The Top 20 Young Talents in World Football
Alan Hansen once famously said "you can't win anything with kids," before Alex Ferguson forced the pundit to chew on his words by winning the 1995/96 Premier League title with a cast of youngsters.
In the modern game, youth is often more valuable than experience, which is why several players who have enjoyed relatively few birthdays are commanding record-breaking transfer fees.
Here's B/R's list of the top 20 young talents in the game, taking into account all players aged 21 and under.
Leave a comment below if you think we have missed anyone out.
20. Wilfried Zaha
When Crystal Palace fans chanted "He's just too good for you! He's just too good for you!" at the opposition whenever a teenage Wilfried Zaha dazzled on the ball, it was clear he had great things ahead of him.
Now 20 years old and a member of David Moyes' Manchester United squad, Zaha's talents first piqued broad curiosity with the Eagles' surprise League Cup win over the Red Devils in November 2011.
Such is the demand for his talent that Didier Drogba personally pleaded for him to represent the Ivory Coast, the nation where he was born. Thankfully for Roy Hodgson, he chose the Three Lions instead.
19. Adem Ljajic
Serbian attacking midfielder Adem Ljajic has already made the headlines for the wrong reasons a few times in his short career: he received a beatdown from Fiorentina manager Delio Rossi last May for objecting to a substitution and was dropped from the Serbia national team after failing to sing the national anthem before a game.
The 21-year-old, however, has been in superb form for La Viola and has recently caught the attention of AC Milan (via ESPN).
18. Luke Shaw
The same Southampton academy that gave us Gareth Bale has produced another left-sided wunderkind: Luke Shaw.
The technically-gifted defender broke into the Saints' first team at the beginning of last season and has gained plenty of admirers in high places. In May, The Daily Mail reported that Manchester United were among those chasing the 18-year-old's signature, with David Moyes viewing him as a successor to Patrice Evra.
17. Alvaro Vadillo
One should always be wary when a new and exciting player is dubbed as the "new" iteration of a superstar, but Real Betis' Alvaro Vadillo has the ability to support his growing reputation as the "New Ronaldo."
The Daily Mail suggests Tottenham and Arsenal are fighting it out for the 18-year-old's signature, thanks to his dribbling, technique and pace on the left wing.
Vadillo—the youngest player ever to start a La Liga match in 2011 at the age of 16 years and 11 months—is already thought to have started English lessons in preparation for a Premier League move.
16. Paul Pogba
After the grief they went through securing his services from French side Le Havre, one would think that Manchester United would have fought hard to keep Paul Pogba on the books.
Amazingly, the Red Devils let the gifted midfielder leave for Juventus last season, where he has won universal praise from the Italian media. In March, the 20-year-old made his debut for the full French national team where he will surely remain a regular fixture for many years to come.
15. Francesco Bardi
Internazionale may have paid €11 million for the services of Samir Handanovic last summer, but the Milanese side are apparently spoiled for goalkeeping riches, with Francesco Bardi waiting in the wings.
The 21-year-old from Livorno represented his local side for two seasons before being snapped up by Inter in 2011. He has yet to play a game for the Nerazzurri, but he shone during this summer's Euro U21 Championships, earning a slot in the Team of the Tournament.
14. Alvaro Morata
In March, this writer sang the praises of Real Madrid's star striker Alvaro Morata after Jose Mourinho saw his potential and promoted him from the Castilla side.
The 20-year-old had an almost immediate effect at the top level, scoring in his first few appearances and rising to the occasion with a confidence that belied his tender years in El Clasico.
Los Blancos won't need to break the bank to find their next world-beating striker: he's already on the books.
13. Daniel Carvajal
Born in the suburbs of Madrid, Dani Carvajal joined Real Madrid's youth set-up at the age of 10. Last summer, the 21-year-old right-back was sold to Bayer Leverkusen, with the Spaniards including a buy-back option in his contract.
After being voted among the top three right-backs in the Bundesliga last season, the outstanding defender was summoned back to the Spanish capital in June as Los Blancos exercised their buy-back rights.
12. Iker Muniain
Despite operating a "cantera" policy that means they only field players of Basque descent, Athletic Bilbao have produced an overwhelming amount of talent in recent years. One such talent is Iker Muniain, who has been a mainstay in the Athletic Club starting XI since he was 16 years old.
Now 20, Muniain has notched up 12 goals in 127 appearances, earning his full Spain national team debut in February 2012.
11. Marco Verratti
To be holding down a place in a Paris Saint-Germain team that could afford any player they desire shows that 20-year-old Marco Verratti must be doing something right.
Plucked from his hometown side Pescara last summer, Italian midfielder Verratti featured in 27 Ligue 1 matches last season. The Mirror believes he may soon be poached by Manchester United as an alternative to Cesc Fabregas.
10. Xherdan Shaqiri
With Javi Martinez, Arjen Robben, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller, Thiago Alcantara, Mario Götze and Franck Ribery on the books, Bayern Munich aren't exactly short on midfield options.
One of their most promising talents in that area of the park, however, is Xherdan Shaqiri.
After three consecutive Swiss Super League wins with Basel, the 20-year-old made the switch to Germany in February 2012, where he has shown his incredible talents and given Franck Ribery a strong challenge for the right-wing position.
9. Stephan El Shaarawy
At the beginning of the 2012-13 season, things looked rather bleak for Milan, but thanks to the rise of Stephan El Shaarawy, they were able to maintain their Champions League spot.
The left winger with the distinctive mohawk found the net 16 times in Serie A last season, earning comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo for his dribbling and tricky skills. Teammate Kevin-Prince Boateng stated that the 20-year-old could fill the void left by Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
8. Mattia De Sciglio
El Shaarawy's Milan teammate Mattia De Sciglio is surely one of the best young defenders in Serie A today.
He shows expert tactical awareness and complete ease in his playing role when Massimo Allegri has played him as a right-back, centre-back and even a wing-back in their 3-5-2 formation.
The 20-year-old Lombardy native has earned eight senior national team call-ups since making his debut against England in August 2012.
Brazilians who move over to Europe often have trouble adapting to a different style of play, but Oscar showed no such issues when he came to Chelsea in 2012.
The 21-year-old midfielder enjoyed a superb debut Premier League season, making 24 appearances and earning high praise for his pinpoint passes and impressive runs.
His superb Champions League goal against Juventus last September—his second goal of that evening—deservedly won Chelsea's Goal of the Season award.
6. Christian Eriksen
Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen began his career with his (unfortunately-named) hometown team Middelfart before eventually being picked up by Ajax at the age of 16.
Eriksen, now 21, cemented his first-team place with the Amsterdammers in the 2010-11 season, playing an instrumental part in their first Eredivise title-winning campaign in seven years.
The Dane has since won the title twice more and has a mantlepiece filled with accolades such as Danish Footballer of the Year 2011. He looks set to depart the Netherlands soon, with Ajax manager Frank de Boer already signalling his intention to replace him.
5. Raphael Varane
The most exciting young centre-back in world football has to be Real Madrid's Raphael Varane.
Recommended to Florentino Perez by Zinedine Zidane as "the finest French centre-back since Laurent Blanc" when he was signed from Lens for €10 million (no small change for a 17-year-old), the defender—now 20 years old—has quickly lived up to his reputation.
He made his first-team debut for Los Blancos in the Copa del Rey El Clasico in January, scoring his side's only goal before finding the net again in the return leg.
The French international put in faultless displays in both legs of Madrid's Champions League encounter with Manchester United, undoubtedly irritating Sir Alex Ferguson, who had the chance to sign the youngster from Lens but chose Phil Jones instead.
4. Lucas Moura
There are doubts as to whether Brazil have good enough form to win the World Cup on home soil next summer, but when considering their current crop of youngsters, it's hard to imagine anything but success.
One prodigious talent is Lucas Moura, who was deemed worthy of a record €45 million fee by Paris Saint-Germain in August 2012.
When Sir Alex Ferguson had a £35 million bid rejected for the extremely-gifted Sao Paulo star, he claimed the world had "gone mad."
Since making his European debut in January, Lucas—who celebrates his 21st birthday later this month—has yet to find the net, but his performances are getting better and better, and he is going a long way to justifying that hefty price tag.
"Out-of-this-world Isco too good for Galaxy" read the headline in Spanish newspaper Marca following Real Madrid's victory over LA Galaxy on Friday evening.
The 21-year-old attacking midfielder was wanted by a host of major European clubs this summer thanks to his speed, agility and keen eye for goal. But shortly after being named in the U21 European Championships Team of the Tournament, Los Blancos were the team to win the Malaga star's affection at a cost of €30 million.
Judging by the manner in which he has settled into Madrid's experimental preseason lineups, he will be worth every cent.
2. Mario Gotze
The casual observer will note that Bayern Munich were a pretty good team last season.
With the arrival of Pep Guardiola, the aforementioned Thiago Alcantara and a young man named Mario Gotze, they are set to be unstoppable once again this season.
Gotze broke thousands of hearts in Dortmund with his defection to BVB's Bundesliga rivals, a month ahead of their meeting in the Champions League Final.
The 20-year-old is regarded as one of the best midfielders in Europe, with a creative mind, two strong feet and the ability to turn a game around.
"He runs through opponents as though they aren't there. He has the same assets as Lionel Messi in terms of his technique and understanding of the game," said German legend Franz Beckenbauer, lauding deserved praise on the Dortmund youth academy graduate.
Oh come on, you didn't think you could read a list like this without the name Neymar cropping up?
A cursory glance at YouTube reveals copious highlight reels of the 21-year-old striker's immense arsenal of talent. At Santos, he scored 54 times in 103 appearances and showed a penchant for the sublime, such as his 2011 effort against Flamengo that won the 2011 Puskas Award.
The biggest test of his career will come this season, when the world watches to see if his abilities will translate to the European game at Barcelona.
The entire nation of Brazil is counting on the spikey-haired forward to deliver the Hexacampeão (sixth World Cup title) next summer and, judging by his impressive outing in the Confederations Cup, he shouldn't disappoint.
It's certainly not easy to condense football's global pool of young talent into a compendium of just 20, so honourable mentions go to Schalke prodigy Julian Draxler, Arsenal's Jack Wilshere, Roma's precocious Argentinean Erik Lamela, Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho, Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois and the Brazilian being tracked by Tottenham and Arsenal (according to Goal.com), Bernard.
Has anyone else been left out? Have your say in the comments...