The World Cup starts this week and there are more countries and players than you could conceivably shake a stick at. (Even experienced soccer fans have trouble keeping track of all the players, who scattered across as many leagues in as many countries, that each have over a dozen teams.) With that in mind, we have done intensive research into every country and that country's best player, so you can dazzle your friends with impressive knowledge when the one guy on Cameroon does something exciting. Here we go.
Best player: Samuel Eto'o
Why: The Cameroon squad is, frankly, a mess, but if anyone does something dazzling during their three group stage games it will be Eto'o. At 33, the smart and agile striker will have to rely on wits and instinct over athleticism, but his legs still have enough juice for one great goal at some point before the team is eliminated.
Best player: Oribe Peralta
Why: The 30-year-old forward has been a beast in international play leading up to the tournament, scoring 10 goals during qualifying play. That is a lot of goals. Here, during this year's club season, Peralta spin moves between two defenders before booting the ball past the goaltender.
Best player: Ivan Rakitić
Why: The midfielder, along with his partner-in-crime Luka Modrić, will have to control the ball against Brazil and Cameroon to make sure Croatia's talented strikers have plenty of time to attack. Thankfully Rakitić's insane talent, on display in the GIF above when he backheels the ball to himself and then perfectly feeds a teammate while running top speed for an easy goal, should help his country plenty.
Best player: Mile Jedinak
Why: The Australian team is full of young players and has no real hope of making it to the knockout round. They're fielding a squad that hopefully will contend, or at least not be so hopeless, come 2018. Midfielder Jedinak will be relied on to make something happen, anything, really. He's more than capable on his own, but the other teams in Australia's group will make life extremely difficult.
Best player: Alexis Sánchez
Why: Sánchez is one of the most athletic strikers in the world, a stop-and-start spark plug who can shake defenders off like it's nothing. Barcelona may sell him in the offseason too, so he's playing for a new contract. Expect him to make opposing defenders and goalies look human with his crazy precision scoring.
Best player: Robin Van Persie
Why: SB Nation figures Van Persie "might be the best natural finisher in the tournament," which means he scores goals by the bucketload. He single-handedly lead Manchester United to a Premier League trophy in 2012. The next year, while Van Persie battled injury, the club had their worst finish in history and fired their coach after a scant eight months. He's been criticized for chasing money (earning the nickname "Van Pursestrings") and for his fragility, but if he can stay healthy, he'll score goals from any angle, both through and around defenders.
Best player: David Silva
Why: The Spanish side is so strong you could pick anyone from their starting eleven — Sergio Ramos, Gerard Piqué, Xabi Alonso, Xabi, or Andrés Iniesta — and make a case that they're Spain's strongest player. But striker David Silva was the inescapable pest for Spain's 2010 World Cup win and now we suspect he'll be the inescapable veteran pest. If anyone gives Brazil trouble, it'll be Silva and the Spaniards.
Best player: Teófilo Gutiérrez
Why: Normally we would talk about someone else here — Radamel Falcao — but injuries have a way of ruining all fun. Instead, the unpredictable Teófilo Gutiérrez will hopefully guide Colombia back to glory. He's a head case, sure, but one that can score goals at will. (No one ever praised Maradona for his sanity.)
Best player: Kostas Mitroglou
Why: Mitroglou has been injured for most of the last year but Greece plays a very defensive style of football, so the burden to put ball in net will fall on him, mostly. When he's healthy he can do amazing things, as seen in the GIF at right, but his inactivity over the last year is a concern.
Best player: Yaya Touré
Why: Manchester City fans know Yaya well. Ask them what makes him great, and you best settle in for ten minutes of non-stop fan-girling. He can defend and score in equal measure. He can also run like the wind, and hit a bullseye blindfolded. Sheesh.
Best player: Keisuke Honda
Why: The midfielder "is Japan’s everything, at least on the attack," according to SB Nation. He's one of the young soccer nation's most succesful players, playing for Milan when not serving his country. But he'll need to repeat his stunning 2010 performance, when he played like a man possessed, if Japan hopes to make it out of their group alive.
Best player: Joel Campbell
Why: Was this goal scored with luck or skill? If you said luck, you're wrong.
Best player: Wayne Rooney
Why: England's hopes and dreams will rest on Rooney's shoulders — he'll bear the brunt of the scrutiny when they lose, and revel in the most glory when they win, regardless of the circumstances. More than anyone else, this is his team, so he'll have to score goals at the superstar clip expected of him. Manchester United fans have their heads in their hands, because Rooney can be a headache. But he usually shows up in international play. Let's hope he does this time, too.
Best player: Mario Balotelli
Why: Balotelli is the perfect kind of "Italian soccer crazy" you want at World Cup time. One of the best goal scorers in the world, solid defender, beautiful ball carrier, unselfish teammate, and just plain cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs off the pitch. He's a personal favorite, and I can't wait to watch Balotelli do his thing. The GIF at right is a guided missile from 40 yards away. But also, one time he hit Diego Costa in the nads.
Best player: Luis Suárez
Why: This isn't even a question, it's Suárez in a walk. He's like soccer's Alex Rodriguez. Incredibly talented, intelligent, and just the most evil piece of garbage in the game today. People haaaaaate Suárez with the power of a thousand suns. (Everton fans: nodding.) But damn if he isn't beautiful to watch if you have no rooting interest. He scores goals that defy time and space. Gear up for Uruguay's games by reading this wonderful ESPN profile from Wright Thompson that explains why Suarez is more hated than the devil himself.
Best player: Antonio Valencia
Why: Ecuador will lean on captain Valencia for both leadership and offense if they hope to survive France and Switzerland. Valencia, who plays for Manchester United, has the speed, touch and vision to help feed the ball to Ecuador's other forwards, notably Jefferson Montero, the young midfielder.
Best player: Paul Pogba
Why: Pogba is a hulking center-midfielder who is perhaps one of best ball handlers in the world. He sees your impressive goals, and then raises them with whatever is happening at right. Scientists are still befuddled by what's happening there. Good luck, rest of the world.
Best player: Roger Espinoza
Why: Honduras has one of the weakest squads in the tournament, but Espinoza, a Wigan Athletic bench player, will be relied on to anchor the team.
Best player: Xherdan Shaqiri
Why: At 22 years old, he's already done stints at Manchester United and Bayern Munich, two of the world's domestic soccer powers — that should indicate the kind of talent we're dealing with here. Shaqiri is also pretty enough to steal your girl without breaking a sweat.
Best player: Lionel Messi
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Best player: Edin Džeko
Why: Manchester City striker Džeko will be the one pocketing most of Bosnia's goals in the tournament. After his impressive domestic campaign, City supporters will do nothing but nod silently while the rest of the world realizes his immense talent.
Best player: Vincent Enyeama
Why: As the team's goalkeeper, he has to stop Lionel Messi.
Best player: Reza Ghoochannejhad (pron. wtf)
Why: Ghoochannejhad scored nine goals in 11 qualifying matches and generally plays an attacking style of play. Iran needs him to keep that pace if they hope to advance.
Best player: Bastian Schweinsteiger
Why: Schweinsteiger became a household name during Germany's last World Cup run, and the country will need more of that immaculate play from the Bayern Munich mainstay. He has battled injury, sure. It's a concern. But if he stays healthy, Germany can contend for the title.
Best player: Cristiano Ronaldo
Why: Ronaldo would probably be considered the best player in the world if it wasn't for his crosstown rival, Barca's Lionel Messi. Ronaldo would probably be considered the most evil player in the world it wasn't for Luis Suarez. He's the second best, but do not count him out. Ronaldo is the Kevin Durant of soccer — except, you know, with a bit of swagger and a supermodel girlfriend — he can still win games by himself.
Best player: Jozy Altidore
Why: If the U.S. hopes to keep pace with the likes of Portugal, they'll have to get the ball onto Altidore's foot and hope the young phenom does what he does best. Blessed with jaw dropping raw talent, Altidore has established himself as one of the best players to ever emerge from the U.S. system, but he can be frustratingly streaky. Thankfully he's scoring goals like this in tune-up games before the World Cup.
Best player: Kwadwo Asamoah
Why: If you need any more explanation as to why Juventas striker Asamoah will be Ghana's best player, you're being obtuse. Five guys in the box couldn't stop his beautiful dribbling on that play. (This GIF gives you an even better look at his footwork.) Anyway, good luck, U.S.A.! Have fun stopping him.
Best player: Romelu Lukaku
Why: Lukaku can bully and outrun defenders, which is normally a lethal combination, but only goes so far at the international level. He'll need to be technically brilliant if Belgium wants to sneak into the semi-finals. (Yes, that is a hidden prediction. Bet on it.)
Best player: Son Heung-Min
Why: A versatile attacker and one of the top players in the German league. Also, a cannon shot.
Best player: Aleksandr Kokorin
Why: Kokorin can play midfield or on the attack, and he's got the touch and speed to terrify defenders. He'll be the center piece that Russia forms their attack around, no matter where he's positioned on the field.
Best player: Madjid Bougherra
Why: Bougherra is the team's most experienced international player. He'll be leaned on heavily to balance an otherwise unexperienced Algerian team.
Best player: Neymar
Why: Picking the best player on Brazil's World Cup squad, perhaps the most balanced team in the tournament, is silly. They're stacked from the net to the attack. They're the favorites for a reason. You could make an argument for Hulk. You could make an argument for Paulinho. You could make an argument for David Luiz. You could make an argument for Oscar. But more than anyone, Seleção will rely on the other-worldy talents of Neymar to lead the squad to victory. He's fast, strong, creative, poised and deadly. If anyone beats Brazil, it will be because they somehow shut down Neymar. I don't know how to do that though.