Ranking the Hottest Young Stars at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup
The FIFA Under-20 World Cup kicks off May 20 in South Korea, and it is an event steeped in history. The likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Paul Pogba and Diego Maradona, to name but four, have strutted their stuff on its stage.
This year 24 teams from around the world go against one another as they fight for the ultimate youth-level prize—and there are sure to be stars of tomorrow on show.
England, Argentina, Germany, Portugal, Italy, France...the list of heavyweight names competing is a long one. One must only note the absences of Brazil and reigning champions Serbia from proceedings to understand how tough it is to make these finals.
Ahead of the tournament, we've selected 20 of the brightest prospects set to feature and profiled them. Spanning nine countries and three continents, it's an expansive look at who is set to shine. They're ranked based on a combination of potential and likeliness to play a starring role in South Korea.
20. Lee Seung-woo, FWD, South Korea
Having a couple of players in the Barcelona youth academy could be a game-changer for South Korea. Lee Seung-woo is the one to watch out for; he's impressed at UEFA Youth League level thanks to his creativity, speed and work rate.
19. Santiago Ascacibar, CM, Argentina
A tough-tackling, aggressive holding midfielder who loves nothing more than to slide in and dispossess. He can also drive forward and spark attacks, making him a well-rounded player at this level.
18. Riccardo Marchizza, CB, Italy
A centre-back who takes penalties, scores free-kicks and smacks long-range passes out from the back? Yes, please!
17. Jean-Kevin Augustin, ST, France
A direct, lethal-over-the-top striker who is great in one-on-one situations, JKA can make the difference for France up top. The only concern is how sharp he is; he hasn't played that much football in 2016-17.
16. Christopher Nkunku, CM, France
A star at youth-league level for Paris Saint-Germain, Nkunku has gradually been breaking down the walls to the first team this season. An agile, creative central midfielder.
15. Pervis Estupinan, LB, Ecuador
An inventive, positive left-back who impressed many at the U20 Copa Sudamericano in January and February. Ventures forward, beats players with quick movements and passes well.
14. Alban Lafont, GK, France
Despite only turning 18 in January, Lafont's on the verge of completing a second full season as the first-choice goalkeeper for Toulouse. His reflexes are insane; he makes saves in close quarters few can.
13. Tomas Conechny, AM, Argentina
Dipped in and out of Argentina's XI at the U20 Copa Sudamericana, but he delivered key moments in the final throes of matches regularly. A good crosser, creative passer and strong dribbler.
12. Rolando Mandragora, CM, Italy
Mandragora made his full Juventus debut in April—a pleasing sight, given how difficult the season has been for him due to injuries. A neat midfielder who seemingly does everything pretty well.
11. Nicolas De La Cruz, AM, Uruguay
Inventive with his movements, defenders struggle to keep tabs on De la Cruz's runs. He's also something of a set-piece wizard, bringing Uruguay a real element of danger from dead-ball situations.
10. Yeferson Soteldo, Wing, Venezuela
Yeferson Soteldo will undoubtedly be the smallest man on the pitch no matter which game is being played, but, despite his diminutive stature at 5'2", you won't miss him once he finds his flow.
That tiny frame allows him to chop and change directions so quickly, defenders can't keep up with him. He ties knots in their legs as he switches left, then right, then left again.
His end product is in need of improvement—which teenage winger's final ball couldn't use a little work?—but if you're looking for excitement in this tournament, Soteldo's your man.
9. Rodrigo Bentancur, CM, Uruguay
Club: Boca Juniors (joining Juventus this summer)
This tournament serves as a big chance for Rodrigo Bentancur to impress his employers-to-be. No doubt Juventus' chiefs will be watching and assessing how ready he is for a role with the club in 2017-18.
The midfield powerhouse played OK during the U20 Copa Sudamericana at the start of the year, but by no means hit the heights he was expected to. He's one of the biggest names at the tournament due to his high-profile move and needs to start delivering on the potential he flashed aged 17, when he was running Boca's midfield on his own.
You can read a full scouting profile of Bentancur here.
8. Dominic Solanke, ST, England
Due to England's involvement in so many youth competitions this summer, the national pool has been stretched pretty thin. The under-20 selection appears to be one of the weakest, but there is one star name that jumps off the squad list when you peruse it.
What condition Dominic Solanke is in is anyone's guess, and how sharp he's feeling is a separate question again, but what England have in him is a player who has scored more than 40 goals in a single season at youth level, spearheading a fine Chelsea youth selection at both FA Youth Cup and UEFA Youth League level.
If Paul Simpson's midfield crop can supply him with chances, he will put them away.
7. Jose Gomes, ST, Portugal
Despite being just 18 years of age, Jose Gomes has pedigree. That's what top-scoring at the UEFA Under-17 Championship will do for you, and in 2016, he managed a whopping seven goals for Portugal.
He recently scooped a silver medal in the UEFA Youth League, scoring but seeing his Benfica side lose to RB Salzburg in the final. The youngster is seen as a future great No. 9. Able to score all manner of goals, he's strong enough to box out defenders and clever enough to evade them in the penalty area.
6. Allan Saint-Maximin, FWD, France
Club: Monaco (on loan at Bastia)
Allan Saint-Maximin (whose initials, ASM, mirror those of his parent club) is a wrecking ball of a forward who causes chaos among defensive lines.
He ranks third in Europe's top leagues for dribbles this season, completing an average of 4.4 per game, second only to Adama Traore (5) and Neymar (5.7), and has spent the campaign slaloming between opponents at will.
Production-wise, he needs work—three goals and two assists from 28 Ligue 1 starts isn't good enough, no matter how bad some of his temporary team-mates are—but he is an incredibly exciting box of potential with natural gifts many only dream of.
5. Adalberto Penaranda, FWD, Venezuela
2016-17 has been a complete and utter waste for Adalberto Penaranda, but at 19 years of age, he's still got plenty of time on his side. Watford will need to ensure he gets an appropriate loan with some appropriate playing time next season, though.
An electric, yet still incredibly raw wide forward, Penaranda shot to prominence in 2015-16 with Granada and was promptly snapped up by the Hornets. He's capable of stretching defences over the top or dribbling directly at defenders so forcefully they panic. Either is fine.
His decision-making must be improved, as does his one-on-one finishing, but all the raw elements of a blistering, damaging attacker are there.
4. Lucas Tousart, CM, France
Few teams at the Under-20 FIFA World Cup have the luxuries France do in their squad. That was hammered home when Les Bleus' selection was announced, and it included—among many talents—a player who recently started a Europa League semi-final.
Lucas Tousart is a commanding, aerially dominant midfielder who has displaced Maxime Gonalons in Lyon's starting XI. He'll provide the steel and solidity to what is probably the best midfield crop heading to the tournament.
3. Lautaro Martinez, ST, Argentina
Club: Racing Club
Lautaro Martinez is a striker who plays with his head on a swivel; he's becoming known for deft movements upon receiving possession, or flicks that take him around markers before they've even set their feet.
This kind of heads-up play is rare in 19-year-olds; it marks him out immediately as one to watch. His decisive movements create space for shots, and he's a fan of the low, driven effort directed towards the corner.
Argentina have a lot of creativity heading to this tournament, but what use is that without someone to add the finishing touch? Martinez is that man.
2. Issa Diop, CB, France
Issa Diop's a name you'll need to know heading into the summer transfer window. TalkSport has credited Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea with an interest in his services and also relayed reports from Foot 365 in France this week that RB Leipzig have had a seven-figure bid knocked back.
The Frenchman already has more than 50 Ligue 1 starts in his career, making him a relatively seasoned veteran in this competition, and he has the sort of physique that can dominate at this level. Strong, big-bodied and aggressive, he'll give you nothing in the air and little on the ground.
1. Rodrigo Amaral, AM, Uruguay
Watching Rodrigo Amaral in full flight is an absolute treat. A low-to-the-ground, weaving dribbler, he races forward with intent, beats markers one-on-one and offers the end product someone like Allan Saint-Maximin doesn't.
He was Uruguay's best performer at the U20 Copa Sudamericana earlier this year, netting several rasping long-range goals—one of which, against Argentina, looked like it could have broken the net.
From set pieces he proved an ingenious mind, often thinking outside the box in order to get the jump on defences, and the way he embraces the physical side of the game is a breath of fresh air considering he's a No. 10.
All statistics via WhoScored.com