On the rise: seven of the World Cup’s biggest breakout stars

We pick players, including two from Morocco, who enhanced their reputations in Qatar and could become transfer targets

Saud Abdulhamid

Saudi Arabia and Al Hilal

There was plenty to analyse when Saudi Arabia shocked Argentina in their opening game. A lot of focus was put on the lacklustre efforts of the Argentinians, who were beaten by the better team on the day. One of the key giantkillers was the right-back Abdulhamid, who has 26 caps – not bad for a 23-year-old. His hero is Brazil’s Dani Alves, which explains the marauding nature of his play up and down the flank. He brings speed, pinpoint tackling and is comfortable in possession, as well as being a set-piece specialist and having the adaptability to operate in midfield. Clubs in Europe have taken note after his impressive efforts, with Sevilla, Milan and Juventus scouts monitoring his progress. He has captained his country, a sign of his importance for Saudi Arabia, and is tipped to lead them in the years to come. WU

Yassine ‘Bono’ Bounou

Morocco and Sevilla

Sevilla’s status as a foremost club in polishing talent continued in Qatar through the brilliance of Morocco’s goalkeeper, though perhaps his status as a Europa League winner who played a crucial part in their 2020 final win over Inter ought not to have made him such a breakout star. Those two penalty saves against Spain, the country where he has played for the past decade, and his command of Morocco’s excellent, tightly drilled defence mark him out as one of the World Cup’s major talents. Canada-born and multilingual, the 31-year-old will be on any list for scouts looking for an experienced, organising goalkeeper who has shown himself to be adaptable. And Sevilla always have a price for their talent. JB

Yassine ‘Bono’ Bounou at the centre of Morocco’s celebrations after the defeat of Spain on penalties.
Yassine ‘Bono’ Bounou at the centre of Morocco’s celebrations after the defeat of Spain on penalties. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Ritsu Doan

Japan and Freiburg

Japan’s defeats of Germany and Spain will live long in national memory and followed a similar pattern. Once Doan came on the field, everything changed. Four minutes after his arrival in the first game, Doan equalised against the country where he has played his football, first for Arminia Bielefeld and, since the summer, Freiburg. Then, against Spain, Doan came on at half-time and scored within three minutes. That his team lost both games Doan started does, though, throw questions up against a player occasionally referred to as “Japan’s Messi”. He previously struggled to make an impact at PSV Eindhoven but after five years in European football anyone who can harness a winger of withering speed and a latent goal threat running beyond the strikers will have a serious asset to call upon. In this era of five substitutes, impact players have increased in premium. JB

Aïssa Laïdouni

Tunisia and Ferencvaros

Among the litany of goalless draws at the start of the tournament came a classic of the genre in Denmark v Tunisia. Laïdouni excelled in a game played in high heat and dominated a talented, experienced Denmark midfield with his energy and devilment, making one lung-bursting run after another. In that game, and against Australia, he was substituted when he could give no more, but his capacity for putting himself about was hugely striking. When Tunisia completed a historic win over France in their final group game, Laïdouni was again in the vanguard. The Ferencvaros player, lately linked with Celtic, would seem ideal for a high-pressing team. Born in France, and after starting his career with Angers, he has played in Romania and now Hungary, this season competing in the Europa League for that country’s champions. JB

Aïssa Laïdouni makes his presence felt on Kingsley Coman during Tunisia’s win against France.
Aïssa Laïdouni makes his presence felt on Kingsley Coman during Tunisia’s win against France. Photograph: Lionel Hahn/Getty Images

Dominik Livakovic

Croatia and Dinamo Zagreb

The goalkeeper made himself a shootout hero in Croatia’s wins over Japan and Brazil but his consistency as well as his penalty saves have made him the tournament’s standout goalkeeper, despite giving away a spot-kick in the semi-final defeat by Argentina. Livakovic has spent his entire career in Zagreb, first at NK before moving to Dinamo, where he has won five domestic titles. He was part of the Croatia squad that finished runners-up four years ago, but watched from the bench as understudy to one of his heroes, Danijel Subasic. Since then, the 27-year-old has become his country’s No 1 thanks to his reflexes and imposing nature in the box. He has been linked with Bayern Munich in recent weeks and could attract plenty more interest in the winter transfer window. WU

Azzedine Ounahi

Morocco and Angers

After Morocco had seen off Spain in a shootout, Luis Enrique could have been forgiven for feeling disappointed, but he took time to praise his opponents, singling out Ounahi. The midfielder made his international debut in January at the Africa Cup of Nations and was playing in the French third tier 18 months ago. He is now with Ligue 1’s bottom club, Angers, but has the confidence of a man playing at a higher level. Ounahi has spent the tournament breaking the lines in midfield, providing constant energy, while also being key in a Morocco setup that was hard to break down. He has a contract until 2025 at Angers, who would be smart to sell the 22-year-old in January with his price rightly high thanks to helping his country to the semi‑finals. WU

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Harry Souttar

Australia and Stoke

Australia’s success derived much from an alliance of A-League graduates and players of Scottish origin. Souttar, whose older brother, John, plays for Rangers and Scotland, is an Aberdonian with a Western Australian mother. His dreadnought defending laid foundations for famous wins over Tunisia and Denmark as the Socceroos reached the last 16. Three seasons ago, he was on loan at Fleetwood. Stoke, who signed him from Dundee United in 2016, had been denied his services for the past year by a cruciate injury. He had played one club game this season, against Luton on 8 November, before flying out to become an Australian national hero. At 6ft 6in, he dominated the air traffic and Graham Arnold, his national manager, has been only too happy to recommend him to Premier League suitors: “I’d be banging on his door real quick. He’s that good.” He was quickly back in action with Stoke at home to Cardiff last Saturday and is in line to feature at Bristol City on Saturday. JB


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