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The Declan Rice World Cup? Why West Ham's captain could find new fans at Real Madrid and Barcelona in Qatar

COMMENT: The scouts. The managers. The presidents. They know of him. They're aware of him. But in terms of a buying option, Declan Rice isn't on their radar. That is, at least for the moment...

Of course, in England everyone is aware of the West Ham United captain. Indeed, we had news just recently of Rice turning down a package worth over £200,000-a-week from Liverpool during the summer. But by the time Qatar 2022 concludes, the question could well be: would Anfield be a big enough stage for the England midfielder?

For the moment, in terms of the transfer market and England, it's been Bellingham, Bellingham, Bellingham. Borussia Dortmund have slapped a €150m price-tag on the teen, as every major club at home in England and across Europe express an interest. With just over 18 months to run on his current deal and his minders resisting all attempts from Dortmund to discuss new terms, it does appear Jude Bellingham will be on the move in 2023.

As we say, the former Birmingham City trainee is dominating the headlines. More so than skipper Harry Kane. More than the lacklustre Raheem Sterling. For England. For it's media. It's pundits. Jude Bellingham is it.

But for this column, the breakout star for this World Cup campaign could be Rice. Indeed, with his deal also running down in 2024. And his decision to three times reject new contract offers from his club this year. It could be Rice, not Bellingham, who is offered that once-in-a-lifetime chance to sign for a Real Madrid or Barcelona.

They know him on the continent. Jose Angel Sanchez, the No2 at Real Madrid to president Florentino Perez, has followed Rice recently. He's discussed the midfielder with Florentino - who's long been a fan of English talent. With the overhaul of Real's ageing midfield still in full swing, the prospect of bringing England's best young midfielder to the Bernabeu could be explored.

As it could be at the Nou Camp, where the need for a player of Rice's qualities is more acute. Franck Kessie, after his Bosman arrival from AC Milan, has struggled to meet expectations. While the hope of Sergi Busquets being convinced to stay on next season diminishes by the day.

So there's an opening for Rice. An opportunity. But it will all depend on how he performs in this Qatari shop window.

In the press. Across the media. We'd accept being accused of putting two and two together and getting five. No-one's talking about Rice. At least not as an influence. Yeah, there's your typical quirky, goodwill stories that'll do the rounds. But no-one's putting forward Rice as a player to watch. Certainly no-one outside the borders of England.

But given his form going into the tournament. The way he has embraced the West Ham captaincy inherited from Mark Noble. For the player he is. For the influence he can have. Rice is primed, at 23, to not only surprise, but actually dominate this World Cup. He's more Bryan Robson than Paul Gascoigne, but there is that sense of Rice stunning the world just as Gazza did back in Italia 90.

As we say, he's not Gazza. But with his box-to-box game. His power. His courage. Indeed, everything we've seen this season in an Irons shirt. Rice is the most likely, beyond all others in this England squad, to emerge from Qatar as a breakout star.

A new Robson? It's close. Watching Rice at times this season has this column recalling the days of the former Manchester United captain carrying the club in the mid-1980s. Think Bryan on that famous Old Trafford evening against Barcelona and Diego Maradona. That's the sense you get from Rice. One moment he's inside his own box winning the ball, the next he's at the other end trying, through sheer will, to make something happen. Indeed, his performance in the stalemate at United a fortnight ago was typical of the Londoner. It was basically Rice against United, with an able support cast galvanised by their captain.

With better players around him. The stage is there for Rice to introduce himself to a world audience. Of course, even a half decent display will have the English press declaring him the greatest to play the game. But beyond such noise, those whom matter will take notice.

Tony Carr, who signed Rice after his release from Chelsea as a junior, predicted his former protégé's decision-making this summer. Everything pointed towards the World Cup. An offer from Liverpool. An eight-year contract tabled by West Ham. It couldn't sway him. His focus was on Qatar.

"I'd hate to see him go this summer, personally, because we've got a World Cup coming up in November," Carr, the long-time Hammers academy legend, told Tribalfootball.com earlier this year. "My advice would be stay at West Ham, have a good World Cup and then maybe move in January or the following summer."

Which appears the plan for Rice. It's a tough one for Hammers fans. Particularly those fortunate enough to have watched Rice come right through their system. But as Carr says, there would be an acceptance if the LaLiga came knocking.

"The reaction would be different with Declan," says Carr. "They understand that if West Ham don't get back into Europe or don't buy well then fans would accept it, think Joe Cole and players like that. He would forever be a Hammers favourite."

Qatar is a shop window for Rice. Under the radar at West Ham. Avoiding the headlines with England. All that will change if he takes his club form into this World Cup.

Real Madrid. Barcelona. They know of him. They're aware of him. And if Declan Rice performs, they'll surely attempt to buy him.

 



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Chris Beattie

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