Ten seasoned stars who deserve a World Cup

23 Mar 2021
  • We highlight ten players, aged 28-plus, who the World Cup needs to see

  • Alaba, Bale, Oblak and Van Dijk are among the Europeans

  • Two huge African talents have never played in the finals

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Gabon 31 years old 65 caps 26 goals

Group F (Africa) Egypt, Gabon, Libya, Angola

Other key players Mario Lemina (Fulham), Denis Bouanga (Saint-Etienne)

Aubameyang Aubameyang could have chosen to represent France, Italy or Spain, but selected Gabon as a 19-year-old because his dad once captained them. He was named CAF African Footballer of the Year for 2015 and has finished on the podium for the award five times. He also pipped Robert Lewandowski to be crowned Bundesliga Player of the Year for 2015/16, becoming the first African to win the prize, and has finished as the leading marksman and joint-top scorer in Germany and England respectively.

Gabon performed admirably in South Africa 2010 qualifying, beating Morocco home and away and having a chance of reaching a first-ever World Cup going into the final matchday, only to miss out to Cameroon. Their Brazil 2014 and Russia 2018 qualifying attempts were nevertheless disappointing.

Gareth Bale

Wales 31 years old 87 caps 33 goals

Group E Belgium, Wales, Czech Republic, Belarus, Estonia

Other key players Ben Davies (Tottenham), Aaron Ramsey (Juventus), Daniel James (Manchester United).

Bale An electric, skilful attacker possessing great crossing and shooting ability, the serial scorer of wonder goals became the world’s most expensive player when he joined Real Madrid from Tottenham. He dazzled as Real Madrid for four UEFA Champions Leagues and three FIFA Club World Cup™ crowns, headlining finals on multiple occasions.

Wales came nowhere near reaching South Africa 2010 or Brazil 2014, but only a 1-0 loss at home to Republic of Ireland, without the injured Bale, in their final Group D game denied them a playoff for a place at Russia 2018. The Dragons can draw confidence from eliminating Belgium to reach the UEFA EURO 2016 semi-finals – their first major tournament since Sweden 1958 – and qualifying for EURO 2020.

Atiba Hutchinson

Canada 38 years old 84 caps 7 goals

Group B, First Round (Concacaf) Canada, Suriname, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Aruba

Other key players Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich), Jonathan David (Lille), Cyle Larin (Besiktas).

Hutchinson The man who made his international debut over 18 years ago insisted he was going to call it quits in 2019. However, his fine form for Besiktas, who lead the Turkish Super Lig, and the emergence of Canada’s finest generation of players of all time has seemingly got ‘The Octopus’ dreaming of Qatar.

The Canucks haven’t come close to reaching the World Cup since playing in it for the first time at Mexico 1986, but there’s never been more optimism within their squad.

Wu Lei

China PR 29 years old 67 caps 18 goals

Group A, Second Round (Asia) Syria, China PR, Philippines, Maldives, Guam

Other key players Yu Dabao (Beijing Guoan), Elkeson (Guangzhou)

Wu At 14, Wu became the youngest-ever player to appear in professional football in China. In 2018, he became the first Asian player in 11 years to be named Chinese Super League Player of the Year. The winger left Shanghai SIPG as the second-top scorer in Super League history, and has since sizzled for Espanyol, memorably scoring a last-gasp equaliser in the derby against Barcelona.

Since appearing at Korea/Japan 2002, China have struggled in the World Cup preliminaries. They are currently second in their pool with seven points from four outings.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan

Armenia 32 years old 88 caps 30 goals

Group J (Europe) Germany, Romania, Iceland, North Macedonia, Armenia, Liechtenstein

Other key players Vahan Bichakhchyan (Zilina), Sargis Adamyan (Hoffenheim)

Mkhitaryan The former Borussia Dortmund, Manchester United and Arsenal attacking midfielder has been one of the best players in Serie A this season.

Armenia have never come close to reaching a major tournament, but they are unbeaten in five games and did pull off some impressive results in UEFA EURO 2020 qualifying, such as a 3-2 victory in Greece and a 4-2 reverse of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Jan Oblak

Slovenia 28 years old 33 caps

Group H (Europe) Croatia, Slovakia, Russia, Slovenia, Cyprus, Malta

Other key players Jasmin Kurtic (Parma), Miha Zajc (Genoa), Josip Ilicic (Atalanta)

Oblak The Slovenia captain, who finished third in The Best FIFA Men’s Goalkeeper 2020 running, has been one of finest players in his position for years. He incredibly won the Zamora Trophy – awarded to the keeper with the lowest goals per games conceded in La Liga – four seasons running

Oblak became Slovenia’s first-choice goalie after the international retirement of Samir Handanovic in late 2015. Despite five clean sheets in ten matches in Russia 2018 qualifying, however, the Slovenians could only finish fourth in the six-team Group 6, narrowly behind Slovakia and Scotland.

Goran Pandev

North Macedonia 37 years old 114 caps 36 goals

Group J Germany, Romania, Iceland, North Macedonia, Armenia, Liechtenstein

Other key players Ezgjan Alioski (Leeds United), Eljif Elmas (Napoli), Enis Bardhi (Levante).

Pandev The deep-lying forward was on fire at Lazio before joining Inter Milan and helping them complete a famous treble in 2009/10. Pandev is still impressing in Serie A for Genoa.

North Macedonia have never finished in the top three in a World Cup qualifying group, but they are fresh from reaching their first major tournament: UEFA EURO 2020.

Virgil van Dijk

Netherlands 29 years old 38 caps 4 goals

Group G (Europe) Netherlands, Turkey, Norway, Montenegro, Latvia, Gibraltar

Other key players Matthijs de Ligt (Juventus), Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool), Frenkie De Jong (Barcelona), Memphis Depay (Lyon).

Van Dijk The 6ft 4ins centre-back became the world’s most expensive defender when he joined Liverpool from Southampton. He more than repaid their £75m outlay by helping the Reds win the Premier League, Champions League and Club World Cup, and the club’s current defensive struggles pay testament to just how irreplaceable he is. Van Dijk finished runner-up to Lionel Messi for The Best FIFA Men’s Player award in 2019.

Louis van Gaal overlooked Van Dijk for Brazil 2014 and he didn’t make his international debut until the following year. The Netherlands finished behind France and Sweden in Russia 2018 qualifying, but their impressive resurgence thereafter included reaching the UEFA Nations League final.

Wilfried Zaha

Côte d'Ivoire 28 years old 18 caps 5 goals

Group D (Africa) Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Mozambique, Malawi

Other key players Eric Bailly (Manchester United), Serge Aurier (Tottenham), Franck Kessie (AC Milan), Nicolas Pepe (Arsenal), Maxwel Cornet (Lyon).

Zaha The Crystal Palace winger-cum-forward has been one of the most dangerous players in the Premier League for years. Zaha won two caps for England in 2012 and ’13, but after not adding to that tally, he switched allegiance, despite opposal from Gareth Southgate, and debuted for Les Éléphants in 2017.

Duvan Zapata

Colombia 29 years old 18 caps 4 goals

Other key players David Ospina (Napoli), Yerry Mina (Everton), Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham), James Rodriguez (Everton), Luis Muriel (Atalanta), Falcao (Galatasaray)

Zapata Due to intense competition for places in attack, the hulking striker didn’t make his Colombia debut until 2017. He made Jose Pekerman’s 35-man preliminary list for Russia 2018, but was one of the players axed at the final cut. Zapata responded by hitting 23 goals in 37 games for Atalanta in the 2018/19 Serie A, and 18 in 28 the following season.

Colombia are seventh in South American qualifying, with four points from four games as they bid to reach a third successive World Cup.