Young footballers have a massive influence on the game, plain and simple.
In today's world, players are scouted, signed and trained earlier than ever before. Teams utilize vast scouting networks to scoop up the hottest young prospects in the hope of finding one that will eventually blossom into a world-class talent.
As a result, fans now have the ability to watch these players grow, mature and hopefully succeed starting from a very young age.
Some players work out. Others, not so much.
But when they do, often times they take their place amongst the best in the world.
Look no further than the 2012 European Championship that is on the horizon, as the tournament will feature a bevy of young, exciting players who will dazzle fans for many years to come—as well as those who were tipped to be stars years ago, and are at their best right now.
There are a number of young stars who will not be on display once the highly-anticipated tournament kicks-off this week, either as a result of injury, or simply because they are not European. But no fear, we have scoured the globe to find the best of the best; the youngsters who will be idolized by millions of fans worldwide.
Quite simply, these players are the future of football, and the future looks very, very bright.
Here are ten players who could very well be the best in the world in the year 2020, under the assumption that they will be at the peak of their powers once they reach their late twenties.
While Lionel Messi holds the title as the best footballer on planet earth at only 24 years of age, the majority of the players who are directly chasing him for that distinction are indeed in their late twenties.
Note: This is a list that could have easily featured upwards of 50 names, which means that many talented players were omitted, some of whom may ultimately turn out to be better than the ones who have been selected to make up this list.
Therefore, I’m sure you will have some of those players in mind when you create your very own version of this list.
So let us know who you think will be the best player in the world when 2020 rolls around by leaving a comment in the section below.
If you have been following the career of Mamadou Sakho, you may feel like he has been around forever. That’s because he has.
The Paris Saint-Germain center-back began his career in the French club’s youth system back in 2002, before making the jump to the senior squad five years later at the tender age of 17.
While most players are slowly brought along and given time to get accustomed to their new setting, the Frenchman of Senegalese descent was thrust right into the action, making his debut for the club one day after his 17th birthday.
Did I mention he was the captain for that match? With this, he became the youngest captain in Ligue 1 history.
Now 22 years old, the French international has developed into a powerful defender, lauded for his leadership qualities and positive attitude, as well as his strong tackling and capability in the air. At 6’2” and boasting a strong ability to read the play, Sakho isn’t beaten to very many crosses.
He will be turning 30 once the calendar reaches 2020, but I expect that to be a positive, as I see Sakho being one of the more established defenders in the world at that time.
A disappointing conclusion to the Ligue 1 season will see Sakho miss out on the European Championship, as he was often overlooked by new manager Carlo Ancelotti, and thus was not chosen to represent France at the tournament by national team boss Laurent Blanc.
Regardless, in the final weeks of the season, the Frenchman was still very positive about his situation, one of the traits that will allow him to recover should he ever struggle (and he will, just as all players do) in the future.
“Okay, I continue to work hard to try to get playing time. I always give my best. When the coach makes choices and takes decisions, we must respect them,” he told L’Equipe. “I arrive in the morning with a smile. I give myself fully on the ground. This is essential.”
Despite being older than both Manchester United’s Phil Jones and Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane, I believe Sakho will still be the best player of the bunch once the calendar reaches 2020. By that point, expect him to be well-established as the best central defender in the game, and a constant for Les Bleus.
Former Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro won FIFA's World Player of the Year and Ballon d'Or awards following his impervious play during the 2006 World Cup when he was 32 years old. So there is no doubting that defenders (especially center-backs) have the ability to perform at a high-level for many years.
From Alessandro Nesta to Carles Puyol, fans have been treated to a large number of masterful defensive displays in recent years from players who are supposed to be on the decline.
I believe the same could apply to Sakho, who received praise earlier this year from Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini.
Teams are taking notice of the imposing defender, and whether his career continues at PSG or he moves on to another challenge, I fully expect him to be a star performer in the years to come.
Few people in world football have an eye for young talent like Arsene Wenger, and it seems that the Arsenal manager has found another star in teenager Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Despite being signed from Southampton for £12 million, not many people expected the Portsmouth native to make an immediate impact in his first season with the Gunners.
While he wasn’t a regular for the entire season, he certainly made his presence felt at the Emirates, scoring four goals in 26 appearances in all competitions (via ESPN) and putting in some very impressive displays for his new club.
Expected to feature exclusively on the wing due to his searing pace and willingness to beat defenders in one-on-one situations, Oxlade-Chamberlain surprised many with his ability to play more of a central role—a quality that was on full display during Arsenal’s Champions League encounter with AC Milan at the Emirates.
That performance—on the biggest stage of his career—pushed his rise up the football ladder into high gear. It also showed the versatility that the 5’11” midfielder possesses, a trait that will serve him well as his career continues.
Now having traded in the red and white of Arsenal for the red and white of England, the 18-year-old will hope to conclude his season with a good performance in Poland and Ukraine.
The tournament will cap off what Oxlade-Chamberlain describes as a “whirlwind” last 12 months:
“I can remember playing for Southampton last year at Dagenham on a cold Tuesday night. I'm grateful for those experiences because, when you come from that and working hard in those environments, it makes you strive to come and play at places like this and play for your country. It has been a mad 12 months and I've enjoyed every minute of it and it has gone so quickly.”
Fans of the both the Three Lions and the Gunners will both be hoping he continues to enjoy every minute of the action, and continues to develop at a pace that will put him among the best in the world in the years to come.
Why always him?
It’s simple really: he has the sheer talent to become one of the best players on the planet, but instead makes more headlines for his ridiculous antics both on and off the pitch.
Since his move from Inter to Manchester City, the enigmatic Italian striker has made headlines for everything from setting off fireworks inside his home to making a surprise appearance at his old club’s press conference as they were introducing their new manager.
It is that kind of behavior—along with his short temper on the pitch—that have led many to disregard Mario Balotelli’s chances of ever becoming a top player.
His first opportunity to prove his detractors wrong is less than a week away, when Italy begins its Euro 2012 campaign against defending champions Spain on June 10 in Gdansk.
Balotelli will be expected to lead the attack for an Italian side that needs someone to step up due to the absence of Giuseppe Rossi and the fitness concerns surrounding Antonio Cassano—who, in fairness, is coming off heart surgery.
Under Cesare Prandelli, the Azzurri are slowly making strides towards becoming a force on the world stage once again, and the Manchester City man will be at the heart of that project.
The 21-year-old combines incredible physical qualities with great skill and technique, making him dangerous whether the ball is played in the air or on the ground. Those talents helped Balotelli notch 13 goals in the Premier League this season in only 24 appearances.
If he can get his head sorted out (which is a big “if”) he has all of the skills necessary to be a world-class striker.
Among the exciting young talents in the world today, Jack Wilshere has become somewhat of a forgotten figure.
Missing an entire season due to a fractured ankle (along with minor knee surgery) will do that to you, especially when your fellow youngsters continue to gain prominence with each passing week.
But that shouldn’t take anything away from the England international, who has already shown glimpses of becoming a world-class player—most notably against Barcelona in the first leg of the most recent Champions League meeting between the two sides.
In that match, the England international was composed and confident on the ball, and did extremely well against the vaunted Barcelona midfield. In fact, the 20-year-old completed 93.5% of his passes at the Emirates that night, a number surpassed only by Xavi and Iniesta in that match.
Granted, he may never fully recover from the injury that saw him miss the entire 2011-12 Premier League campaign. But if he does, Wilshere has all of the tools to become one of the best central midfielders in the world.
If Arsenal has any hope of ending its trophy drought, Wilshere will need to develop into the world-class midfielder that many expect him to be. On top of that, he will actually need to stay in London, as opposed to going the way of former teammates Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri.
In addition to his impact at club level, Wilshere has been heralded as the next great hope for the Three Lions as well. Former England manager Fabio Capello certainly did the youngster no favors in terms of managing expectations with these comments while he was still at the helm of the squad:
"I know he's 19 but the best players I managed—Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Raul—all started really young. He has the talent but you have to wait. He has to improve every time. I hope he will play a lot of games for England. We will have found a solution for the player in front of the back four."
He may not have the high profile of his fellow Brazilian star (who we'll get to shortly), but Lucas Moura definitely has the potential to be just as good, if not better than anybody on this list.
The diminutive midfielder is still only 19 years old, but he has already established himself as one of the key pieces of the Brazilian national team, appearing 14 times for the Selecao to date. Expect that number to grow as the 2014 World Cup continues to approach, where Lucas will be looking to make a big impression on the world stage.
The attacking midfielder has been one of the standout performers during his time at Sao Paulo, and that has garnered interest from many of the big clubs across the pond in Europe.
Inter were said to be interested in signing the Sao Paulo native last year, but it seems that Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid are now in pole position to capture the highly-rated attacker.
Lucas has been quoted as saying that his representatives are in talks with the Spanish club, but admitted that nothing has been finalized quite yet.
"They are one of the biggest clubs in the world," Lucas told TV Globo's 'Esporte Espetacular'. "But for now I am thinking only of Sao Paulo. My father went to Spain with my agent, who met the top directors, probably even Florentino Perez. There were some talks, but nothing official."
If Madrid are able to land the Brazilian, they will be adding a dynamic midfielder who can both score and create goals. Given a chance to flourish alongside some of the best players in the world at the Santiago Bernabeu, Lucas could very well become the best player on this list in the not-too-distant future.
Christian Eriksen introduced himself to football fans everywhere at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, showing everyone why he is held in such high esteem not only at Ajax, but by some of the biggest European clubs around.
As the youngest player in the tournament, Eriksen managed to participate in two matches, against the Netherlands and Japan, respectively. Since that time, the 20-year-old midfielder has seen his stock rise exponentially, and has used that experience as the springboard for what looks destined to be a long, successful career.
With seven goals and 17 assists to his name this past season, the native of Middelfart, Denmark was a crucial part of an Ajax side that ultimately captured yet another league title.
In typical Ajax fashion, Eriksen has developed into a player who is great with the ball at his feet, and has shown an ability to glide beyond defenders with ease during his time in the Eredivisie.
Those skills have already caught the eyes of some of the most revered minds in the game, including legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
After Ajax fell to 2-0 to the Red Devils in Europa League action earlier this year, Ferguson was full of praise for the Danish playmaker:
“He's a good player—a typical Ajax player who is good on the ball—but we already knew that,” he told TV3+ after the game. “We have many young players at the club, but we are always looking for talent. It's impossible to predict.”
Despite his age, Eriksen will be counted upon to provide the spark for a Danish side that is largely expected to struggle after being drawn into the ‘Group of Death’ at the European Championships.
Being forced to take on the Netherlands, Portugal and Germany may prove too much for the young star, but if he can somehow lead his country to the knockout stages, Eriksen could be the name on the lips of football fans everywhere once the tournament comes to an end.
Barcelona’s youth academy is renowned for developing some of the most technically gifted players that fans have ever seen. The list is as long as it is impressive, and Thiago Alcantara may yet become the best of them all.
While the presence of world-class talents like Cesc Fabregas, Xavi and Andres Iniesta may hurt his chances of playing legitimate minutes at this moment in time, it can only help the Spanish international in the long run.
After all, is there a better place to study the ins-and-outs of playing in the midfield than at the Camp Nou? If there is, I haven’t found it yet.
Thiago will be able to watch and learn from some of the greatest players this generation has ever seen, and that can only help his development—which many expect to end up with him being among the best midfielders in the world.
Already possessing a wide range of passing and a proven ability to score spectacular goals, it is hard to think the diminutive Spaniard will not improve as the decade progresses.
With a £90 million buy-out clause in his contract, Barcelona certainly believes in the 20-year-old’s ability to become a world-class player.
He received another strong vote of confidence from Luis Milla, who coached Spain to the Under-21 European Championship title last summer, where Thiago played a starring role.
Said the manager before the start of that tournament (via Goal.com):
“You have to take major steps to become a good player in the level of Xavi or Cesc," Milla told Mundo Deportivo. “He clearly has [the] conditions to achieve it, but it's more important to have [a] good mentality. I think he has. We need the humility that they have had to reach the top. And above all [to be] ambitious.”
When the European Championships roll around in 2020, don’t be surprised if Thiago Alcantara is the man leading Spain, much the same way his Barcelona teammates will be when the 2012 edition of the tournament kicks off later this week.
After toying with the football world (more specifically the big boys of the English Premier League) for months, Eden Hazard finally put an end to all of the speculation by securing a £32 million transfer to Champions League holders Chelsea last week.
While it was expected that Hazard would end up plying his trade in Manchester this season, it was Roman Abramovich and the Blues that ultimately managed to secure his signature; a move that could bring success to Stamford Bridge for many years to come.
Hazard has all of the necessary tools to become one of the best footballers in the world. The Belgian sensation is a versatile player who can play out wide as well as behind the two strikers, and his silky smooth dribbling skills are complemented by blistering pace that makes him a nightmare for defenders.
The two-time winner of the Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year award led Lille to an impressive third-place finish this season, scoring 20 goals and adding 16 assists along the way.
Those numbers made him one of only two players in the major European leagues to reach 15 in both categories this season.
The other? Lionel Messi.
That feat is all the more impressive when you consider that Lille lost integral members of its 2010-11 title winning team in Yohan Cabaye, Gervinho and Moussa Sow this season, leaving Hazard to do much of the work on his own.
Now before you take to your keyboards in rage, I am not suggesting that Hazard is of the same quality as the Argentine superstar. In fact, it is likely that he will never reach those heights.
Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Marco Reus, Thomas Muller and Andre Schurrle.
Each of those players are being heralded as key components of what promises to be a brilliant German attack for many years to come. But none of them have the potential of Borussia Dortmund attacking midfielder Mario Gotze.
Having just turned 20 years old this Sunday, the baby-faced star is one of the most sought-after players in the world today, which is why manager Jurgen Klopp must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when Gotze recently agreed to sign a contact extension with the German champions until 2016.
A central attacking midfielder who also has the ability to play in wider areas (although his best position is in the hole behind the striker), the youngster has a knack for producing the killer pass, and will also pop up and find the net on occasion.
His willingness to run at defenders and put them on the back foot is one of his greatest assets, and he has been tipped by many to become one of the best players on the planet in years to come. Much of that praise has come from inside the German camp, including the technical director of Die Mannschaft Matthias Sammer, who has hailed him as "one of the best talents that we've ever had."
Having played a key role in leading Borussia Dortmund to last season’s Bundesliga title, the German playmaker was forced to watch much of this season from the sideline, thanks to a hip injury he sustained in January.
It was an unfortunate turn of events after Gotze had started the season in great form, recording five goals and five assists in the first 14 games for the club.
But even his extended injury lay-off could not cool speculation regarding his future, as possible suitors were said to be lining up for the native of Memmingen, Germany. Even the typically frugal Arsene Wenger was reported to be considering a £35 million offer for the young star.
When you can get Le Professeur to offer that kind of money for your services, you must be doing something right.
Don’t be surprised if Gotze eventually turns out to be the very best player on this list in eight years’ time.
What, you were expecting someone else?
At only 20 years old, Neymar is already one of the most recognizable names in world football, and his dazzling displays for both club and country have left Europe’s biggest clubs drooling over the prospect of adding him to their squad.
Blessed with lightning-quick feet, equally impressive speed and skill on the ball, and a keen eye for goal, the Santos star has already become the focal point of the Selecao attack, for whom he has scored nine goals in only 18 appearances.
There are those who believe the young superstar will fold under the pressure of a massive transfer to one of Europe’s premier clubs, while others have pointed at his slight figure and lack of physical strength as something that might hold him back should he leave his homeland.
Obviously, I am not one of those people. Call it hype if you please, but it is hard to ignore just how incredibly Neymar has performed for his club at such a young age.
At some point in the near future, the Brazilian sensation will make his highly-anticipated move to European football. All of the world's biggest clubs have been lining up, hoping to be the one to lure the 20-year-old away from Santos, and it won’t be until that time that we find out who comes out on top in this argument.
That moved seems destined to happen in the most recent January transfer market, as it was reported that the attacker had been signed by Real Madrid for a whopping £53 million. Ultimately, those rumors proved to be untrue, as Neymar signed a lucrative contact extension with his current club only days later.
Yet, it still seems unlikely that he will end up anywhere other than Real Madrid or their great rivals Barcelona.
86 goals in 161 games for Santos (according to ESPN) speaks for itself. Most attacking players in the world would gladly those numbers in a heartbeat.
His haircut may be the worst of all the players on this list, but don’t let that fool you. Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior could very easily develop into the best footballer on the planet by the end of the decade, if we even have to wait that long.