Well, that was exciting.
The World Cup group stage is officially over, with 16 of the original 32 teams moving to the knockouts. Many of those 16 teams were not expected to advance: just look at Australia, who stunned Denmark to advance. South Korea advanced over Uruguay, Japan over Germany, Morocco over Belgium: the list goes on and on.
With these performances, several unlikely players have starred, too. With the World Cup often being used as a showcase for players to impress and earn moves, it’s a great chance for some lesser-known talents. Here are five of the players whose stock rose the most from the group stage:
(Note: This list largely excludes players who play in one of Europe’s top five leagues — Germany, Italy, Spain, France, and England — as well as most players above the age of 30 as they are likely well-known or already established.)
ST Niclas Füllkrug, 29, Germany
Füllkrug was somewhat of an odd inclusion for Germany. The Werder Bremen striker, who fired the club to promotion last season, came into the World Cup with just one cap: a friendly against Oman a week before the tournament started.
Füllkrug came on as a sub against Japan but struggled to make an impact, getting just seven touches of the ball. A few days later, with Germany down 1-0 to Spain, Füllkrug was subbed on and promptly scored the equalizer. Many wanted the tall striker to start against Costa Rica, but he was again left on the bench. Once he came off the bench, assisted a goal, and once more found the back of the net.
Despite Füllkrug basically earning Germany four points, Hansi Flick’s side still crashed out in the group stage. Many have questioned the decision to bench Füllkrug in all three matches, with the striker clearly being Germany’s most effective attacker. The Bremen man has been linked with top Bundesliga clubs, including Bayern Munich.
CAM Mohammed Kudus, 22, Ghana
Kudus was expected to be important for Ghana, as he’s currently in the midst of an impressive season with Ajax. However, the extent to which the midfielder starred was unexpected.
Kudus started Ghana’s opener, a 3-2 loss to Portugal, and looked like one of the best players on a field that included the likes of Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes. His dribbling, particularly, caused problems for the Portuguese defense, and in his next match, he scored a brace as Ghana beat South Korea. In his final match, he continued to create chances, with four shots on goal and he even earned a penalty (which his teammate Andre Ayew missed).
Ghana was unable to make it out of the group stage, winning just one match. However, the performances of Kudus have people excited, and numerous Premier League clubs like Liverpool are rumored to be interested. Kudus has the chance to become Ghana’s next star.
CB Felix Torres, 25, Ecuador
Torres is something of a recent development, having made just three international appearances until last year. Since then, Torres has become a regular with Ecuador, while also establishing himself in Liga MX with Santos Laguna.
Torres played every minute in the group stage for Ecuador, starting with a clean sheet against hosts Qatar. In the following match, Torres helped hold the Dutch to just one goal, making eight recoveries, one tackle, an interception, and four clearances — Ecuador was the only team that the Dutch didn’t score multiple goals on. Ecuador lost their final match to Senegal, with Torres assisting their lone goal and proving difficult to beat.
Ecuador did not advance to the knockouts despite losing just one match. Torres, though, turned some heads with his performances and will surely be attracting bigger clubs in the near future.
ST Cody Gakpo, 23, Netherlands
Usually a winger at club level, Cody Gakpo has been unstoppable in the Dutch Eredivisie with PSV Eindhoven this season. This has earned him a starting role for the Netherlands where — surprise, surprise — he has been in blistering form.
The Netherlands opened against Senegal, where Gakpo scored the winning goal as the Dutch won 2-0. In their next match, he scored six minutes into the game as the Netherlands tied Ecuador. In the final match against Qatar, he again scored the winner in a 2-0 victory. So, to recap: Gakpo scored the first goal in all three matches for the Dutch, he scored the winner in two of those matches, and is one of just two players to score a goal in all three group stage matches (Morata is the other).
The Dutch topped Group A, advancing to the knockouts. They are considered one of the favorites of the tournament, and Gakpo will play a big role in how far they get. Afterward, he’ll have a big decision to make as nearly every big team in Europe is after the Dutch talent.
Salem Al Dawsari, 31, Saudi Arabia
Al Dawsari is an exception to my disclaimer: even though he’s 31, his stock has risen astronomically after his performances in Qatar.
The Saudi star made an impact from day one: Al Dawsari’s screamer of a goal helped his side beat Argentina in one of the biggest World Cup upsets of all time. In his next match, against Poland, Al Dawsari had a penalty kick stopped by Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, but he continued to look lively and posed a threat all game. He did the same in the next match against Mexico, where Saudi Arabia were eliminated but Al Dawsari got on the score sheet once more.
Currently playing in Saudi Arabia, Al Dawsari should definitely be a player clubs are looking into. While some may argue that, at 31, he’s past his prime, his footwork and shooting were on full display in Qatar, and his marketing potential is immense. Saudi players rarely go abroad, but if anyone could, it would be Al Dawsari.
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