Diego Maradona scored his first professional goal two weeks after he turned 16. Pelé got his for Santos club at 15. Franz Beckenbauer was 20 when he won the Best Young Player Award at the 1966 World Cup. Buck-toothed Ronaldo was already adjudged the world’s best player at 20. Luís Figo’s class was evident when he scored for Sporting CP at 19.
By the time Lionel Messi was 21, he had finished with 38 goals in a season. Cristiano Ronaldo was not far behind: His 42-goal season at Manchester United came when he was 22. Messi is now 29, Cristiano, 31. In a few years, new players will dazzle the world of football, a new generation will rise.
In a sport hungry for superstars, fans latch on to the first signs of potential: Enzo Zidane wrong-footing Cultural Leonesa’s goalkeeper to the joy of his legendary father Zinedine on the Real Madrid touchline; Ben Woodburn’s thumping finish which made him Liverpool’s youngest ever goalscorer; Denis Suárez’s cutting assists for Barcelona wearing Xavi Hernandez’s No.6 shirt; Kurt Zouma’s worldly tackles in the Chelsea backline; Héctor Bellerín’s marauding runs down Arsenal’s right—all drawing comparisons to those who have done it before them, in their positions.
There’s nothing more fascinating than witnessing the first fleeting moments of a young footballer’s talent.
These are the 13 top-rated players, aged 21 or under, who made their mark this year, who have chalk on their boots and hope in their hearts as they take flight in a cut-throat sport which remembers few and forgets many.
Ousmane Dembélé, Borussia Dortmund, forward, 19
Dembélé’s slaloming runs and ability to beat men has made him the man with the most take-ons in the Bundesliga. He’s also got a staggering 10 assists in 22 appearances so far. Add four goals to that and this is one quality teenager major clubs may soon be fighting over.
Alessio Romagnoli, AC Milan, defender, 21
Already compared to Alessandro Nesta by Yugoslavian legend Siniša Mihajlović, Romagnoli is slowly but surely becoming the mainstay in the heart of Milan’s defence and has already been capped by Italy four times since his debut in October. He admittedly wanted to be “like Zidane”, but switched to centre-back during his academy years at AS Roma. Romagnoli is constantly in the football gossip columns given Milan’s failure to recapture their glory days, and for the romantic throwback he offers as an Italian defender.
Marco Asensio, Real Madrid, midfielder, 20
Enzo Zidane may have made headlines recently, but the really special talent in the Real squad is Asensio. After creating 15 goals last season for Espanyol on loan, Asensio has shown the skill and tenacity to slot behind Real’s BBC attack (Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo) and has already scored six goals in 17 matches.
Marcus Rashford, Manchester United, forward, 19
Rashford burst past a couple of defenders in pre-season, making even Zlatan Ibrahimović pause and take notice. His two goals on debut made him United’s youngest scorer in European competition, beating George Best’s record. He scored against Arsenal and Manchester City in quick succession to take his place as the next big thing from United’s academy.
Gianluigi Donnarumma, AC Milan, goalkeeper, 17
Donnarumma was already on the bench before he turned 16. At 16 years and 242 days, he made his senior debut, and at 17 years and 189 days, played for Italy; the youngest goalkeeper to play for their senior side. Donnarumma can’t vote or get a driver’s licence, but he has already made 46 appearances for AC Milan. His idol Gianluigi Buffon said that “he is doing all the right things”.
José Giménez, Atlético Madrid, defender, 21
Atlético bought Giménez for just €900,000 (Rs6.4 crore now) in 2013. Today, he is the most valuable under-21 centre-back in terms of market value, with a price tag of at least €30 million. Giménez is struggling with injury this season, making just six appearances, but has already played 74 times for Atlético, and was pivotal in their La Liga winning campaign in 2014-15 and on the road to the Champions League final last season. He’s also turned out 30 times for Uruguay, a phenomenal start for the strong centre-back.
Kingsley Coman, Bayern Munich, forward, 20
At 20, Coman has won the Serie A, the Italian Cup, the Bundesliga, the German Cup and two Ligue 1 titles. He’s played for Bayern, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain FC. And as the influence of Arjen Robben (32) and Franck Ribéry (33) wanes, Coman, with his blistering pace and silken skills is ideally placed to become Bayern’s primary weapon for attacks down the flanks.
Jonathan Tah, Bayer Leverkusen, defender, 20
Towering over his peers at 6ft, 3 inches, Tah, just like Giménez, shows experience as a centre-back that belies his age. The Hamburg-born burly defender has already played 84 times for Bayer Leverkusen and Hamburg SV and broke into the German senior team as well, making three appearances since March this year. Tah boasts of winning 58% of his duels and has just two yellow cards in the season so far (17 appearances).
Timo Werner, RB Leipzig, forward, 20
Werner had scored just seven goals in 33 appearances for VfB Stuttgart last season, but that didn’t stop Leipzig from making him their main marksman in a campaign which has seen them take top spot in the Bundesliga. Werner has proven a worthwhile investment, scoring eight goals in 15 matches. A couple of good seasons at Leipzig and we may see him at a top European club soon.
Gabriel Barbosa, Inter Milan, forward, 20
Dubbed the next Neymar, Barbosa has pace, close-control and an incredible ability to beat his marker. Reports say Barcelona inserted a clause during the Neymar deal that gives them first right on Gabriel. He’s had a torrid time at Inter Milan but a forward who was Santos club’s top-scorer at the age of 18, despite not playing as a striker, is screaming to be let loose on Europe. The sooner the better.
Renato Sanches, Bayern Munich, midfielder, 19
Sanches, in a deal which could cost Bayern €80 million, is the most expensive player to leave the Portuguese league. His robust playing style and combative midfield presence, paired with immaculate technique and vision, brought him the Young Player of the Tournament award after winning Euro 2016 with Portugal.
Gabriel Jesus, Manchester City, forward, 19
Pep Guardiola wouldn’t pay €32 million for an ordinary player. Gabriel was bought in the summer and loaned back to Palmeiras till January, when he will be exposed to the Premier League as Sergio Aguero’s protégé. In the meantime, he has scored 17 goals in 25 matches. He displayed great finesse and flair as he led Brazil’s attack during their gold-medal winning run at the Olympics. Expect him to mature under one of the best coaches in the world.
Dele Alli, Tottenham Hotspur, midfielder, 20
Shuttling between MK Dons and Tottenham Hotspur didn’t stop Alli from exploding onto the Premier League scene last season by scoring 10 and creating 11. The attacking midfielder has made 15 appearances for England already and has been involved in eight goals this season for Spurs.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and news editor (sport) at Scoopwhoop.