time. His former side, Chelsea, immediately became the usual suspects to sign him back. However, it is unclear if there is a professional rationale for such a move if you put aside the obvious nostalgia. Newcastle and Aston Villa were mentioned as potential destinations. He can consult with Philippe Coutinho, a mega-flop for rivals Barcelona, who found redemption after his move to Villa last January.
4. Rafael Leão – Portugal
Current club: AC Milan
Clubs linked: Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City
Market value according to Transfermarkt: €70.00m
Leão played a key role in Milan’s return to dominance, a process that peaked last season with a first Serie A title after 10 years. And he doesn’t intend to stop. With 16 goals and assists in all competitions, the Portuguese winger is the Rossoneri’s lead contributor in the attack.
Unfortunately for them though, despite their improvement, Milan still can’t compete financially with Europe’s titans and a few big clubs are already waiting to make their move. With a total of 11 appearances and ‘338 minutes played for Portugal, Leão is still struggling for game-time in one of the world’s deepest attacking squads. But Fernando Santos is likely to provide him with chances, either in the starting XI or as a sub. It will be up to the 23-year-old to clinch them and raise his value ahead of the summer window in which he will likely be the center of.
3. Frenkie De Jong – Netherlands
Current club: Barcelona
Clubs linked: Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea
Market value according to Transfermarkt: €50.00m
Many lines can be drawn between Barcelona and Ajax. The possession-based style of play, the prolific academies, and long list of players and coaches who crossed the lines throughout history. Arriving at Catalunya from Amsterdam, Frenkie de Jong hoped to follow the footsteps of Kluivert, the de Boers, Overmars, Litmanen, and maybe even Johan Cruyff.
Unfortunately for both the player and the club, de Jong’s three years at Barcelona didn’t meet the expectations set after the great 2019 Champions League campaign with Ajax. It’s not that he flopped, he’s actually been superb so far in Barcelona’s excellent first round in La Liga. It’s more that he joined a club that most of what’s left of it is the name. Rather than focusing on performance, the midfielder was constantly burdened with sorting the club’s finances. He agreed to cut his salary during COVID, and this summer was pushed out by the club to make more room in the budget. De Jong, now settled in the city, refused, aiming to show that he can play an important part of a successful Barca.
In recent weeks, things began to sound different, with the player allegedly agreeing to move. Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United with former boss, Erik ten Hag, were linked. In Qatar, de Jong and most of his teammates will make their World Cup debut. With the trust of Louis van Gaal, the 25-year-old has the chance to shine and prove his worth.
2. Jude Bellingham – England
Current club: Borussia Dortmund
Clubs linked: Liverpool, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Manchester United
Market value according to Transfermarkt: €90.00m
During the past decade, there wasn’t a moment in time in which Dortmund didn’t have one of the best players in the world in their squad. Now, it’s Jude Bellingham’s turn. But just like Lewandowski, Götze, Sancho, and Haaland before him, everyone knows it’s just a matter of time before the club from Westphalia will sell him for good money.
Which makes sense when you think of it. Bellingham should be competing for titles, and that’s not likely to happen where he is now. His debut World Cup performance is one of the things Three Lions fans are looking forward to the most ahead of Qatar 2022, and one can only imagine the scenes if he leads his country to a sensation.
English players are usually overpriced in the transfer market, and a great performance on the biggest stage will only make things crazier. Liverpool is already in line, hoping to utilize Klopp’s connections with his former club’s administration, with Real Madrid, Man Utd, and Man City all supposedly lining up.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal
Current club: Manchester United
Clubs linked: Chelsea
Market value according to Transfermarkt: €20.00m
Imagine having a player who’s won everything, the Champions League, Real Madrid, international football top goal scorer, featuring on a list like this. He’s undoubtedly one of if not the best player in history, and still, he has to prove himself in a months-long tournament? That’s the situation he’s in now. Sad but true. The interview Ronaldo gave to Piers Morgan, coming at his club, manager, and teammates with full power, removed any doubt left. The Portuguese star surely played his last match for Manchester United.
CR7 was pushing for a transfer in the summer, only to realize that it’s a buyer’s market for him out there, without any buyers. His situation is so bad that even Brazilian club, Flamengo, denied a potential attempt for him. The Portuguese hoped to raise his stock on the pitch, but he wasn’t a part of Erik ten Hag’s big plans. With only five Premier League starts in 16 games, he desperately needs the World Cup as a platform to show that he can contribute to a competitive team.
His last few performances for the Seleção have also been unconvincing, but luckily for him, he’s the first name in Fernando Santos’ game sheet. Maybe he’ll use the credit in Qatar it to finally leave his mark on the world’s biggest stage. Even if he does, it’s hard to believe that a top five league title contender will have a place for him in the rotation and the intention to carry his wage bill. Realistically, his best-case scenario, which is really not bad at all, is a closure-return to his boyhood club, Sporting Lisbon.
The bigger you are, the bigger the fall, and Ronaldo’s state makes for great material for social media trolls. To be fair, he hasn’t conducted his business very well in the past few years, but he deserves respect for his persistence and will to compete and play in his late 30s. Can he direct these negative energies to fuel himself up for an unforgettable performance? Stay tuned and find out.