We expected Lionel Messi and Robin Van Persie to shine - and they have - but the most exciting players at the World Cup are the relative unknowns who step up. During the group stage of the World Cup, we've been treated to a buffet of drama, upsets, and golazos, by a cast largely devoid of the headliners. Brazil has introduced us to soccer's next generation of leading men.
Costa Rica is undoubtedly the darling of the tournament. The Ticos arrived in Group D - along with three former World Cup champions - as underdogs and earned enough points to move on before even playing their third match. Much of that success was due to the fast-paced play of Joel Campbell. The young Arsenal striker has been on the radar for a while, but shining on the biggest stage will eventually earn the Central American star, who has two years left on his contract, a big payday back in Europe.
John Brooks was showered in glory after the opening win against Ghana, but Johnson was the reason the US was able to take that corner. He also played well on both sides of the field, keeping out attack after Ghanaian attack. He's also shown a surprising aggressiveness, pushing forward continually during the heartbreaker against Portugal.
The triumphant draw Mexico pulled out against World Cup hosts Brazil can be almost entirely credited to the brick wall that is Guillermo Ochoa - some would argue the same could be said of El Tri's 1-0 win over Cameroon. Ochoa single-handedly took a team that struggled through qualification and pushed them through to a do-or-die against Croatia, which they won definitively. Ochoa allowed one goal through the entire group stage. He's ready for the knockout rounds.
Prior to the tournament, there was a lot of chatter about Switzerland being gifted their ranking and easy qualification run because their nation happens to be FIFA's home base. The Swiss silenced their critics with a dramatic last-second win over Ecuador in their opening match. HarisSeferovic put his team ahead in extra time, earning three points, and some deserved respect. His teammate XherdanShaqiri put up a sweet hat trick in the final match, but Seferovic paved the way.
After failing to score a single goal at the last World Cup, Algeria took on an organized South Korean team in their second game and systematically broke them down. Slimini, who didn't even get the start in Algeria's first match, started the upset with a gutsy chip shot (and an even better celebration) that sparked the four-goal performance – a first for an African nation in World Cup history. Algeria is starting its first knockout campaign and Slimini is unlikely to be spending much time on the bench.
Photos by Maurizio Borsari / AFLO / Nippon News / Corbis