The relative successes of Lionel Messi, Manuel Neuer and Arjen Robben were not shocking to followers of the world’s game, but several players turned the wattage up on their stars during the World Cup in Brazil.
Let’s take a look at ten players who surprised the world over the past month (We’re going to go with positive surprises because, golly, that’s the type of folks we strive to be):
10. Jermaine Jones, United States — This could’ve been a spot for DeAndre Yedlin, but the fact remains that the electrifying youngster did his work off the bench while Jones played his best matches as an American player. In fact, you could justifiably say that Jones’ tournament more or less cemented some doubters of the “Jurgen Knows Best” crowd.
9. Hector Herrara, Mexico (above right) — We know, El Tri fans, he’s a star. But who had him pegged to be one of the best midfielders in the entire tournament? The 24-year-old Porto man was dynamite.
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8. Juan Cuadrado, Colombia — Again, when you’re an important player for a club like Fiorentina — in a league that isn’t all about foreigners — it’s not a massive surprise. But he provided flair and toughness for the Colombia run.
7. Enner Valencia, Ecuador — A shorter tournament than he would’ve liked, but the new West Ham man now had 7 goals in 13 caps and is coming off a season in Pachuca that saw him net 18 times in 23 matches.
6. Daley Blind, Netherlands (also above right) — The 24-year-old Ajax man sends in mesmerizing crosses and knows how to get stuck in as well.
5. Giancarlo Gonzalez, Costa Rica — Even the fans in Columbus may’ve been surprised by how well the Crew defender, 26, performed at the tournament. Gonzalez was a massive part of a CRC back line that allowed just two goals in five matches: an Edinson Cavani penalty and a Sokratis Papastathopoulos goal.
4. Mathieu Valbuena, France — At a generous 5-foot-6, Valbuena was a diminutive terror for the French side. At times, he was simply a blue blur that Switzerland and Honduras could not handle. At age 29, did anyone expect the Marseille bet to shine so brightly?
3. Memphis Depay, Netherlands — The youngster prefers to be called Memphis due to his father’s lack of interest in his rearing, and the man performed like a Beale Street star. Just 20, Memphis’ best season for PSV was his 14-goal campaign this season. And his World Cup goals against Australia and Chile were his first as a Dutch international.
2. Keylor Navas, Costa Rica — His biggest honor of the last five years was being named La Liga player of the month in April, so perhaps club form keyed the 27-year-old’s performance at the tournament. There’s no denying that the 58-times capped keeper, perhaps set for Bayern Munich, was at-worst the second-best keeper at the tournament.
1. James Rodriguez, Colombia — We had James at No. 57 in our pre-tournament rankings, and that now seems absurdly-low. But remember: James only had five international goals before the World Cup, and his single-season best for club was 14 at Porto in 2012. Something tells us he’ll have a better chance to shine with Monaco or somewhere else this season.
Honorable mention: Ahmed Musa (Nigeria), Sergio Romero (Argentina), Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico), Serey Die (Ivory Coast), Gary Medel (Chile), DeAndre Yedlin (United States), David Ospina (Colombia), Islam Slimani (Algeria)