10 World Football Youngsters to Watch
One of the most exciting elements for fans of any sport is seeing a prodigious youth develop and reap the staggering potential he's had at his disposal.
The football world is littered with contenders, guys who, for one reason or another, never reached that potential, never got the chance to fulfill the dreams that they and their supporters shared so intimately.
But the opposites of that are the players who come through and really change the sport.
People of a certain age still talk about the unknown kid Brazil were going to unveil in 1958, who would end up changing the football world forever. Anyone who saw Diego Maradona juggle the ball at half-time at the Bombonera as a child knew from that very moment that the football world would never be the same again.
The same can be said of Cristiano Ronaldo's 20-minute debut against Bolton, Lionel Messi terrorising teams at La Masia and Johan Cruyff and George Best learning their trade on the streets of Amsterdam and Belfast, respectively.
In each and every case, the lucky few who bore witness to the skill in front of them reached the football equivalent of an epiphany.
Things have not changed that much, and the football world still produces talents that can make a grown man cry.
Here are 10 of the football world's best teenage prodigies, ones who are destined to succeed but of whom, unless you're a fan of the team in question, you may not have heard—yet.
Gerard Deulofeu: Age 18 (Barcelona)
The obvious place to start is with the most exciting prospect La Masia has produced since Lionel Messi, Gerard Deulofeu.
Deulofeu has been with Barca since he was nine, and has become one of the most-watched and hotly-anticipated kids on the planet since as a 17-year-old Pele burst onto the stage in Sweden in 1958.
Very much in the mould of his Argentinian club-mate, Deulofeu is an incredibly gifted player who caresses the ball like a lover.
His first touch is exquisite, his vision superb. His pace and dribbling skills are simply incredible.
His downfall could be his lack of maturity, and he will have to grow up quick if he is to break into the first-team squad.
Jean Marie Dongou: Age: 17 (Barcelona)
While the football world and La Masia wait for Gerard Deulofeu to mature, one of his Barcelona youth teammates is threatening to become the next big thing for the Catalan club, and thus for world football.
Jean Marie Dongou has been with Barca since he was 13, and has progressed as rapidly towards first-team action as Lionel Messi before him.
He is a powerfully built striker; think of Mike Tyson with the speed of Cristiano Ronaldo and the eye for goal of Alan Shearer, and you won't go far wrong. He has been fast-tracked towards the first team after scoring goals at every level in the Barca youth setup.
Born in Cameroon and signed to Barca from Samuel Eto'o's charity, at Dongou will, at 18 years old, have been in Spain five years, and thus will become a candidate for Spanish citizenship.
If that happens, expect Spain to dominate football for a few more years.
Oliver Torres: Age 17 (Atletico Madrid)
The name Torres and Atletico Madrid will always be synonymous with each other, thanks to the goalscoring feats of Chelsea's Fernando, but that association might just be eclipsed by a 17-year-old called Oliver.
Oliver Torres is one of the hottest prospects in Spanish football at the moment. He was a key member of the side that won the U19 European Championships last summer.
From there, the 5'10" midfielder was immediately promoted to the first-team squad at Atletico by Diego Simeone, and then went on to make his debut in this season's opener against Levante.
If anything, Torres has found Atletico's overall good form the main reason he has missed out making his second appearance.
But with players like Radamel Falcao, Arda Turan, Cristian Rodriguez and Tiago all playing at the top of their game, the Vicente Calderon Stadium might be just one of the best places in Europe for a young kid to serve an apprenticeship.
Jese: Age 19 (Real Madrid)
If Gerard Deulofeu is the new Lionel Messi, meet the new Cristiano Ronaldo: Jesé Rodríguez.
Jesé is without a doubt the jewel in the crown at Real Madrid's youth system.
He is almost a mini-me version of his Portuguese teammate. Blessed with pace, skill, panache and style, Jesé has terrorised defences since moving to Madrid in 2007. He has played and scored for Spain at every level from U16 through to U19, and like Deulofeu and Torres, he was one of Spain's most important young players at the U-19 European Championships.
It is also worth noting that despite the competition from within the Spanish camp and without, the 19-year-old was named the Most Valuable Player at the competition and eventually finished top scorer.
Last weekend we were treated to the Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo show at the Clásico.
In a few years time, we will be watching Deulofeu and Messi in a tag-team battle versus Ronaldo and Jesé.
They are that good.
Samed Yesil: Age 18 (Liverpool)
The now-18-year-old is a natural-born striker, and scored 57 goals in just 71 matches for Leverkusen's youth team's before the Reds snapped him up.
However, it is his goalscoring record at international level that really stands out: Yesil has scored 26 goals in just 29 appearances across the U16, U17, U18 and U19 levels for Germany.
With Liverpool struggling to hit the back of the net, Rodgers could be forgiven for pushing Yesil straight into first-team action, but so far he is only cautiously introducing the young German into the fold.
This time next year, he will be a fully-fledged member of the squad at just 19 years of age, and with his goalscoring credentials, he might just turn out to be the player to get the very best out of Luis Suarez.
Dennis Praet: Age 18 (Anderlecht)
Even considering the incredible conveyor belt of football talent coming out of Belgium at the moment, it is no exaggeration to say that Dennis Praet is one of the hottest talents the country has produced since Enzo Scifo.
Having been scouted by the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool, Barcelona and Inter Milan and given trials by Arsenal, it came as a huge surprise to everyone, even in Belgium, that the youth chose home-club Anderlecht as his preferred destination.
Praet, who has represented his country at every level from U15 to U21, is a rare player in that he comes across as having an old head on young shoulders.
He is a gifted passer of the ball and reads the game beautifully for someone so young, and as his strength develops, he will surely go on to become his country's most important midfielder.
Brazil 2014 beckons.
Adam Maher: Age 19 (AZ Alkmaar)
If you haven't heard of Adam Maher, now is the time to educate yourself.
After making his debut in the Europa League by scoring against Bate Borisov, who recently beat Bayern Munich in the Champions League, Maher has jumped to the forefront of everyone's thoughts regarding football in Holland.
Last season was his first full season for AZ, and the 19-year-old clocked up an impressive 52 appearances in all competitions and scored 11 goals into the bargain.
That good form prompted Bert van Marwijk to include the Moroccan-born youth in a preliminary squad for the European Championships, but he was eventually cut from the squad.
He has not let that little setback stifle his growth, though, and this season he made his full international debut against Belgium.
He has also scored four goals and contributed five assists in just 11 games for AZ so far this year, with many more expected to follow.
Souleymane Coulibaly: Age 17 (Tottenham Hotspur)
Like Jean Marie Dongou, Souleymane Coulibaly represents the future of African football. And like Dongou, he is a powerfully-built forward with an eye for goal.
Spurs moved heaven and earth to sign the Ivorian youngster after he scored nine goals in four games at the 2011 FIFA U17 World Cup, including a hat-trick against Brazil.
Built like a pit-bull and standing at 5' 8", the 17-year-old has impressed for Spurs since signing from Siena in July 2011 and has gone on to become a regular in their Next-Gen U19 squad.
For those who do not know, the Next-Gen U19 competition is basically the U19 Champions League.
Like many youth players at Tottenham, he has been given a chance to shine by Andre Villas-Boas, and he made his first appearance for the first team in a preseason friendly against Stevenage Borough.
Expect him to gain a few more minutes this season, before becoming a squad player next year.
Lucas Piazon: Age 18 (Chelsea)
You may wonder why Chelsea broken the bank to cover for Fernando Torres. Well, wonder no more.
When the Pensioners signed Lucas Piazon from Sao Paulo in 2011, they knew they were buying for the future.
Piazon, usually compared with Kaka, is highly versatile and comfortable in any position in the final third of a conventional 4-2-3-1 formation.
He is strong enough to hold the ball up as the centre-forward, quick enough to play in the wide positions, and he is clever and creative enough to play in his preferred position behind the striker.
Last season, the 18-year-old won Chelsea's Youth Player of the Year award and the FA Youth Cup in the span of just 24 hours, and this year, he has been given the chance by Roberto Di Matteo to play with the big boys.
He played in all but one of the Blues preseason games in America and has recently been named in their Champions League squad, as they try to defend the trophy they won last May.
At the moment, Chelsea possess players like Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, Oscar, Marko Marin and Victor Moses, so if Piazon can be named in the Blues' Champions League squad, is says much about his future at the club.
Bernd Leno: Age 20 (Bayer Leverkusen)
Make no mistake about it: Bernd Leno is one of the best young goalkeepers in the world today.
The 20-year-old has impressed so much in his short time at the Bay Arena that he has been the regular first-team goalkeeper since he was a teenager.
At 6'3" and still growing, Leno is only the third goalkeeper in Bundesliga history to keep three clean sheets in his first three games as a professional, and is the youngest German 'keeper to ever play in the Champions League.
He is tall, athletic, and surprisingly commanding, and controls his box in a manner that belies his tender age. It will be no surprise to see him in the German national squad before long.
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