Gab Marcotti’s players to know, cult heroes on all 24 teams


Euro 2020 kicks off this Friday with Italy vs. Turkey in Rome — stream LIVE, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+ (U.S. only) — but who are the players on every team that you need to know before the real fun begins over the weekend? ESPN senior writer Gab Marcotti runs through all 24 teams and picks out the STAR MAN (player likely to make the biggest impact) and GAB’S GUY (the lesser-known, under-the-radar player who could break out on the big stage).

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STAR MAN: David Alaba (DF, 28 years old, Bayern Munich/will join Real Madrid)

Even before you get to what he does on the pitch, you realize David Alaba is a poster boy for globalization. His mother is Filipino (and a former beauty pageant contestant). His dad is a Nigerian prince (and a DJ). His sister is a pop star. He’s Vienna born-and-bred, spent most of his career in Munich and is moving to Real Madrid as a free agent. He made his name as a left-back and played center-back much of last season, but will likely play in attacking midfield for Austria at the Euros.

Alaba is a defensive star at the club level, but he’ll get to show more of his attacking skills for Austria at the Euros. Joerg Mitter – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

Total player. Total football. Total versatility. In fact, if Alaba wasn’t so good at so many things — and if he was a touch less humble and a dollop more egomaniacal — he might be appreciated even more. At Bayern, he leaves the spotlight to others; with Austria, he leads the way.

GAB’S GUY: Christoph Baumgartner (MF, 21, TSG Hoffenheim)

Not to be confused with the near-eponymous Baumgartlinger (that would be Julian, also a midfielder and Austria’s captain) or indeed Bumgarner (that would be Madison, a pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks), Baumgartner is an attacking midfielder and a goal threat from distance.

STAR MAN: Romelu Lukaku (FW, 28, Inter Milan)

The big man is already the leading scorer in the history of the Belgium national team — in fact, his 60 goals are almost as many as the next two combined — and while he’s always been prolific, the past two years have seen him evolve from a strong, direct striker to a more subtle offensive leader, capable of assisting and providing service for teammates.

It’s likely the quality was always there, but it’s almost too easy for managers to typecast the guys who are bigger, stronger and faster than everybody else as just target men. Lukaku also speaks six languages, is probably one of the more intelligent footballers you’ll meet, and, as his own story in his own words suggests, definitely one of the more perceptive and self-aware.

GAB’S GUY: Youri Tielemans (MF, 24, Leicester City)

On a team with so much attacking talent (Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens, Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Jeremy Doku) somebody has to man the fort in midfield, and it’s going to be him. Though given his quality, eye for goal and ballistic prowess (witness the game winning goal he scored in the FA Cup final), he probably could do a fine job further forward as well.

STAR MAN: Luka Modric (MF, 35, Real Madrid)

He was downright Herculean (or, better yet, Cruyffian… squint a little, focus on the hair and the movement and maybe, just maybe, you’ll see it) in the last World Cup, leading Croatia into the final. But that’s not the only reason he’s still the hub of Croatia’s wheel. He’s coming off a superb season at Real Madrid, possibly his finest since landing at the Bernabeu nine summers ago. What he’s lost in athleticism, he has largely made up for in guile and intelligence.

The skill? Well, that’s still there, as is the aptitude for leaving everything on the pitch. Catch a glimpse of him at the end of a game: shirt matted, face sunken, lips curled… this is what the little warrior looks like at rest.

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GAB’S GUY: Marcelo Brozovic (MF, 28, Inter Milan)

“The Broz” is maturing nicely; the roller coaster of youth has made way for metronomic consistency, without losing the knack for mixing it at the right time. Like a point guard in basketball, he keeps Croatia ticking over until Modric is ready to do his thing.

STAR MAN: Tomas Soucek (MF, 26, West Ham United)

Tomas Soucek isn’t a footballer; he’s a Cyborg, some kind of Czech RoboCop. He played every minute of every game this season (even when he was sent off, against Fulham, he made sure it was after the 90th minute), covered more ground than most and finished second among midfielders in goals scored. The fact that he does it in a 6-foot-4, 190-pound frame that enables him to hulk over most central midfielders, and that he has the sort of stamina not seen since the T2000 in Terminator 2, makes him all the more awkward a matchup.

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GAB’S GUY: Patrik Schick (FW, 25, Bayer Leverkusen)

He’s tall and technically gifted, which is why scouts get excited when they see him. Alas, things have really only come together for him in fits and spurts. Could this be the tournament when it all clicks?

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STAR MAN: Christian Eriksen (MF, 29, Inter Milan)

You wonder sometimes how Eriksen’s career might have panned out if he’d been born in a different frame (maybe something with more visible muscle and tattoos), with different hair (both on his head — anything other than the kid cut — and on his face) and a different expression (like a scowl or even a grin). Instead, he looks “soft” and at times uninterested, which may explain why he was in and out of Inter’s starting lineup under Mr. Intensity, Antonio Conte.

Looks are deceiving. Eriksen covers a ton of ground, just without snarling or panting. Either way, that’s not why he’s in the lineup. He’s there because he can hit a ball as sweetly as anyone and can create chances out of nothing.

GAB’S GUY: Yussuf Poulsen (FW, 26, RB Leipzig)

He’s the forward who doesn’t score, or, at least, doesn’t score much. Everything else, though — running, tackling, tracking back — he does with as much gusto as anyone.

STAR MAN: Harry Kane (FW, 27, Tottenham Hotspur)

By now, most know the story of the little boy born a few miles from White Hart Lane who was raised a Spurs fan and fulfilled his dream of captaining Tottenham. And they also know how he overcame unsuccessful trials as a little boy, and being sent on loan on four separate occasions, before the club realized that he was actually pretty good. Kane has gone far beyond that: no longer just a finisher, he’s also one of the smartest providers from a center-forward position.

Recently, he has complained about wanting to win team trophies rather than simply individual accolades. While British media speculate that this foreshadows a move to a wealthier, more successful club, his best bet to win team silverware might actually be with England.

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GAB’S GUY: Jack Grealish (MF/FW, 25, Aston Villa)

He’s a wild card. Given the abundance of more established players in Gareth Southgate’s team, we may not get to see him much. Which would be a shame, because he is one of the most exciting and unconventional individual talents England have, blessed with trickery, personality and an ability to make things happen.

STAR MAN: Teemu Pukki (FW, 31, Norwich City)

He looks more like a garden gnome than a world-class striker. And maybe he really is magical, because it’s as if somebody flipped a switch in the middle of his career turning him into a prolific goal scorer. He made his debut at 16, and in the first 10 years of his career, he scored 52 league goals for clubs in Finland, Germany, Scotland and Denmark. In the five years since, he has scored 103 for Denmark’s Brondby and England’s Norwich (for the latter, most have come in the Championship, admittedly, but he did get 11 in the top flight two years ago).

His international goals have taken off as well: eight prior to the summer of 2016, a whopping 22 since. How long will the magic last?

GAB’S GUY: Lukas Hradecky (GK, 31, Bayer Leverkusen)

This is Finland’s first major tournament and they’re 54th in the FIFA rankings, so the obvious joke is that he’ll be kept busy. And that’s fine, because Hradecky is one of the better keepers at Euro 2020 and the way his Leverkusen team defend, he’s undoubtedly used to it.

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Antoine Griezmann is very proud of his quintuple won with Newcastle in Football Manager.

STAR MAN: Kylian Mbappe (FW, 22, Paris Saint-Germain)

He’s one-half of the duo of heirs apparent to the Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo duopoly that has dominated the game for the past 15 years or so. (The other, Erling Haaland, will be watching the Euros on TV because Norway failed to quality.) Mbappe has some big decisions to make — his contract with PSG expires in less than a year’s time — but delivering another major trophy, after the 2018 World Cup, to Les Bleus might push him to want to write the next chapter of his career elsewhere.

Mbappe is lightning-quick, prolific in front of goal and extremely settled in a group oozing with talent in every area of the pitch.

GAB’S GUY: N’Golo Kante (MF, 30, Chelsea)

He wrote his fairy tale leading Leicester City to the Premier League title in 2015-16, he followed up by delivering Chelsea the Champions League last month. It’s up to you whether you choose to focus on his bottomless stamina or, now that he’s older and coming off an injury, his on-pitch intelligence and reading of the game. (I’d suggest the latter.)

STAR MAN: Joshua Kimmich (MF, 26, Bayern Munich)

When he broke through with Bayern, some saw him as the heir to Philipp Lahm: equally comfortable at fullback, central defence or central midfield, a gifted laser and a natural leader. Except Lahm was a lead-by-example type; Kimmich is more a grab-you-by-the-scruff-of-the-neck-and-shout-in-your-face type. He covers plenty of ground and does it with quality, while popping up with the occasional big goal as well.

A natural emotional leader, Kimmich has future Mannschaft captain written all over him.

GAB’S GUY: Thomas Muller (FW, 31, Bayern Munich)

He’s back after a three-year exile from the national team, and it’s hard not to root for him. He might not be the most technically gifted, but he’s living proof the game is played with the heart and the brain as much as it is with the feet.

STAR MAN: Peter Gulacsi (GK, 31, RB Leipzig)

He bounced around early in his career, failing to make the grade at Liverpool, but has since established himself as one of the best keepers in the Bundesliga over the past few seasons. His skills were obvious from a young age — he’s a consummate shot-stopper who is very comfortable playing behind a high defensive line at Leipzig — but it took a while for him to get the opportunity to repay the faith shown in him. Now, he’s a leader from the back and a vocal personality on and off the pitch: he ruffled more than a few feathers back home expressing his support for the LGBTQ community.

GAB’S GUY: Nemanja Nikolic (FW, 33, Fehervar)

A rare Major League Soccer alumnus (he spent three seasons with the Chicago Fire) at the Euros, Nikolic actually retired from international duty three years ago, only to be tempted back by manager Marco Rossi. A strong, bustling center-forward, he won scoring titles in MLS, Poland and Hungary.

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Julie Foudy and Tim Howard explain why Roberto Mancini’s Italy shouldn’t be overlooked at Euro 2020.

STAR MAN: Nicolo Barella (MF, 24, Inter Milan)

Born in Sardinia, he came through the ranks of his local club, Cagliari, which he joined as a 9-year-old and left two years ago, at 22, as its emotional leader. Some folks are just born to lead and when you play with the rare combination of grit and genius that Barella brings, it’s not surprising. He’s not afraid to take responsibility and seems to relish the 30-yard, long-range shot on goal as much as the lung-bursting recovery run.

Italy are blessed with a core of talented midfielders, but Barella is the standout in terms of charisma.

GAB’S GUY: Giorgio Chiellini (DF, 36, Juventus)

The king of old-school defending, Chiellini can be as nasty and theatrical on the pitch as he is eloquent and erudite off it: he has a degree in economics as well as an MBA.

STAR MAN: Memphis Depay (FW, 27, Lyon)

Despite growing up in rural Holland, he may be the most “street” player in this tournament. When Memphis is switched on, he’s simply electric, beating players single-handedly and creating his own shots. That’s increasingly been the case at Lyon, where he relaunched his career after fizzling out in his move to Manchester United. A lot of the players talk the talk: he walked the walk, taking a pay cut and re-establishing himself as a dominant player in the French league.

Given how this Dutch team is strong in the middle of defence and midfield, only to falter up front, Memphis has had to carry the attacking end on his own at times. He’s a free agent this summer and has been strongly linked with a move to Barcelona.

GAB’S GUY: Matthijs de Ligt (DF, 21, Juventus)

Tall, elegant on the ball and cool under pressure, De Ligt has been something of a prodigy since making his debut for the Oranje at 17. Unlike some who had greatness thrust upon them at a young age, he’s met every challenge thus far.

STAR MAN: Goran Pandev (FW, 37, Genoa)

OK, this is a sentimental choice. It’s not just the fact that he turns 38 this month, it’s that next season (yes, he’s not quitting) will be his 23rd as a professional. Pandev doesn’t get around the pitch quite as well as he used to do when he was winning the Champions League with Jose Mourinho’s Inter in 2010, but he can still be lethal in and around the box, as he proved when scoring the goal that took North Macedonia to the Euros. The fact that he doesn’t quite look like a modern footballer, with his receding hairline and five o’clock shadow, is fitting, too; he belongs to another era. And the fact that he’s still excelling in this era tells you just how special he is.

GAB’S GUY: Ezgjan Alioski (DF/MF, 29, Leeds United)

Five years ago, he was in the Swiss second flight and nearly quit the game altogether. Since then, he’s been mentored by two geniuses of attacking football (Zdenek Zeman at Lugano, Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds) and established himself as a Premier League mainstay.

STAR MAN: Robert Lewandowski (FW, 32, Bayern Munich)

He’s coming off a season in which, despite missing a month through injury, he scored 41 league goals — breaking Gerd Muller’s 39-year Bundesliga record — plus another seven in all competitions and another five for Poland, so, yeah, you could say he’s going into the Euros on a high. Lewandowski is the consummate modern all-around center-forward: a lethal finisher who can beat you in many different ways, sure, but also, off the ball, an athletic force who chases and harangues defenders like there’s no tomorrow and is a lynchpin for any pressing team.

The intensity may be genetic: his mom was a competitive volleyball player, his dad a black belt in judo. Oh, and his wife is a black belt in karate, for good measure.

GAB’S GUY: Piotr Zielinski (MF, 27, Napoli)

The former wunderkind of Polish football has become a man. His perceptive passing draws comparisons to Kevin De Bruyne, which is about as high a compliment you can pay a guy who plays in that role.

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Gab Marcotti talks through the sensational Cristiano Ronaldo had for Portugal from the sidelines during the Euro 2016 final.

STAR MAN: Cristiano Ronaldo (FW, 36, Juventus)

Who else was I going to pick? His influence over the defending champions hasn’t waned one iota, even as the supporting cast has grown stronger relative to four years ago. Ronaldo enjoyed arguably his best campaign at Juventus this season, despite the club struggling to finish in the top four. Age has slowed him down, but if this is a decline, it’s the sort of decline most players can only fantasize about in their wildest dreams. He’s still one of the best finishers around, his aerial ability is Jordan-esque and he’s extremely durable. And far from being fazed by expectations, he embraces the spotlight like few others.

GAB’S GUY: Raphael Guerreiro (DF, 27, Borussia Dortmund)

Blew hot and cold last season — injuries and chaos at Dortmund played their part — but few wide players are as good as he is at offering speed and playmaking from wide areas. Defensively he’s improved too, but that’s not why he’s in the team: full-back is no longer a defensive position.

STAR MAN: Artem Dzyuba (FW, 32, Zenit Saint Petersburg)

This oversized, physical center-forward divides opinion, as big men often do. But the dark secret that many teams don’t want you to know is that they simply hate playing against tall, back-to-goal throwback strikers like Dzyuba, especially when there are talented guys running off him (like, hopefully, midfielder Aleksandr Golovin). Dzyuba isn’t fun to play against and, at times, even less fun to watch, but there’s a warrior quality to him. And, he has bounce-back ability: he was dumped from the national team after a lewd (solo) video went viral. He apologized, received an endorsement from Russian president Vladimir Putin (“he learned his lesson and can come back stronger”) and now here he is.

GAB’S GUY: Aleksandr Golovin (MF, 25, AS Monaco)

He was one of the heroes of Russia’s run to the 2018 World Cup semifinals, earning himself a club-record move to Monaco, but has been slowed by injuries and poor performances since. If things are to click for Russia at the Euros, they’ll need his creativity and invention.

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Julien Laurens has a bold suggestion for Scotland to get the best out of Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney.

STAR MAN: Andy Robertson (DF, 27, Liverpool)

He’s appeared in 61 games (starting 59 of them) for Liverpool and Scotland in the past nine months, the sort of athletic and physical feat that makes you wonder how his legs haven’t fallen off. And Robertson doesn’t hold back, thundering backwards and forwards up the left flank, one sprint after the other. He plays further forward for Scotland — who play a back three — than he does for Liverpool, and will have to shoulder far more of the attacking responsibility.

GAB’S GUY: John McGinn (MF, 26, Aston Villa)

As a teenager, he was nearly killed in an accident on the training ground when a teammate, horsing around like teenagers do, threw a spiked training pole in his direction and it went some 3 inches into his leg, perilously close to the femoral artery. That alone makes him stand out; his tireless (and intelligent) running is a bonus.

STAR MAN: Milan Skriniar (DF, 26, Inter Milan)

He’s the bedrock of the Slovak defence. He also won the Serie A title this season with Inter, despite being dropped early in the season. Skriniar isn’t always pretty to watch, but the no-nonsense style works for him. Slovakia promises to be pretty straightforward at this Euros, relying on the counterattack and gritty defending to grind out results. That’s what Skriniar does best, and that’s why he’ll be leading from the back.

GAB’S GUY: Marek Hamsik (MF, 33, Gothenburg)

The mohawked marvel was a darling of Napoli fans for more than a decade before moving to China (and, later, to Sweden) but remained the beating heart of Slovakian football. He may have lost a step, but the drive — and the trademark long-range prowess — is still there.

STAR MAN: Thiago Alcantara (MF, 30, Liverpool)

The thing about Thiago Alcantara is that he doesn’t play all that much — he’s started more than 20 league games in a season just twice in his career — but when he does, he’s usually a difference-maker. Most teams know how to defend and clog the penalty area and, when that happens, it takes a creative, perceptive passer to unlock chances. That’s precisely what Thiago does, and just about as well as anyone in his role.

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He’s got the pedigree too: his father was a World Cup-winning defender with Brazil who later settled in Barcelona, where young Thiago and his brother Rafinha learned their trade.

GAB’S GUY: Gerard Moreno (FW, 29, Villarreal)

He’s one of the most clever forwards you’ll find and also one of the most unselfish, just as happy shooting on goal as he is beavering away to create space for teammates. And he’s coming off his most prolific season, having scored no fewer than 30 goals in all competitions.

STAR MAN: Alexander Isak (FW, 21, Real Sociedad)

With Zlatan Ibrahimovic missing the Euros due to injury, here’s the guy stuck with having to carry the burden of being his heir. Like Zlatan, he’s the son of immigrants (Eritrea, in his case), and like Zlatan he’s tall and lanky, but elegant on the ball. And, like Zlatan, he got the phenom tag at a young age, scoring on his debut as a 16-year-old and netting again in his second game. His ascent, however, hasn’t been quite vertical since then and it’s only this year at Real Sociedad that he truly established his bona fides as a starter and a star, scoring 17 league goals.

GAB’S GUY: Emil Forsberg (MF, 29, RB Leipzig)

This tricky pixie of a midfielder is blessed with tremendous vision and a knack for scoring big goals. Starts out wide, cuts inside and weaves his magic.

STAR MAN: Remo Freuler (MF, 29, Atalanta)

He runs and runs and runs and runs and scores and runs and runs and runs… OK, I’m exaggerating. But only a bit. Freuler is the perpetual motion machine in the middle of the park, which made him an ideal fit for Atalanta’s run-and-gun approach into the Champions League knockout phases. Switzerland are a rather more staid and conservative side, which makes him all the more valuable because he’s the guy to raise the tempo when necessary, particularly alongside the more static Granit Xhaka in midfield. Do not be surprised or alarmed if you see him pop up in both boxes in the space of seconds. There aren’t two Freulers; it’s the same guy.

GAB’S GUY: Xherdan Shaqiri (MF, 29, Liverpool)

Compact and stout, Shaqiri wears No. 23 in honour of Michael Jordan, though he’s more like the short, chunky guy who dominates the playground court and never gives up the ball. Didn’t get much playing time at Liverpool and injuries slowed him down, but heck, he did this at the last Euro, confirming his baller credentials.

STAR MAN: Burak Yilmaz (FW, 35, LOSC Lille)

Lille shocked France by winning Ligue 1 last season, despite saying “adieu” to a number of star players the previous summer and despite a midseason change in ownership that saw them flirting with insolvency. Yilmaz was a big part of it, finishing as Lille’s top scorer with 16 goals.

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Few expected this given that he seemed like an afterthought when he arrived: an aging, big-bodied free agent who’d spent his entire career in Turkey (apart from two years in China) and who’d contribute little beyond playing bumper cars in the box. Only strength and a nose for goal don’t decay with age, and if this is the twilight of his career, he wants to light it up with fireworks at the Euros.

GAB’S GUY: Caglar Soyuncu (DF, 25, Leicester City)

Broad, big-haired and blessed with a perfect jawline, Soyuncu combines athleticism with a delicate touch on the ball. Soyuncu was one of the first Turkish players to bypass the country’s traditional big clubs and go straight from a small provincial club to a Big Five league.

STAR MAN: Oleksandr Zinchenko (DF/MF, 24, Manchester City)

Premier League fans will know him as a left-back, but for Ukraine he plays as an attacking midfielder. (Come to think of it, in Pep Guardiola’s system, fullbacks often play as attacking midfielders, so maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise…) If at club level he often defers to others, here he’s one of the leaders, acting as the main creative force in Andriy Shevchenko’s 4-3-3 formation. He may look boyish, but there’s a definite underlying toughness. Zinchenko went through some tough spells at City when he wasn’t playing. As a teenager, he was forced to flee his native Donbass region in Ukraine after it was annexed by Russia.

GAB’S GUY: Ruslan Malinovskyi (MF, 28, Atalanta)

Few players in this tournament strike a ball harder than he does, and his long-range shooting alone makes him worth watching. He’s grown as an all-rounder since joining Atalanta two years ago, finishing the 2020-21 campaign with six goals in his last eight appearances.

STAR MAN: Gareth Bale (FW, 31, Real Madrid)

It’s rude to call Wales a “one-man team,” but there’s no escaping the fact that in terms of natural ability (both technical and athletic), Bale occupies another dimension to his teammates. Case in point, he has four Champions League trophies at home; only two others in this squad have even played in a Champions League knockout game (one is Aaron Ramsey, the other is the answer to a trivia question). In full flight, Bale is elegant and majestic, boasting the close control and finishing ability to match. That’s why he was once the most expensive player in the world.

His club career may have gone south because of injuries and poor performances — Real Madrid had to pay half his salary last season for Tottenham to take him on loan — but when he flickers into life, he’s near unplayable. Put him in a red shirt with a dragon on it and he breathes fire, like he proved in 2016, when he willed this team into the semifinals.

GAB’S GUY: Daniel James (MF/FW 23, Manchester United)

He may be limited on the ball, but you can’t teach speed and he has plenty. In this low-scoring sport, everything can change in an instant when you have a guy who can do this.



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