Russia 2018 World Cup Preview: Who will be the tournament's best young player?
The FIFA World Cup is the biggest stage of them all. Sucess doesn’t come on a silver platter. Being a quadrennial event, players only get the chance to feature once when they're regarded as toddlers.
Certain youngsters have used this avenue to shoot their careers into the limelight. The easiest, yet gruelling method is winning the tournament’s Best Young Player award. Lukas Podolski, Thomas Muller and Paul Pogba are the most recent recipients. All have gone on to stardom.
For a starlet to qualify for this recognition, he must be born on or after 1 January 1997. Who is primed to carry the torch in Russia? Here we rank the 10 top potential winners.
Prior to the just-concluded campaign, Trent Alexander-Arnold must have been striving for a place in England's squad for next year’s Euro U21 Championship. Instead, he finds himself in Russia for the World Cup proper after an overwhelming season with Liverpool, culminating in the Champions League final.
Although he is unlikely to start with Kieran Trippier ahead in the pecking order, expect the 19-year-old to dazzle when called upon. It’s not beyond him to seize a starting berth, though. As he appears to have a secret recipe for doing so. Ask Nathaniel Clyne and Joe Gomez.
The goalkeeping department is usually the most revered. That Germany stuck to Manuel Neuer despite only recently recovering from a one-year injury layoff says it all. However, Nigeria has opted to place destiny on an inexperienced 19-year-old netminder – Francis Uzoho.
Uzoho isn’t even a regular at Spanish second-tier side, Deportivo La Coruna. Most often than not, he spends time flirting around the youth teams. Take nothing away from the youngster who has shown superb potential far beyond his age. He's been capped just thrice yet enough to knock off his senior colleagues to Super Eagles’ no 1 spot.
At 19, Hakimi flaunts winner's medals from the Club World Cup and Champions League. It doesn’t get any better for the defender assured of a place in Herve Renard's starting line-up in Russia. Hakimi managed just nine starts for Real Madrid last term, but for the Atlas Lions, he’s quite indispensable.
Hakimi has been capped 10 times and started the last six successive matches. According to FIFA, he's amongst the lightest players at the competition – and is the archetypal modern wing back. Having understudied Dani Carvajal, expect the Galactico to seldom storm forward to whip in those dangerous crosses into the box.
With Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani approaching their career twilights, Bentancur leads Uruguay's new generation. Barely a year ago, the 20-year-old was cutting his teeth at the U20 World Cup where they reached the semi-finals. He has a bigger platform to impress this time in Russia.
Bentancur began his career at Boca Junior before he was snapped up by Juventus. He had a relatively modest first season in Italy, racking up 20 appearances. Yet, he’s already drawn a comparison with ex-Old Lady midfielder Paul Pogba; due to similar physique and style of play.
Seung-woo sneaked into South Korea’s World Cup squad thanks to two solid pre-tournament friendlies. The 20-year-old impressed on his debut In the victory over Honduras and maintained that form in defeat to Bosnia. One week later, bang. He makes the cut.
After stalling for years, Seung-woo is finally matching his hype with performances. Dubbed the Asian Messi, he joined Barcelona aged 12 but the razzmatazz led to an attitude that a move to Italy has ironed out. Should the dazzling winger continue to keep his head down, he would be a handful for defenders in Russia.
Nicklas Bendtner's injury and eventual omission from Age Hareide’s squad didn't bother many Danes. After all, they have a supremely talented young goal poacher in Kasper Dolberg who should trouble France, Peru and Australia.
Dolberg is just 20 yet he's had two successive seasons at the highest level for Ajax with over 30 goals to show. Tall, energetic and imposing, Dolberg is a modern-day finisher capable of hitting the target from both in and outside the box. His incredible aerial ability is an extra spice to Hareide's offensive arsenal.
Perhaps too many expectations have befallen Dembele that many tend to forget he only clocked 21 last month. Indeed, the talented flanker didn’t quite lighten up Barcelona as hoped, however, he still pretty much has loads of productive years ahead.
For Les Bleus, it’s a different ball game. Dembele appears to have some extra motivation each time he appears for his country. He picks the perfect atmosphere to do so like against England and Italy nearly one year apart. The World Cup is the grandest of all, bet on him causing serious havoc on the flanks.
While Dembele struggled with a serene change, Rashford had to fend with Jose Mourinho at Manchester United. In a much-criticised campaign where he occasionally disappeared from the first team, the 20-year-old still garnered 13 strikes and nine assists. His talent has never been in doubt.
Things aren’t quite rosier at international level with Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy ahead in the middle. However, Rashford’s versatility could earn him a slot on one the wing. His wonder strike against Costa Rica is a signal of what could follow in Russia.
Mbappe's improbable career will take another dimension at the World Cup. In the last couple of years, the Frenchman has enjoyed some tremendous success many youngsters his age would only fantasize. After the Mundial, he will likely become the second-most-expensive player in history when his switch to Paris Saint-Germain is made permanent.
Alongside Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, Mbappe will be among Didier Deschamps hope for goals. Judging by his incredible return last season, it won’t be too much to ask. The 20-year-old hit 21 goals and provided an impressive 16 assists from the right-wing.
Neymar is obviously Brazil’s most important player, but Gabriel Jesus can claim to be as influential as his skipper. In the PSG superstar's absence, Jesus carried Selecao cross almost effortlessly and will keep up with it in Russia. He was top scorer in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers, with seven goals in 10 matches.
For Tite’s team to achieve the ultimate, Jesus will have to be at his predatory best. The 20-year-old didn't have the best of seasons at club level with 17 strikes in all competition. That was chiefly due to injuries, though. But he seems to have regained form, as displayed by typical poachers finish against Austria.