Slideshow: World Cup players to watch
<p>Before the 2014 World Cup kicks off Thursday, espnW.com takes a quick look at the top players and storylines in Brazil. From Argentina's "Flea" to Portugal's prodigal son to the latest superstar to don No. 10 for Brazil, we get you primed for futebol's biggest event.<br><br>Want more? Check out Julie Foudy's "Good Morning America" feature below:<br><br> <iframe src='http://abcnews.go.com/video/embed?id=24102743' width='640' height='360' style='border:none;'></iframe><br/><a href="http://abcnews.go.com/us">Hottest player in the World Cup</a>
Are you ready for some futebol?
Before the 2014 World Cup kicks off Thursday, espnW.com takes a quick look at the top players and storylines in Brazil. From Argentina's "Flea" to Portugal's prodigal son to the latest superstar to don No. 10 for Brazil, we get you primed for futebol's biggest event.
Want more? Check out Julie Foudy's "Good Morning America" feature below:
Hottest player in the World Cup
Lionel Messi, Argentina, forward
The best player in the world has a short stature, and his 5-foot-7 size long ago earned him the nickname "The Flea" -- but it could double for the way he pesters opponents. Defenders swarm Messi, but he can dribble through them as if the ball is glued to his foot. With games against Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria in group play, Messi looks poised to put the ball in the back of the net as the early frontrunner for the Golden Boot, awarded to the player who scores the most goals in the World Cup. But Messi is still seeking his first World Cup title.
Neymar, Brazil, forward
It's players like Neymar -- and yes, he's just the latest in a long line of Brazilian stars who go by a single name -- who make the phrase "the beautiful game" more than hyperbole. Rafa Ramos of ESPN Deportes calls Neymar "the king of his own carnival." He puts on a show every time he touches the ball and scores in ways you haven't seen. But he is also just 22 and carries the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders. When Brazil hosted but fell in the championship game of the 1950 World Cup, the loss was said to bring the country to tears. Now, no European team has ever won a World Cup on South American soil. But will this No. 10 help Brazil win its sixth World Cup, but first since 2002?
Eden Hazard, Belgium, midfielder
One of the game's biggest rising stars, the 23-year-old Eden had a breakout season with Chelsea and is a big reason many experts are labeling Belgium the dark horse of the World Cup. That Hazard can do it all -- assist, score, pass and dribble -- with efficiency and speed? Huzzah.
Tim Howard, United States, goalkeeper
With every analyst and expert labeling the U.S. defense as the team's Achilles' heel -- and his own coach saying the United States isn't yet ready to win a World Cup -- the pressure is on the American goalkeeper. Howard started each of Team USA's games as it reached the round of 16 in 2010 and is a savvy veteran coming off an impressive performance for Everton in the English Premier League. But in Group D -- known as the "Group of Death" -- Howard will have to keep the ball out of the net against the likes of Portugal, Germany and Ghana.
Arjen Robben, Netherlands, forward
This dynamic Dutchman is a proven winner, capturing club titles in England, Germany, Spain and in his home country. The veteran and his famous left foot helped lead the Netherlands to the championship game in 2010, and a high-powered offense is back with Robin van Persie beside Robben on the front line and Wesley Sneijder in the middle.
Andres Iniesta, Spain, midfielder
Rewind four years and it was Iniesta's goal in the 116th minute that led Spain to its first World Cup title with a 1-0 win over the Netherlands. The two teams meet again Friday (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET) in perhaps the most highly anticipated match of group play. Iniesta spends his club time teaming up with Messi for Barcelona, but in Brazil, the brilliant and always-composed playmaker spearheads Spain's efforts to win consecutive World Cup titles.
Philipp Lahm, Germany, defender
The 30-year-old team captain epitomizes Germany's consistency. Whether playing in the midfield or on the back line, Lahm is simply one of the game's best passers, and he always delivers the ball where it needs to be. He has excellent one-on-one defensive skills, but he's at his most exciting when he's on the flank either shutting down an opponent or creating offense. He does not play bad games.
Luis Suarez, Uruguay, forward
Suarez is fresh off a record-breaking year at Liverpool, where he became the first player in club history to score at least 30 goals in a season. Named the English Premier League player of the season for 2013-14, he actually ranked first ahead of Messi and Ronaldo in Bloomberg Sports' Power 50 as Europe's most influential player. The trouble is, Suarez underwent surgery on his left knee on May 22, and his return for group stage play is questionable. But Uruguay's hopes of at least matching 2010's run to the World Cup semifinals depends on his availability.
Yaya Toure, Ivory Coast, midfielder
The 6-foot-2 Manchester City star, left, is a perfect balance of power and finesse. Known primarily as a defensive anchor in the midfield, he can also attack and has an uncanny sense of where to deliver the ball and keep possession. All eyes are on Toure's health at the moment; he has been struggling with an unspecified injury and might not be available for Saturday's opener against Japan.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal, Forward
He's equal parts cocky and confident, and pop culture celebrity and soccer star. The 2013 Ballon d'Or winner -- awarded by FIFA to the world's best player -- ranked No. 2 on Forbes' list of the highest-paid athletes (behind King James) with $80 million in annual earnings, and he also has 84 million Facebook followers. But take away the Tag Heuer and Nike endorsements, and he still strikes a ball with the same precision of his chiseled abs (don't act like you haven't noticed them). This marks his third World Cup with Portugal; it finished fourth in 2006 but didn't advance past the round of 16 four years ago.