With just 16 months to go until the 2014 World Cup finals get under way in Brazil, we at the Bleacher Report feel it is time to start focussing the mind a little away from the everyday grind of the club game and back towards the greatest show on earth.
And, as always at each global tournament that takes place, a crop of exciting up-and-coming stars break through to leave their mark on Planet Football. Think Pele in 1958, Franz Beckenbauer in 1966, Michael Owen at France 98 and Thomas Muller three years ago.
So, here is our list of the 11 youngsters who are set to shine in South America next year, with each player no older than 22 at the time of writing …
Should Belgium qualify for next year’s finals, then prepare for the giant shot-stopper to be one of the stars of the tournament, especially given his outstanding form in goal since he joined Liga outfit Atletico de Madrid on loan from Chelsea in the summer of 2011 (via Daily Mail).
Standing at 6'6", the youngest keeper ever to be capped by his country, at the age of 19, has been one of the standout goalkeepers in Spain for the past 18 months, and if he is this good at such a tender age, imagine what he will be like by June 2014…
Club: Manchester United
It is still early days in his nascent career to be making rash statements, however, if as good a judge of young potential as Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is prepared to go all out on a limb and sign the player (via the Daily Mail), then the 20-year-old must have something about him.
Already capped at Under-19, U21 and senior level by England, the latter coming when the winger appeared as a late substitute in Stockholm in Nov 2012, what’s not in doubt is that Zaha is already on the road to stardom.
And, with a further 16 months’ worth of competitive action under his belt, the majority of which will be spent honed at Old Trafford, Zaha could be ready to explode onto the world scene come Rio next year.
Having come to the attentions of most of world football’s scouting fraternity with his eye-catching displays for Santos in the Copa Sao Paulo youth tournament in January, the man dubbed the "new Neymar" has a lot to do to even make it into Luiz Felipe Scolari’s 23-man Brazil squad for next summer’s tournament.
However, there is always one player in every country that makes a late run for inclusion and then stars in the actual competition itself, and if Neymar’s recent words of praise about Neilton are anything to go by, then he could be the Selecao’s Wunderkind come June 2014.
"Neilton is a great kid. He has everything to be a big star in football. I'm happy because he's a good guy and a brilliant player. He has a lot of talent. I hope he can continue to play beautiful football like this," Neymar said having watched Neilton's brilliant displays in the latter stages of the Copinha.
Position: centre-back or defensive midfielder
Club: Real Madrid
Already talked about as the best young centre-back on Planet Football, the man spotted by none other than Zinedine Zidane should be a fixture at the heart of the French national team by the time the 2014 World Cup kicks off if his rapid progress and development at Real Madrid is anything to go by.
Signed from Lens for €10 million (via CNN) in the summer of 2011 as an up-and-coming defender with potential, Varane has since gone on to become the youngest-ever player to score for Los Blancos after netting against Rayo Vallecano, aged just 18 years and 152 days, in Sept 2011.
However it is the defender-cum-holding midfielder’s performances at the back for Madrid this season that make the player an absolute shoe-in for Brazil 2014 should les Bleus qualify, including both making a scoring debut in El Clasico and turning in a man-of-the-match display to boot.
Sometimes it is just easy spotting pure gold….
Club: Paris Saint-Germain
Despite having already been capped 23 times by Brazil, including appearances at both the 2011 Copa America and the following summer’s Olympic Games in London, you get the feeling that the 2014 World Cup could be the stage upon which Lucas really explodes.
And, any player who cost €45 million (via ESPN), which is what PSG shelled out for the playmaker in the summer of 2012 (although Lucas did not actually arrive at the Parc des Princes until Jan 2013), should have the skills, technique and all-round brilliance to take world football’s showpiece event by storm.
Club: AC Milan
The man nicknamed "The Pharaoh" because of his Egyptian roots (his father is from Egypt) really started to blossom for Serie A giants Milan following the departure of star front man Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Paris Saint-Germain last summer, the absence of the lanky Swede’s intimidating, and at times suffocating, presence freeing the player up to truly express himself this season.
And the results have been truly spectacular, with El Shaarawy entering the midseason winter break as both Serie A top scorer, with 14 goals, and as the Rossoneri’s leading marksman on 16, while he also became the club’s youngest-ever scorer in the Champions League aged 19 years and 342 days when he netted against Zenit St Petersburg last October.
So, come World Cup 2014 expect El Shaarawy to have significantly added to his solitary international strike for the Azzurri against France last Nov and be Mario Balotelli’s established strike partner in attack as he looks to fire Italy to a record-equalling fifth World Cup.
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
The blond-haired Leverkusen winger-cum-forward is just the latest in a long line of exciting young talent to emerge from the German football factory, however, even by their standards there is something exceptionally precious about Schurrle.
Having scored 15 goals in only 16 appearances for the German Under-19 and U21 sides, Schurrle then made his senior debut in May 2011, before going on to score three times in three internationals, the first two as a substitute.
It was that eye for goal that earned the youngster a place in Germany’s Euro 2012 squad, and it did not take the player long either to force his way into Joachim Loew’s starting lineup.
However, by the time of next year’s World Cup finals expect Schurrle to already be a regular starter for Die Mannschaft having further improved on his already impressive goals tally of seven in just 21 games for the national team.
Position: attacking midfielder
Already starting to make big waves in Europe since leaving Club Atletico Banfield to join Portuguese giants Porto in the summer of 2010 for €5.1 million, with Manchester United constantly linked with a move for the player of late (via the Daily Mail)
However, it has been his displays for Colombia that have really caught the eye, starting two years ago when "El Nuveo pibe" (aka "the new kid" as many back in his homeland see him as the natural heir to Carlos Valderrama) was named the star player of the prestigious Toulon Tournament.
Later that year James Rodriguez made his full senior debut, and it has been his outstanding performances for Jose Pekerman’s side since then that have been one of the main driving forces behind Los Cafeteros’ recent upsurge in form.
And, if as expected Rodriguez and Co qualify for Brazil 2014, then keep a close eye on the vast array of technical skills that this young man will bring to the party.
Despite having only just turned 18, the quick-footed winger is not only a regular in the first team at Liverpool, but he also made his senior international debut for England when he came on as a second-half substitute in a friendly in Stockholm last Nov.
However, while there is still a long way to go in the Jamaica-born speedster’s development, Sterling is sure to both get regular playing time at the highest level at Anfield and the type of one-on-one technical training at Melwood to ensure his obvious talents do not go to waste.
And, with Roy Hodgson hardly blessed with high-quality attacking options in the England ranks, do not be surprised if Sterling is already an established international starter by the time the Wold Cup kicks off in 16 months’ time.
And you thought that after the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, David Silva et al the Spanish conveyor belt of diminutive, ball-playing central midfield players would dry up …. No chance, especially not if Barcelona’s Thiago Alcantara is anything to go by.
The highly skilled player has already been playing on and off for the world’s best football team for the past four years, with a €30 million buy-out clause in his contract at Camp Nou (via Sports Illustrated), although it was his performances for the Spain Under-21 side at the 2011 European Championship in Denmark that really marked Thiago out for future greatness.
The Barca player was not only named man of the match in Spain U21’s 2-0 win over Switzerland in the final, having scored a sensational 40-yard free kick, but to no one’s great surprise he was also voted player of the tournament.
Is it too much to suggest that the man with three Spain caps to his name already could also be featuring for La Roja in the World Cup final at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro on July 13th 2014?
Club: Paris Saint-Germain
Labelled the "new Pirlo" by the Italian media after his conversion to a deep-lying defensive midfield role by Zdenek Zeman at Pescara in 2011-12, Marco Veratti looks like he may be timing his run just perfectly into the Azzurri setup for next summer’s World Cup in Brazil.
Having signed for big-spending Paris Saint-Germain as a relatively unheralded prospect from Serie B side Pescara for €12 million in July 2012 (via Eurosport), Verratti made his senior Italy debut the following month having just missed out on selection for Euro 2012.
The silky-smooth midfield player scored his first-ever goal for Cesare Prandelli's side in a friendly in Amsterdam earlier this month, and if that opportunistic last-minute strike is anything to go by, then not only will Verratti be going to his first international tournament next summer, but he also looks on course to play a major role for his country at Brazil 2014.
And, before the comments start flying in from all angles around the globe, I feel it only fair to point out that the following young stars were considered for final selection, before not quite making the cut for various reasons:
Marco Reus (Germany)
Luc Castaignos (Netherlands)
Alan Dzagoev (Russia)
Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)
Victor Moses (Nigeria)
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (England)
Erik Lamela (Argentina)
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