With the World Cup just a month away and many domestic leagues around the globe just coming to a crescendo, football fans are beginning to turn their attention to the most attractive tournament the beautiful game has to offer.
The World Cup kicks off on June 14, with hosts Russia hosting Saudi Arabia. And with coaches scrambling to announce their 23-man squads in the coming days and weeks, some players will already be aware or confident of a place on the plane to Russia.
Others who are perhaps on the periphery will be hoping they’ve done enough this season to warrant selection, while wily old veterans or emerging doe-eyed starlets could be set for a surprise inclusion.
Most of the players going to the finals will hail from Europe’s top leagues. But for some plying their trade in the more obscure footballing territories of the world, they might be hoping the coach plays a wildcard and has been watching their progress from afar.
Some may even not be on their country’s radar – but perhaps should be.
Here, Matt Jones has scoured the globe to bring you five players who’ve enjoyed or are enjoying superb seasons domestically, but are unlikely to receive a call-up due in large part to their obscure geographical location.
Perhaps he already felt his international future was a lost cause having won his last caps in 2015, but his £60 million transfer to Shanghai SIPG still sent ripples throughout world football.
The little magician was one of the few Canarinho players to come out of the last World Cup – held on home soil – with any credit, scoring in the opening 3-1 win over Croatia and grabbing the only goal as they were humiliated 7-1 by champions Germany in the semi-final.
Alongside Thiago Silva, he was one of two Brazilians included in the team of the tournament.
Unlike other players plying their trade in obscure leagues, playing in China doesn’t appear to be why Oscar has been continuously overlooked in the last few years, as Renato Augusto and Diego Tardelli, who play for Beijing Sinobo Guoan and Shandong Luneng Taishan respectively, were selected for March friendlies against Russia and Germany.
Injury ruled Oscar out of Brazil’s squad for the 2015 Copa America but even though he was recalled sporadically throughout the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, he last featured in the 3-0 win over Peru in November 2015. Since then, he has neither got off the bench or simply hasn’t been picked in the squad for the last six qualifiers, failing to feature in any of the last 10 squads overall.
This despite excellent form for his club this season. Oscar has scored seven goals in 17 games for Shanghai in 2018 – including three in the AFC Champions League as Vitor Pereira’s men have made it to the last 16.
Despite both player and coach alluding to it, Oscar’s path back into the squad would appear a remote one.
Surprisingly slunk into obscurity when he decided against extending his contract with French giants Marseille in 2015, the 32-year-old has been roaring ever since with Tigres in the Mexican top-flight.
Gignac’s withdrawal from the elite level in Europe was surprising as he enjoyed his best season in 2014/15 at the Stade Velodrome, recording his best goal return as he netted 23 times in all competitions and 21 in Ligue 1 as he finished runner-up to Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette for the league’s golden boot.
His inclusion in Les Bleus squad would be a surprise, but he has certainly earned his stripes at Tigres this season, where he has notched 18 times in 38 games and added nine assists in all competitions.
His foray down Mexico way has been extremely lucrative. Not only has he surely earned a pretty penny, but he’s been in a rich vein of scoring form during his three seasons too. He’s found the net a total of 77 times in 137 appearances, with tallies of 33 goals (50 games) and 26 goals (49 games) during his maiden two campaigns.
His record at international level is hardly prolific (seven goals in 36 caps) but his personal stats this season give him a strike rate of 47 per cent –which betters figures posted by Anthony Martial (25 per cent), Olivier Giroud (28.5) and Lacazette (44.7), all of whom have an infinitely better chance of being named in Didier Deschamps’ squad.
In an England squad devoid of precious little stardust and a heavy smattering of names likely to cause consternation, why not include a wildcard option who is destined to take the world by storm at some point in the future?
The teenage revelation burst onto the scene at Championship Fulham in 2016/17 with seven goals in 30 appearances. He torched those figures with 15 goals in 48 outings this term to help the club into the Championship play-offs.
The 17-year-old has featured at left-back in his fledgling career but is likely to convert into more of a forward role in the future, along the same career trajectory as Real Madrid’s Welsh wonder Gareth Bale.
He has already become a prominent fixture on the left-hand side of the Cottagers’ attack as this season has progressed, shining brightly as one of the English second tier’s standout stars – his 15 goals is the joint-sixth best tally behind league-leading Derby County striker Matej Vydra’s 21.
He has already earned one England Under-21 cap and is attracting interest from England’s big boys, including Manchester United – although Fulham have slapped an incredible £100million price tag on him in recent days.
Arguably the best player not going to the World Cup who definitely should be. Has been the standout player in Middle East football for a number of years – which essentially seems to be the issue.
South Korea coach Shin Tae-yong is not a fan of picking players playing in the Gulf region, which seems to also end hopes of two UAE-based players getting the nod for this summer’s squad – Al Wahda’s Rim Chang-woo and Emirates Club’s former Al Jazira midfield engine Park Jong-woo, both of whom nevertheless earned recalls for the friendly game against Morocco last October.
And the 26-year-old schemer is on the three-man shortlist once again this year – alongside Xavi and prolific goalscoring teammate Youssef Msakni – having helped dominant Al Duhail to the Qatar Stars League title.
The creative chaos has been sublime since arriving in the Middle East in 2011 – joining Dubail in their previous guise as Lekhwiya (they merged with El Jaish last summer) in 2012.
It will surprise many to know Nam came through the academy at English side Reading in 2007/08 – then a Premier League team – before an underwhelming three-year stay in France with Valenciennes.
He registered a QSL best 14 goals and nine assists in his 25 league appearances during the 2016/17 campaign on his way to last year’s best player award, with his passing accuracy of 91.6 per cent better than Xavi’s 89.2.
This year he has notched 12 league goals in 21 QSL games but failed to feature in either of Shin’s first two games in charge of Korea – the final two World Cup qualifying games against Iran and Uzbekistan.
He has mustered just 548 minutes out of the 1,620 (18 games) the Taeguk Warriors have played throughout Asian qualifying – being left out of the squad in seven of those encounters. So despite his talent he simply doesn’t seem to fit the mould.
Far-fetched you may say for a player who’s never represented Argentina at any level and is unlikely to be on Jorge Sampaoli’s radar to warrant a place in the squad, yet the veteran’s continued copious goalscoring form in the Arabian Gulf League for Al Wahda shouldn’t be ignored.
Tagliabue turned 33 in February but shows no signs of slowing down, having just recorded his most prolific campaign in five seasons with the Al Nahyan Stadium outfit.
The Olivos native netted an incredible 42 goals in 40 outings this season and became the AGL’s leading foreign scorer in the professional era.
The affable Argentine is settled in the Emirates, having been with the Clarets since 2013, and this week signed a two-year contract extension.
His imperious form led to him collecting a second Best Foreign Player award at the AGL Awards earlier this week – his season’s haul including an eye-watering seven hat-tricks, four of those unbelievably coming in his last 10 games.
Add in the emergence of youngsters Cristian Pavon and Lautaro Martinez, who have got people back home excited, and the argument that there is space in this La Albiceleste squad for a wildcard gathers further momentum.
Boca Juniors forward Pavon, 22, has been linked with Arsenal as a possible replacement for fellow South American Alexis Sanchez, and contributed to Sergio Aguero assists on debut against Russia and then in a 4-2 defeat to Nigeria in 2017.
Meanwhile, powerful striker Martinez, 20, whose nickname is El Toro (the Bull), will hope to make a late charge into Sampaoli’s squad following 18 goals in 28 appearances for Racing Club this season.
The case for the young duo, and less so Tagliabue, is strengthened by the fact Gonzalo Higuain has not always delivered in big games, Mauro Icardi failed to impress during recent qualifiers and Paulo Dybala is seen as more of an understudy to Lionel Messi.
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