Ten potential stars of Russia 2018
The 2014 World Cup will live long in the memory, with individual stars and sensational storylines aplenty decorating a competition that benefited richly from being hosted in one of football's biggest and most traditional heartlands. However, the competition is now over, and attention has already begun to shift to the season ahead. For national football associations, a new four-year cycle will now commence, with continental cups and qualification games all building toward Russia 2018.
It is always an interesting dilemma for coaches of national sides as to how much they should balance short-term demands for success with the need to work toward long-term aims. For some nations, the Asian Cup, Gold Cup and Copa America in 2015 will now be the main focus; European countries, meanwhile, will have a two-year plan in mind. A new era is beginning and, in turn, new stars will be born.
In Brazil, we were handed a glimpse of who may be the leading lights in four years. Neymar and James Rodriguez, two of the competition's best attacking players, will be 26, while the likes of Raheem Sterling, William Carvalho, Memphis Depay, Divock Origi and Jose Gimenez will hope to build on promising World Cup forays. Many more established stars will still be around, with Thomas Muller perhaps eyeing a third tournament among the leading scorers, while we could be treated to a last hurrah from the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. At the moment, still four years away, the possibilities are endless.
Ignoring for now those who made their respective squads this time around, who could be stars of the tournament in Russia should their development continue?
Giorgian de Arrascaeta (Uruguay)
Twenty-year-old De Arrascaeta was a teammate of Gimenez at the Under-20 World Cup last summer, starring in an attacking midfield role as Uruguay claimed an unexpected final berth. Unfortunately for La Celeste, they came unstuck against a Paul Pogba-inspired France on that occasion.
In the colours of Defensor Sporting, the diminutive playmaker has continued to show his clear potential, scoring seven times in the past league season and also impressing in Copa Libertadores action. Previously linked with Barcelona, a European move should come sooner rather than later.
Paris Saint-Germain centre-back Marquinhos came close to pushing his way onto the Brazil squad in time for this summer's tournament but is perhaps fortunate to have escaped with his reputation intact. Now 20, he has four years to pressure David Luiz and Thiago Silva for a starting berth for both club and country -- assuming a suggested move to Barcelona this summer does not come to pass.
Known for a cool temperament and ability to read the game, Marquinhos is a former Brazil U17 captain and has long been on the radar of the national team. His rise since making his debut at Corinthians at age 17 has been remarkable, but the hope must be that his development is not hindered by his club's penchant for lavish spending.
Youri Tielemans (Belgium)
Only recently turned 17 years old, Anderlecht central midfielder Tielemans is already a major feature in his club side and is on the periphery of the national team. Belgium's strength in depth affords him time to develop away from the limelight before his almost inevitable introduction at some stage in the next cycle.
A box-to-box midfielder, Tielemans did not look out of place in the cauldron of Champions League football when he became the third-youngest player in the tournament's history last year, and he has continued to impress ever since. Let's hope he is now allowed time to develop in Belgium before an inevitable move comes to pass.
Nicolas Castillo (Chile)
Fiery striker Castillo has had half a season to adapt to life in Belgium and will hope to take on a bigger role for Club Brugge in the coming season. He has been a prodigious scorer for his country at youth levels, but he is now 21 and must prove himself at the top level.
Castillo has shown some issues with discipline, picking up red cards on a semiregular basis in his career. He will need to tone down that aspect of his game, but he has the talent to make it to the very top if he can get his head down and focus. He may just be the rounded target man Chile will be looking for in the years ahead.
Kelechi Iheanacho (Nigeria)
Nigeria's great playmaking hope has to be Iheanacho, star of the 2013 Under-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates. He is widely reported to be headed for Manchester City once he turns 18 later this year, and his development will be watched closely by those in his homeland.
A tall, classic No. 10 with a sweet left foot, Iheanacho combines playmaking ability with an eye for goal. Of all the players on this list, he is by far the least proven but has shown the makings of a truly special player. Local media reports recently suggested he could even join his new club on its preseason tour in the United States this summer in what could be his first step en route to stardom.
Jeison Murillo (Colombia)
Granada centre-back Murillo is one of the players to have benefited most from the club's partnership with Udinese, having moved to Spain in 2010 to continue his development. Now 22, he has just completed his first season as a first-team regular with the Andalusian side following loan spells with Cadiz and Las Palmas, forming a fine partnership with Liverpool loanee Tiago Ilori late last season.
Given the impending retirement of Mario Yepes, Colombia are in need of new defensive blood and, in Murillo, have a player with all the physical and technical qualities needed to fill that void and more.
Jese Rodriguez (Spain)
Real Madrid forward Jese has the potential to be a leading light in the European game in time, but first he needs to find himself a regular berth at club level, having started just four league games in 2013-14.
With pace and dribbling skills, as well as a proven eye for goal, comparisons with teammate Cristiano Ronaldo have been understandable. However, there is much hard work needed if Jese is to get anywhere near the Portuguese's standard. He will be 25 in 2018, and Spain will hope that he can play a major role in helping them return to the top of the world.
Aymeric Laporte (France)
France are fortunate to be blessed with a number of excellent young players in defensive positions. Despite failing to make Les Bleus' squad this time around, Athletic Bilbao's Laporte could be as good as any of them.
Over the past two seasons, since arriving at first-team level, his development has been rapid. A modern defender, he is comfortable in possession and reads the play quickly, while his natural physique makes him effective in aerial battles. His international breakthrough will not be long in the making, and Athletic will do well to retain his services much longer.
Ryu Seung-woo (South Korea)
South Korea are fortunate that star men Son Heung-min and Ki Sung-yueng will still be relatively young in 2018, while Barcelona 16-year-old Lee Seung-woo is also creating a significant buzz in Spain. However, it is perhaps Ryu, now of Bayer Leverkusen, for whom hopes in 2018 are highest.
His opportunities in Germany have thus far been limited, but he will hope to now kick on and follow in the footsteps of teammate Son. If he can tread a similar path and make the most of the talents he displayed at last summer's U20 World Cup, South Korea could have an attack to be feared in four years.
Matthias Ginter (Germany)
Freiburg centre-back Ginter could yet be on the move this summer, with Bundesliga giant Borussia Dortmund favoured to secure his services ahead of Premier League suitor Arsenal. The 20-year-old already has three seasons of topflight experience to his name and is seen as one of Europe's best in his position.
Also able to play in midfield, his long-term future is almost certain to be in the defensive line. With good technical attributes, he can help his sides build from the back while he has proved capable of competing physically with any striker. At present, he seems bound for the top of the game.