Diego Maradona, Salvatore Schillaci, Zinedine Zidane. At almost every World Cup, there’s one man whose burst of outstanding play captivates the globe.
At this year’s competition in South Africa, the early candidates are Luis Suarez of Uruguay, Mesut Oezil of Germany and Spain’s David Villa. All three have led their teams so far and could be the ones to push their teammates all the way.
Uruguay had not been to the last eight of the World Cup since 1970 but Suarez took them there with his third goal of the tournament for a 2-1 win over South Korea.
It is what makes the World Cup so special. Within a month, players can burst from the fringes of popular consciousness to center stage.
Few people outside Italy knew of Schillaci before the 1990 World Cup but the reserve striker ended up as the leading scorer with six goals, dragging the host nation to just one penalty shootout from reaching the final in Rome.
Today in Cape Town, Portugal play Spain.
With Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal and Fernando Torres, Xavi Hernandez and David Villa available for Spain, the game will have plenty of potentially defining players. Villa has played well and scored spectacularly, but Ronaldo and Torres have yet to hit their peaks.
Many people expected Wayne Rooney to shine but after four bad games in a row for England, he is heading home after a 4-1 second-round loss to Germany. His performances were well below the form he showed for Manchester United this season.
Oezil, meanwhile, has played with vision and wisdom belying his 21 years for Germany. Together with Thomas Mueller, who scored twice on Sunday, they were responsible for England’s humiliation.
The World Cup was seemingly set up for Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o to shine. It was the first time Africa has hosted soccer’s marquee tournament, and banners bore his likeness to market the event. Yet he was out when the first round was over.
Like Eto’o, Chelsea’s Didier Drogba also failed to shine until late for Ivory Coast, although the broken right arm he sustained just ahead of the World Cup is a big excuse.
But some players are living up to the hype.
Coming into the World Cup, Lionel Messi had been criticized for producing for Barcelona but not Argentina. Once in South Africa, though, failing to get on the scoresheet has been the only flaw in an otherwise impeccable performance.
“No one has played even at 40 percent of the level Messi played the other day,” coach Maradona said of Messi’s performance in the opening 1-0 win over Nigeria. “He needed a game like that, to be a charismatic leader with his teammates.”
Maradona knows what it takes in that role.
In 1986, he was at the peak of his talent and made the World Cup his own with some of the greatest goals in history against England and Belgium. He then set up the decider in the 3-2 final win against Germany.
This year, the race for the defining figure in a World Cup full of surprises is still wide open. Ajax’s Suarez already has three goals and it will be tough to see a more thrilling one than his match-winner in the second round against South Korea.
He sidestepped two defenders in the driving rain and struck a right-foot shot from the edge of the area that curled just enough to beat the goalkeeper.
“Being young, I always dream of these types of moments,” the 23-year-old forward said. “These moments we’re experiencing are once in a lifetime.”