You’ve heard all about the shining lights of Portugal and Argentina. But here are six other brilliant ’ballers, each with a backstory as colorful as his game…
Tiny Dancer: Neymar, 22, Brazil
What do Neymar and Tom Brady have in common? Oh, just Gisele. She’s married to Brady, but she just appeared on the cover of Brazilian Vogue with the flashy 5’9″ striker, who plays his club soccer for Spain’s Barcelona. The heir apparent to legendary Pele, Neymar has already won 2012 Olympic silver and earned MVP honors after leading Brazil to the 2013 Confederations Cup title.
Brought up in poverty, playing street football, Neymar approaches the game with a smile. He makes everything he does—flamboyant flicks, mesmerizing step-overs—look joyous. But he has power in both feet and a clinical footballer’s brain. He says: “I like to watch good football so I like to watch good players… Cristiano Ronaldo, Iniesta, Xavi and Wayne Rooney.”
Off the field, he actively promotes Brazilian pop music, like música sertaneja, appearing on-stage with Michel Teló. Consequently, his on-field goal celebrations involve infectious dance moves. For Brazil to win at home, Neymar will have to rise to the occasion. If he’s on his game, he could win the Golden Boot (most goals) while sporting the best hairstyle (“Neymar Crest”).
Man on Fire: Wayne Rooney, 28, England
A childhood boxer who still looks as pugnacious as a British hooligan, Wayne Rooney is one of the highest paid and most recognized footballers. He’s won every honor in the English Premiership with Manchester United, and he is already his national team’s fifth highest all-time scorer. Perceived as the Three Lions’ great hope, he’s never actually scored at a World Cup tournament.
The bombastic star, who often has the mouth of a sailor, is also England’s most red-carded player. His temperament has also courted controversy off the pitch. He was sued by his former manager for “false claims” and settled out of court. His alleged penchant for hookers got him into hot water with his wife. And recently one of his newest racehorses had to see a horse whisperer after the fiery filly broke a trainer’s nose. Oh, and he also has hair plugs, which is just funny.
While former Man-U boss Alex Ferguson says Rooney’ temper “is not the worst thing in the world,” Wazza will have to curb his ancestral Irish blood and score on the actual pitch if he wants the perfect riposte to his critics.
Bad Boy: Mario Balotelli, 23, Italy
Mario Balotelli, the first black player to represent Italy, shocked the world at Euro 2012 after his two glorious goals led his underdog Azzurri to a surprising win over Germany. First he preened shirtless, then he smooched an older Italian woman, telling her, “These goals are for you.”
Turns out the showoff—who was called “unmanageable” by his former coach Jose Mourinho, has moved from big club to bigger club (Inter, Man City, A.C. Milan) and garnered fines and suspensions for all sorts of misdemeanors—is just a mama’s boy. The woman was his beloved foster mom Silvia Balotelli, who along with her husband Francesco had adopted young Mario. (His birth parents are Ghanian immigrants.)
Like a big mischievous kid, Super Mario has allegedly pulled the following pranks: being photographed with reputed mobsters; driving into a women’s prison to “have a look round”; accidentally setting his home alight with fireworks… then being unveiled as Manchester’s ambassador for firework safety. Admitting he “sometimes does strange things,” Balotelli on the field is a beast—fast, powerful, skillful. With a few goals in the Cup perhaps he’ll finally be worthy of the life-size Balotelli statue he commissioned last year.
Dread Man Rocking: Kyle Beckerman, 32, USA
US coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who resurrected Kyle Beckerman’s national team career, gives our American “Becks” the highest praise: “You can’t find a better pro!” Now going to his first World Cup at an age most players are winding down, dreadlocked Beckerman is the US’s midfield enforcer whose dirty job is to break up plays, recover the ball and move it swiftly to advanced teammates like Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey. And, if there’s any on-field argy-bargy, Becks, a state wrestling champ in high school, will surely be in the thick of things.
A huge fan of reggae musician Bob Marley, Maryland-born Beckerman has been a pro for 15 seasons, captaining his Real Salt Lake squad to the MLS Cup in 2009, earning multiple All-Star berths, and appearing in more than 300 MLS games.
But even though he’d represented the U.S. team, he never got a regular shot until he helped the U.S. win its fifth Gold Cup last summer at Soldier Field. Now he’s going to Brazil, saying: “When Juergen called me in, I felt this is an opportunity I can’t let slip. Bring everything I got every day, that’s what I’m about…” To which we can only reply, U-S-A, U-S-A!
Mr. Shakira: Gerard Piqué, 27, Spain
Since 2007-08, Gerard Piqué has won every team honor a soccer player can earn, including multiple league and Champions League titles with Manchester United and Barcelona, plus the 2010 World Cup and 2012 European Championship for his country Spain.
When he’s not polishing his trophies, all he has to do is hang out with his baby mama, Shakira. (Yes, Shakira.) They met when he appeared in Shakira’s video “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa),” the official song of the 2010 World Cup.
It’d be easy to hate on someone with that much luck, but we’ve kinda gotta hand it to Piqué. Dude managed to make it happen with the Colombian pop star despite the fact that he’s a humble center back.
Man Eater: Luis Suárez, 27, Uruguay
OK, the pest scores goals. He was top scorer for Ajax in the Eredivisie. He was the Premiership’s top scorer last season for Liverpool when he also won the Player of the Year award. He’s Uruguay’s all-time record goal scorer. He has thunder in both boots, has major hang time and heading ability, his free kicks are insane and dribbling skill so good he could nutmeg a mermaid.
And even though he’s a father of two who married his childhood sweetheart, Luis Suárez has a way of getting under your skin. He’s been accused (and/or found guilty of) head butting a ref, exaggerated simulation (flopping), racially abusing a fellow player and biting opponents. (That really happened, just ask Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic.) But he keeps knocking in goals in wherever he plays—and has already scored the most hat tricks in Premiere League history.
Uruguay is the reigning Copa America champion and finished fourth at World Cup 2010—thanks in part to a strategic Suarez handball. But to make noise in Brazil, El Pistolero, and his dynamic strike partner Edinson Cavani will need to have all guns blasting. Time will tell if he can restrict the antics to his feet in the upcoming tourney.