As published in TO Sports Magazine and www.TOsports.ca...
There are a couple of old sayings in football, one is, if you are good enough, then you are old enough and this is a fitting maxim for the players we have chosen as ten of the best young players in world football today.
The other famous saying is the Alan Hansen quote: “You’ll never win anything with kids,” which, considering No. 3 on this list of young superstars is already the proud owner of a European Championship winners medal, isn’t strictly true.
And despite all ten players still being eligible for their national under-21 sides, they have won a combined three under 20 World Cups, two Olympic gold’s, one UEFA under 19 Championship, four La Liga titles, two Spanish Super Cups, one UEFA Champions League, two FA Cups, four Ligue 1 titles, one French Cup, one Scottish Cup, one South American Super Cup, two FIFA Club World Cups and a single Under 20 South American Championship.
Not a bad tally for a bunch of “kids,” Mr Hansen.
10. Theo Walcott
England’s brightest prospect is a lightening quick forward who broke into the Southampton side as a 16-year-old in 2005 before becoming the most expensive 16-year-old in British football history when he joined Arsenal in a deal that could rise to £12 million.
Since joining Arsenal, his progress has been stifled by injury and he has tended to be more “wall flower” than a headline grabber but the 19-year-old has still clocked up 89 appearances for the Gunners, scoring 11 goals.
Walcott has been out injured since November after dislocating his shoulder on international duty but is due back fitter and stronger this month and will be hoping to play a vital role in his side's attack on the UEFA Champions League.
Theo shot to international fame as a shock inclusion in England’s 2006 World Cup squad after becoming England’s youngest ever international at 17 years and 75 days and only last year became the youngest ever player to score a hattrick for England in their vital World Cup Qualifier in Croatia.
9. John Fleck
The 17-year-old Scot played his first Old Firm Derby in February after impressing in three or four Rangers games after breaking into the side in January. The left footed winger/ forward became the youngest ever player to play in and win a British Cup Final when he came on as a sub for Rangers in their 2008 Scottish Cup triumph over Queen of the South, aged just 16.
Fleck made his first start for Rangers against Falkirk in January and was named man of the match before scoring his first goal for the club two weeks later as Rangers beat Dundee United as the youngster was again named man of the match.
There has already been speculation that Fleck will be called up to the full Scotland squad for their World Cup Qualifier with Holland this month and it would certainly cap off a whirl wind two months for the rising star.
John’s uncle Robert also started his career with Rangers before going on to become a household name at Norwich City. I think we can safely say that his nephew is aiming a little higher.
8. Alexandre Rodrigues da Silva
Most people will probably know him as Alexandre Pato, AC Milan’s Brazilian forward who takes his nickname from his home town of Pato Branco.
Pato started his career with Internacional (not to be confused with the club across the city) in Brazil where he impressed in just 28 games for his boyhood club before joining Milan in 2007. Since then, he has scored close to a goal every two games for the club and has been an inspiration in a revitalized Milan side this season in Serie A.
19-year-old Alexandre also holds the record for the quickest goal in a debut for Brazil. In doing so, he beat the record of a certain legend called Pele.
7. Diego Capel
The Spanish left winger is fast becoming a household name as his Sevilla side continue to keep Spain’s more fancied side’s on their toes. Capel has lightening pace and isn’t scared to take on his opposite number with a touch of skill or burst of acceleration.
21-year-old Capel was originally on the books of FC Barcelona but has been with Sevilla since 2001, working his way up through the youth teams and B side before cementing his place in the current side. And if Barca hadn’t noticed they had missed a trick, they did when Diego scored his first goal for the club against, you guessed it, Barcelona.
Diego didn’t play in Spain’s European Championship victory but has since made his international debut, confirming the strength of the current Spanish side. Expect to see him at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
6. John Obi Mikel
Nigerian and Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel can only play under 21’s for another month but he is still more than worthy of a place on this guide to the best young players on the planet. Mikel has already played over 100 times for Chelsea where he is a regular starter despite competing for a midfield place with the likes of Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack and fellow African, Michael Essien.
John has twice been named Young African Footballer of the year (2005 and 2006) as well as Chelsea’s young player of the year in 2007 and 2008.
With over 20 caps already for Nigeria, it is safe to say that Mikel has made quite the impact early on in his career and a few disciplinary issues aside has grown into a top class holding midfielder. Claude who? The Chelsea fans must be struggling to remember the French World Cup winner.
5. Gonzalo Higuain
Not knowing whether to play international football for France or for Argentina isn’t really an “everyday problem” but like David Trezeguet before him, it was a tough decision for Gonzalo. The 21-year-old Real Madrid forward eventually chose Argentina as, well, he can’t speak French.
Higuain burst onto the scene at River Plate in Argentina and impressed enough to earn himself a move to Spanish giants Real Madrid. After a slow first season, the striker has slowly improved his goal scoring record and has been a revelation this year, leading Real’s floundering assault on the Spanish title.
Now a regular starter for Madrid and with two league titles under his belt, only his European form needs improving. Higuain still hasn’t scored in Europe but I wouldn’t bet on him not scoring against Liverpool this month in the UEFA Champions League.
4. Karim Benzema
The new Thierry Henry is a title that would weigh heavy on many a man’s shoulders and in the form of international duty, it has for Karim. In the eyes of many, he flopped at EURO 2008 with a nation, not just the comparison to Thierry Henry on his back.
At club and European level however. the 21-year-old rarely looks flustered and has been a major part of Olympique Lyonnais’ last three French titles. His 20 goals last season also made him France’s Ligue 1 top goal scorer and earned him the French player of the year award.
But still, it is in Europe where his record is most impressive. 12 goals in 17 European outings for Lyon in the Champions League is a record up there with the very best and it surely won’t be too long before we see this young superstar playing at one of Europe’s biggest clubs.
3. Francesc Fabregas Soler
It is not often you come across a player with 37 full international caps and over 200 senior club appearances, yet is still eligible for an under 21 side. But in Cesc Fabregas we are not dealing with the norm, we are dealing with the exception. He actually only played for Spain’s under 21’s once.
The 21-year-old midfielder is European Champion with Spain, an FA Cup winner with Arsenal and last year’s PFA Young player of the year off his own back. Oh, and he is Arsenal’s club captain.
His achievements say it all and there isn’t really too much to add apart from to tell you that if you are lucky, he’ll be back in action for all to see in Arsenal’s date with Roma in the Champions League after four months out with a knee injury.
2. Sergio Aguero
Argentinean football’s youngest ever top flight player debuted for Independiente at just 15 years old in 2003, breaking the record previously held by one Diego Maradona.
The pint sized (another trait he shares with Maradona) striker joined Atletico Madrid in 2006 and hasn’t looked back, replacing Fernando Torres as the capital city side’s favourite player. 27 goals in a season will make any fans forget about any predecessors.
In 2007, the Argentine was voted FIFA’s Young Player of the Year and Atletico are certainly still reaping the benefits of the coup of signing the world’s second best young player but they’ll be expecting another busy summer as Europe’s elite come calling once again.
Aguero is also part of a very special current Argentina side that also includes Gonzalo Higuain (No. 5) and the next player on this list….
1. Lionel Messi
There is no doubt that Messi is the best player in the world eligible for his countries under 21 side and many would tell you that there is no doubt he is the best player in the world, period. That though is for another day.
Barcelona’s Messi is even shorter than Aguero but even greater in reputation. The 21-year-old has taken the football world by storm since breaking into the Barcelona side five years ago (yes, that long). A goal every two games in La Liga despite not being a striker is a fantastic record and doesn’t include all the goals he has set up.
The player everyone compares to Maradona is every bit as skilful as his hero if not as great an inspiration but his time will come and we may already be watching a player capable of hitting the dizzy heights and joining the names Pele and Maradona amongst the greatest footballers who ever lived.
FIFPro World Young Player of the year for the last three years reminds us he is still young but with a Barcelona Spanish title looking likely and a chance of winning the UEFA Champions League, a world player of the year award without the word “young” is a strong probability.
So there you have 10 of the best young players in the game today and with records belonging to Pele and Maradona tumbling, it is safe to say they are pretty “special.”
“You’ll never win anything with kids”—I say, you’ll never win anything without them.