You don’t have to be a soccer fan to know the names Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
They’re global megastars, loved throughout the world and recognizable even by folks who don’t follow soccer. They’ve won virtually every individual honor you can win. They’ve led their teams to championships. They’ve made more money than most people could dream. And they’re the first two players any new soccer fan should follow to grow their appreciation of the game.
They’re not the only great players out there, however. There are brilliant performers playing throughout the world, if you know where to look.
Here are three other great players that you should keep an eye on this season…
Forward, Atletico Madrid in Spain’s La Liga
Griezmann’s summer was full of brilliance – and near-misses.
The 25-year-old French star started the summer by leading Atletico Madrid to the European Champions League final. He did so in spectacular fashion.
In the quarterfinals, he scored two goals in the second game to lead Atletico past Messi and FC Barcelona, considered by most to be the prohibitive favorites to win the Champions League title. Then, in the semifinals, he scored a goal in the second game to propel Atleti past German powerhouse Bayern Munich.
In the Champions League final, Atleti fell just short against Ronaldo and Spanish rival Real Madrid. He finished the Champions League tournament with 7 goals and 1 assist in 13 games.
Next came the European Championships, which saw Griezmann and host country France post win after win, including a convincing victory over World Cup champion Germany. Griezmann scored both goals against goalie Manuel Neuer – the Bayern Munich star considered by most to be the world’s best goalie — in France’s 2-1 victory over the rival Germans.
The French entered the Euro final as prohibitive favorites against – who else? – Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal. Then, when Ronaldo left the game with an injury in the first half, France seemed like an all-but-certain winner. It wasn’t meant to be, however, as Portugal stunned France in Paris. Once again, Griezmann left as a runner-up, watching Ronaldo hoist another trophy. The French star did win Player of the Tournament honors, tallying six goals and two assists in seven games, but surely would’ve traded that trophy for the team title.
The question is: Can Griezmann take that next step to bring home a title? Atleti has won La Liga just once in 20 years, doing so in 2013-14 when Griezmann played at Real Sociedad, and has never won the Champions League. The road to success will again have to go through Ronaldo and Real Madrid, as well as Messi and mighty Barcelona. So while Atleti won’t be favored to again reach the heights it hit in 2015-16, underestimate them – and Griezmann – at your peril.
Midfielder, Manchester United in England’s Premier League
Griezmann’s French teammate, Pogba is unquestionably one of the best young players in the world. He’s 23. He’s charismatic. He’s tall. He’s extraordinarily athletic. And he’s moving from Italian power Juventus to Manchester United, perhaps the world’s most popular soccer team.
It won’t be his first stop at Manchester United. After working through the team’s academy – think of it as their minor league system – Pogba played three games for the parent team in 2011-12 but didn’t score. Now returning after a star turn in Italy, the spotlight will shine more brightly on Pogba than ever before, but Manchester United is betting big that he’ll be up for the task. They paid 105 million Euros (or $117 million) to get Pogba from Juventus, the highest fee ever paid for an international soccer player. All that money combined with all that talent will add up to tremendously high expectations and pressure to perform immediately. (Well, perhaps not immediately. He missed the first game of the season — a win over Bournemouth — serving a suspension earned while still at Juventus.)
Pogba is not the only big name to make his Manchester United debut this season. The team also signed Paris Saint-Germain’s Zlatan Ibrahimović – another tall superstar with an oversized personality to match – and brought in former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho to take over for former manager Louis Van Gaal.
As we’ve seen time and time again in all different sports, teams filled with all-stars and egos don’t always play well together, and there certainly could be a danger in that with Manchester United. It could be amazing or it could be a complete train wreck. Either way, Pogba and his new manager and teammates figure to be exciting to watch.
Forward, Bayern Munich in Germany’s Bundesliga
How does 5 goals in 9 minutes sound? Almost impossible, right?
Well, that’s what Polish scoring machine Lewandowski did for Bayern Munich against Wolfsburg in September 2015. No one has ever scored five goals more quickly in a major European soccer league. He finished the Bundesliga season with 30 goals, giving him 121 goals in 194 Bundesliga games with Bayern and its archrival Borussia Dortmund. He reached 100 Bundesliga goals faster than any foreign player in league history.
He’s one of the most underappreciated great scorers in the world today. Don’t agree? Just think if Ronaldo or Messi had scored five goals that quickly. It would’ve been atop the headlines on every major sports website in the world. Lewandowski’s feat wasn’t exactly ignored, but it didn’t lead SportsCenter either.
The biggest powers in world soccer has certainly taken notice, however. The Bayern Munich star has reportedly been pursued in the offseason by Premier League power Arsenal and Spanish behemoth Real Madrid among others, all of whom offered enormous sums to Bayern for his services. Bayern officials have reportedly told teams that the Polish star is not for sale, however rumors of a potential move persist even as the start of the season nears.
Ultimately, though, it’s likely that Lewandowski will return to Bayern to help them win an unprecedented 5th straight German Bundesliga title and their first Champions League crown since 2013. (They’ve been knocked out in the semifinals the past three years.)
Like Manchester United, Bayern will welcome a new coach in Carlo Ancelotti. Ancelotti, who won two Champions League titles at AC Milan and one at Real Madrid, replaces Pep Guardiola, who opted to leave Bayern to take over at Manchester City in the Premier League. These types of changes – the successful coach of a powerhouse team leaving to take the reins of another less successful team – simply don’t happen in American sports, but they’re part of the quirkiness that makes world soccer part soap opera and part sport.
How Lewandowski and Bayern adjust to life under Ancelotti will be one of the most compelling things to watch in European soccer this fall. The smart money, however, is on Bayern to continue its recent run of success for at least another year.
Want to know more about these players? Have other questions about the upcoming season? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow us at soccer-family on Snapchat or at the SoccerFamily.soccer Facebook page.