If there has been one breakthrough star of European football this season—there have been many, but if you absolutely had to pick one—then Adnan Januzaj would probably take the accolade.
Januzaj, the 19-year-old winger of admirable directness and seemingly inviolable confidence, has been the one glittering, newly uncovered diamond in an otherwise muddy slurry of a campaign for Manchester United.
He has become a worldwide star in a matter of months (nothing is more exciting to the neutral fan than the new and unexpected, and the visions of what that might become) as he consistently outshone his more vaunted team-mates while United struggled to reach the heights so often expected of them.
Januzaj, although undoubtedly well regarded within United’s academy, was not supposed to play such a significant role this season. That he has is partly a result of his own ability to grasp opportunities and brush off pressure, and partly a result of those ahead of him in the initial pecking order failing on both counts.
After false starts with the likes of Nani and Wilfried Zaha, Moyes turned to Januzaj—an almost unknown at this point—as a substitute in United’s fourth game of the season, against Crystal Palace.
United ultimately won 2-0 and Januzaj, impressing with his trickery and direct running, did more than enough to keep his place in the first-team fray—eventually earning his first start against Sunderland at the start of October.
That is where the teenager truly exploded into football’s wider consciousness; his two sublime goals turned around the match for United, as they won 2-1 to fend off the (already emerging) stench of a disappointing campaign.
Both goals showcased a calmness and technical ability that belied his young age—two fine volleys just minutes apart that turned the game on its head.
With Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie on the pitch, it was instead the whippet-like winger nobody had really heard of who was saving United’s bacon.
Januzaj had arrived, although in many ways his challenges were only just beginning.
First came the speculation. With even United caught somewhat by surprise by Januzaj’s progression, they had so far neglected to tie him down to a long-term senior contract.
That became an immediate priority as his performances kept improving, but United’s poor start to the season—coupled with speculation about the control the player’s father exerted over his career—meant the player suddenly seemed reluctant to commit to life at Old Trafford.
Januzaj’s multi-cultural background (something that was to create further headlines in due course) suggested to many that, unlike many players his age, he would not be scared to move abroad. Juventus were reportedly interested, a fearsome prospect for United’s fans, as the Italian club had stolen Paul Pogba, one of the finest young midfielders in the world, away in not-dissimilar circumstances only just over a year prior.
"If they fear another case like Pogba's then they are right," the club’s general manager, Beppe Marotta, said to Tuttosport (per ESPN FC) in October, deliberating raising the spectre of the Frenchman, who has gone from strength-to-strength in Turin. "Januzaj is a player showing big promise."
A week later, however, club and player reached an agreement. Januzaj would be staying at United, seemingly leveraging the Juventus interest and his own performances to get himself the best possible deal.
The terms, while officially undisclosed, were reported in many quarters as a five-year deal worth £60,000-a-week, with a £5 million signing bonus paid in instalments across its duration.
Four months before his 19th birthday, Januzaj was already a multi-millionaire.
Fame and Fortune
Januzaj had proved his quality and hinted at his potential in the traditional fashion—on the pitch—and taken advantage of his burgeoning popularity to engineer a deal that most players his age could only dream of.
Most but not all.
On Tuesday last week, Gedion Zelalem was the third of a trio of Arsenal players to sign a new contract with the club, behind Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey. In the parts of the media where he was not overlooked entirely for the former two, his deal was quoted as being in the region of £30,000-a-week.
Born in January 1997, Zelalem is almost exactly one year younger than Januzaj and has played exactly once for the Gunners in a competitive match—playing just under 20 minutes against Coventry in January’s third-round FA Cup tie.
Arsenal signed him to a lucrative new deal—if the reports are correct, £1.5 million is being invested in him per year—based on his potential, not on his achievements. They are that confident that they already know what they have, without even needing him to play a full senior game.
"He's a young player who develops well," Arsene Wenger told reporters after that cameo against Coventry. "Gedion is very young of course, but he has shown already that he has fantastic promise, and we all look forward to his development with us."
Part of the excitement surrounding Zelalem is due to his style of play; extremely lightweight even by the standards of his age group, the central midfielder nevertheless has already attracted plaudits for his eye for a pass and composure during a game.
So the story goes, during his first Arsenal trial, Wenger went over to Zelalem’s father and, having taken him aside, informed him: "Your son will play for Arsenal."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ex-Arsenal player Zelalem has already been frequently compared with is Cesc Fabregas. Only time will underline the similarities, and disparities, between the two players—but it is perhaps at least an interesting coincidence that Fabregas made his club debut at 16 as No. 57, and Zelalem did the same 11 years later as No. 58.
Joining the club officially as a 16-year-old, Zelalem has since begun training with the first team and has already impressed those whose passing games are lauded worldwide.
"He sees passes that not a lot of players can and he's so comfortable on the ball," Jack Wilshere said recently (per ITV). "Even in training, he's a nightmare to play against."
Injuries have prevented Zelalem from making more of an impact this season—he has made the substitutes’ bench on a few occasions—but next term he is primed for greater involvement.
Wenger, assuming (as seems safe) he signs a contract extension of his own, feels strongly about promoting youth and seems particularly enervated by Zelalem’s talent. If he bulks up a bit, he seems primed to take over the role in the squad that Wenger deemed it necessary to draft Kim Kallstrom in for in the second half of this term.
They Come From All Corners
Younger than Januzaj by six months but older than Zelalem by nearly 18 months, by comparison Bayern Munich’s young forward, Julian Green, finds himself in the middle of the next wave. However, in terms of international status, he is the furthest down the line—having last week committed to playing for the United States.
The news, unsurprisingly, was greeted with wild delight in the U.S.; Green was born there to an American father, but at the age of two, he left for Germany and has been raised there ever since. He has developed his game in the Bayern academy since 2010 and represented Germany at Under-19 level, so his decision to represent the country of his birth at senior level was not necessarily one most were expecting.
A couple of factors appear to have been in play, however. Primarily it was the desire of Jurgen Klinsmann to get Green on board—along with the sizeable carrot of a place at this summer’s World Cup.
Green had no hope of making Germany’s senior selection this summer, but once he has filed the one-time nationality switch that will lock him to the U.S. for life, you can expect him to be part of Klinsmann’s 23-man selection for the tournament in Brazil.
"We are absolutely thrilled that Julian has chosen to be part of the U.S. national team programs," Klinsmann said in a statement when the decision was confirmed. "He is a very special talent. We wanted him to feel comfortable with our program and listen to his heart when making this decision."
Green met up with the U.S. senior squad earlier this month to train with them ahead of their friendly with Ukraine, a rendevous that also helped sway him.
"Obviously this was a big decision, and I spent a long time discussing it with my family," Green added in the same statement, released by U.S. Soccer. "A big part of the decision was the experience I had in Frankfurt.
"All the players were super nice and welcomed me from the beginning. [Captain] Clint Dempsey gave me a jersey with my name on it, and the way they supported me gave me a lot of belief.
"The coaches have shown a lot of trust in me, and now I hope to do everything I can to earn a spot on the World Cup roster."
For Januzaj and Zelalem, however, their international representation remains a more thorny issue. With the world increasingly becoming a more connected and accessible place, with immigration and inter-cultural unions becoming more and more possible, acceptable and prevalent, quaint old notions of one person’s singular "nationality" have been tested.
In football, it has become increasingly common for young players to have the choice of more than one nation to represent, perhaps turning out for one at youth level (due perhaps to where they are based at that point) but wanting to represent another once they reach senior consideration.
International residency rules also now mean nationality changes can be an option even comparatively late in player’s careers—the recent defection of Diego Costa from Brazil to Spain, where he has played his professional football for the last seven years, being a case in point.
Green had the choice of two options, but his two contemporaries have even more scope.
Januzaj has so far declined to make a decision, fending off the advances from Belgium and Albania (who he is already eligible for) while seemingly considering representing England or Kosovo (who he may be available for, or more accurately who may be available to him, in future).
England, in particular, is a controversial choice—Januzaj is likely to be eligible for the Three Lions when he turns 23, assuming as he stays at Manchester United (or another English club) until then.
The FA have already mentioned their interest in Januzaj’s situation, which is perhaps as much an indictment of the current state of the national team as it is another endorsement of the player’s obvious potential.
"Of course that discussion will have to be seriously debated before we start naturalising players," head coach Roy Hodgson said in the wake of Januzaj’s star display against Sunderland. "There’s no doubt that he’s a real talent and we have our eyes on him but a lot will have to be discussed."
England's part of a Home Nations pact—designed primarily to preserve Welsh, Irish or Scottish players who play their football in the English system from being poached by the English national team—could also impact on the Januzaj decision, which remains at least three years away.
Zelalem, too, could qualify for that residency rule and represent England; although what clubmate Wilshere—who famously scorned the possibility of Januzaj representing England—would make of that remains in doubt.
At the moment, however, he is on the radar of the United States, where he grew up; Ethiopia, where his parents originate from; and Germany, where they emigrated seven years before Zelalem was born.
The whispers are that Zelalem would prefer to represent United States, but as per a recent Guardian article about the youngster, that would create complications with his club situation.
As David Hytner wrote:
If all things were equal, he would surely choose to declare for Klinsmann and the USA national side, who would love to add a little fantasy to their game.
But all things are not equal. According to Section 25 (i) of the German Nationality Act, German citizenship ‘shall be lost by a person acquiring a foreign citizenship upon his/her application. This does not affect persons acquiring the citizenship of an EU member state or Switzerland.’
Zelalem has a claim for a US passport but, if he pursued it, he would not only lose his German citizenship but his EU rights, which could affect his ability to work in England. At the very least, he would have to apply for a work permit and that could lead him and Arsenal into choppy waters.
Zelalem might be steered away from representing the United States by his club, with the Gunners likely to be a bit fearful that, were he suddenly required to get a work permit to remain in England, he would fail on the criteria and thus have to continue his development (definitely temporarily, but possibly permanently) away from London Colney and the United Kingdom.
That is something Wenger is seemingly loath to do with his brightest prospects.
Funnily enough, that would seem to be in stark contrast with Green’s situation. When the winger’s international situation became a significant talking point on one side of the Atlantic, the general consensus was that he was likely to be steered in the direction of Germany by his club, who would not welcome the extra strains—of travelling, of being under heavy scrutiny almost immediately—of representing the U.S.
Instead, it seems Bayern encouraged him to side with their old manager, Klinsmann, as much for corporate reasons as anything else. As Grant Wahl noted for Sports Illustrated, Bayern have recently made attempts to break into the American market, something having a U.S. national like Green on their books would undoubtedly help accelerate.
As Wahl reported:
I came here thinking the club would prefer to have Green play for Germany, the better to minimize his travel demands when he plays internationally.
But after speaking to people here, I think Bayern might like having a U.S. national team player who could help open up the U.S. market for Bayern, which is trying hard to get bigger Stateside.
The club recently announced plans to establish its first U.S. office, in New York City, and Bayern’s participation in the MLS All-Star Game in Portland in August is part of the overall plan.
For his part, Klinsmann said: "[Bayern] were a big part of the process because, for Julian, it is very important that he is supported by his club. We really want to thank Bayern Munich and their [chairman], Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, [sport director] Matthias Sammer and especially his coach, Pep Guardiola. It’s great to know the club is behind the decision of Julian."
This, then, is perhaps a pointed measure of the ruthlessly commercial landscape of modern football; a club possibly altering its advice to a player on who to play for at international level based on commercial considerations as much as playing ones.
Life Under the Microscope
Green’s decision has so far been greeted without a real backlash—the U.S. fanbase are naturally delighted, while Germany's public might be sad to miss out on a prospect but are understandably confident there are many more of his ilk in the system—but Januzaj in particular is unlikely to be so lucky.
Until the time comes to nail his colours to the mast (almost literally), Januzaj will have to contend with the expectations and pressures of others; even at this early stage in his career, he is likely to disappoint many people regardless of whose national shirt he eventually selects.
Belgium’s coaching staff has already expressed anger at Januzaj’s refusal to take up their offers, while he has been co-opted in some quarters as the poster-boy for Kosovo’s bid to be fully recognised by FIFA.
But taking on the responsibility of being that symbol is something that he should decide for himself, a decision which might take him a few years to come to, not decided by others with their own interests at heart.
For now, it is Januzaj who faces the brunt of the expectation because he is the one regularly playing games, even if he was benched for United’s recent Champions League comeback against Olympiakos. (Januzaj has started just one European game this season; David Moyes might be many things, but he rarely asks too much of young players too soon.)
As such, he has also been exposed to the wider issues of burgeoning fame.
It is the sort of thing every generation says about the next, but nevertheless here goes: With the proliferation of communications and the ubiquity of social media, it becomes harder and harder for young sporting stars to avoid the spotlight and keep any mistakes they may make private.
And all youngsters—rich and famous or not—make mistakes.
Januzaj, after all, cannot even go out on a date without seeing the story sold to a tabloid the next day. This may prove the least of his invasions of privacy if his career continues to develop as many hope.
"Januzaj keeping it real ... got time for this guy," Crystal Palace midfielder Jason Puncheon said at the time. "What makes these people think he has to spend big cos he’s got it!!"
Tottenham midfielder Andros Townsend, offering an insight into what high-profile footballers face these days, added: "These girls make me sick!! How this stuff gets in the paper I'll never know!"
Thorny issues of national representation and the temptations, and pitfalls, brought by the earning of huge sums of money so young; The pressures and challenges facing brilliant young footballers have perhaps never been so significant and varied.
Only time will tell how Januzaj, Zelalem and Green cope, and how the various decisions they eventually make—or have already made—ultimately pan out.