Ranking the Top 25 Rising Stars of International Football

Jonathan Woo@woo_jonathanwooCorrespondent IMarch 8, 2011

Ranking the Top 25 Rising Stars of International Football

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    Everyone can remember and appreciate the Pelés, Ronaldos, Maradonas, Zidanes and Shearers during their primes, and that merit goes beyond warrant.

    But it is more of a task to identify with pin-point precision the type of footballer and impact a young Ronaldo or Maradona or any contemporary star would project to be in the future.

    When Wayne Rooney developed in Everton's youth academy, how many expected the immense growth in talent and productivity that the England international has demonstrated fully now with Manchester United?

    Or when Lionel Messi was a mere youngster with Barcelona's academy, was it anticipated that the 5'7" magician could be crowned as the world's best player?

    There will always be a litany of starlets waiting for their chance to explode onto the football world. Some may crash and burn before the dream becomes a reality, while others will take the reigns and ride to the top.

    Here are the top 25 rising stars of world football, including the next global icon, Neymar.

Andy Najar, Honduras

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    He's young and he's growing, but is the MLS the best place to foster that growth?

    The soon-to-be 18-year old has shown flashes of his brilliance on the biggest stage that America has to offer at an early level, and if he translates that on a move to Europe where virtually every facet of the game is many levels better, one can only wonder how far the native Honduran can go.

    If he declares to play on the United States' senior squad, the Americans will get a creative playmaker to watch for some years down the road.

    It is still early to see what kind of career Najar projects to have, but with the MLS Rookie of the Year already under his belt, there is no doubt that the 5'7" winger has a bright future ahead of him.

Adem Ljajic, Serbia

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    The 19-year old Ljajic is a versatile midfield roamer with a good striker's mentality. In his first full season with Fiorentina, the Serbia international has shown his worth, but has loads of room for development.

    With Manchester United having had its eye on the 5'11" midfielder, the interest in the young Serb only looks to increase with his time in Italy with Fiorentina.

    Though Ljajic currently is the youngest squad member listed on Serbia's national selection, but he is one of the up and coming players to watch on the international stage and in the Serie A.

Lewis Holtby, Germany

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    Lewis Holtby can still decide which country's colors, England's or Germany's, he will wear as a senior squad member in international football. But either way, he will be one to watch in the coming years.

    The 20-year old winger has great pace along the sidelines, and his delivery is already well-developed. Virtually every club has at least one of those prototype wing players, small, quick, witty on the ball with good passing skills, and the 5'8" Holtby fits that bill perfectly.

    Schalke have had Holtby under contract since 2009 and have loaned him within the Bundesliga for two straight windows.

Victor Moses, England

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    Quick and light both describe the 5'10" winger from Nigeria, although Moses has the proper skill set to move into a striker's role.

    But in the Premier League where strength is almost a requirement inside the box, Moses has little of it. Where his power and physicality lack, his dribbling skills and acceleration make up.

    Moses has suited up multiple times for England's youth squads, but a recent selection to Nigeria's senior squad may mean that the speedy winger is set to pursue an international career with the green and whites.

Mamadou Sakho, France

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    Outside of France, Mamadou Sakho may be a relatively unknown defenseman, but with Paris Saint-Germain, he is well-established as a physical and tenacious defender with a motor that never stops.

    The 21-year old Sakho has built a reputation as a leader on the pitch despite his youth, but he has become a fixture in PSG's back third.

    The 6'2" defender made his debut for France's senior squad in November and is the baby amongst his fellow defensemen. While others like Adil Rami, Gael Clichy and Laurent Koscienly are ripe at 25 years old, Sakho will have his own share of top-level experience by the time he reaches his prime.

Jack Rodwell, England

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    Though most of England's rising stars are more aligned with the attacking facet of the game, Jack Rodwell represents the tough, physical defensive mind.

    At 6'2" Rodwell moves very well for his size, possessing very reasonable pace as well as some good springs in his legs. If he can build onto his frame without losing mobility, and add the skills of a good servicing midfielder, the 19-year old could turn into great fixture for England's future.

    He's filling his role nicely with Everton, but as he matures into his physical self, he could be a well-rounded fixture in the defensive third for club and country. 

Giovani Dos Santos, Mexico

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    Giovani dos Santos has been a feature of the rising star discussion for the past couple of years, but at 21-years old, he still has time to develop into one of several fixtures of Mexico's national selection.

    Tottenham know exactly what kind of midfielder it got when the club signed the 5'8" midfielder back in 2008. But with youth on his side, dos Santos has been dealt away on loan for three consecutive seasons, most recently to Racing Santander.

    Light and quick on his feet, the young Mexican has been known to dribble through opponents with ease, but sometimes loses focus when setting up delivery or a strike on goal.

    Nevertheless, dos Santos has a world of talent that only looks to develop over time.

Carlos Vela, Mexico

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    Like his fellow countryman, Carlos Vela, too, has been widely considered a breakout candidate for a couple of years now. Having signed with Arsenal in 2005, it seems that he is simply waiting out his turn to be a feature for the Gunners.

    But whatever future he may or may not have at the Emirates, Vela is one of three outstanding young Mexicans that look to be a force on the international stage for many years to come.

    He definitely has the pace and skill to succeed at any level, but as with most smaller strikers, his strength lacks.

    With Giovani dos Santos, Javier Hernandez and Vela all maturing around the same age, chemistry among the three should pay huge dividends down the road for Mexico.

Sergio Canales, Spain

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    The 20-year old Sergio Canales is just another Spanish footballer waiting in the wings for his shot at greatness. Though he signed with Real Madrid in the summer of 2010, the list of formidable midfielders at the Bernabéu is long and thorough, leaving little opportunities for the attack-minded Canales.

    Despite the cards stacked against him, the Spaniard has great vision and great talent, but needs the proper platform to display his immense abilities.

    Amongst a litany of great, young Spanish footballers, Canales is no slouch when it comes to identifying the stars of tomorrow.

Philippe Coutinho, Brazil

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    Another Brazilian talent still developing in the Serie A is Philippe Coutinho, a good servicing midfielder, but lacks the complete package to warrant the true spotlight.

    His receiving touch isn't quite as spotless as it needs to be, but his dribbling technique and ability with either foot could take him a long way towards achieving success at multiple levels of professional football.

    The 5'7" Coutinho is currently under contract with Inter Milan, but doesn't often see the pitch.

    But at just 18 years of age, Coutinho looks to have a healthy career ahead of him as he's shown flashes of potential brilliance. Besides, playing on the same team with a world class midfielder like Wesley Sneijder can't hurt.

Miralem Pjanic, Bosnia

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    A bright spot in Bosnian football comes in the form of the 20-year old Miralem Pjanic, a skillful attacking midfielder for Olympique Lyon.

    The football world witnessed his skill during last year's UEFA Champions League when the Bosnian recorded five goals and four assists in 14 appearances for his French club.

    Though he has hardly demonstrated consistency at the highest level, there is no questioning his level of ability against the best competition in the world.

Federico Macheda, Italy

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    One Manchester United youngster awaiting his chance to perform on a consistent basis at Old Trafford is Federico Macheda, a 19-year old Italian striker with a balanced set of skills that will make him a great asset once he matures physically.

    He's already displayed fabulous power on his strikes and his 6'0" frame gives him enough strength to hold off some defenders, thus allowing his above-average pace to pull away and unleash on goal.

    But one has to figure how Macheda will fit into Sir Alex Ferguson's plans in the final third. With Wayne Rooney virtually in his prime and Javier Hernandez nipping at his heels, the Italian could be a third striker reserved for a substitutes role or a spot starter.

    Though he's on-loan at Sampdoria this season, the U-21 Italian international is a great prospect for one of the top clubs in the world.

Simon Kjær, Denmark

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    Named the 2009 Danish Talent of the Year, Simon Kjær is just that, a tremendous talent.

    Now at 21 years old, Kjær is a feature center back for Wolfsburg and considered by some to be one of the top young defenders in Europe. His 16 caps for Denmark's senior squad marks his evident abilities as a defenseman.

    At 6'2" he isn't the biggest of center backs, but he utilizes his body and strength well, and his great leaping ability and intelligent play will only increase his value as he matures.

Rafael Da Silva, Brazil

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    Rafael (and not his twin brother, unfortunately for United) is developing into a tenacious and fiery right back for Manchester United, and the 20-year old is showing little signs of stage fright.

    Though at times his unyielding motor may get the best of him, his attitude as a defensive footballer is of the right mindset, and it's earned him considerable appearances for the Premier League's top club.

    His small, 5'9" frame may end up being a liability in England's top flight, where strength and power are commonplace for most clubs' offensive tactics, the Brazilian youngster quite often makes up for his lack of physicality with a pit bull-like work ethic.

    If/when his twin brother, Fabio, makes the same progression, United could be looking at a formidable duo on the corners of the back third.

Moussa Sissoko, France

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    Moussa Sissoko is a versatile midfielder who can roam freely and be at relative ease. His 6'2" frame allows him to play stout defense, and his fluid movement and good pace let him venture into the final third.

    Many consider his playing style similar to that of fellow Frenchman Patrick Viera, a tall and complete midfielder who is a great holding player and can distribute the ball very well.

    The 21-year old began his career with Toulouse in 2003 and has been with the club ever since, and since last season, the diverse midfielder has garnered growing interest among a wealth of top-tier clubs in Europe.

    Toulouse's president put a hefty price tag on the France international, publicly declaring the rising value of the young Sissoko.

Douglas Costa, Brazil

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    Yet another Brazilian who is on the cusp of stardom is 20-year old Douglas Costa, an attacking midfielder with explosive acceleration and pace as well as fabulous skills with the ball at his feet.

    Like most of his countrymen, Douglas is a talented playmaker, capable of diving through opponents to create goals for himself or for his teammates.

    In January of 2010, the 5'7" magician made a move from Gremio in Brazil to Shakhtar Donetsk, where he's slowly experiencing a wave of success in both the Ukraine and in the UEFA Champions League.

    While most of the spotlight may be on another ultra-talented Brazilian, Douglas has plenty of talent for himself to show the world.

Javier Pastore, Argentina

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    Javier "El Flaco" Pastore is a young Argentine on the brink of exploding onto the football world.

    In his second season with Palermo, the 21-year old attacking midfielder is shaping his style as a fantastic distributor and clever playmaker. Pastore maintains great technique and vision of the pitch, which allows him to dribble and pass very well in space.

    Add Pastore to the list of extremely gifted Argentine stars because this 6'2" will be a valuable asset to the national selection. That roster is sickening, and it only will become deadlier as Pastore and Ever Banega develop into world class midfielders. 

Romelu Lukaku, Belgium

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    Anyone who kept close to the January transfer window should know by now of Romelu Lukaku, a Belgian prodigy some call the next Didier Drogba.

    Lukaku, a 17-year old striker, is an incredibly physical and under control. At the same time, the Belgian international plays with great pace and power, allowing him to fend off defenders in the open field.

    Clubs like Chelsea and Real Madrid expressed heavy interest in the 6'3" goal-scorer, but Lukaku remained with Anderlecht, though he is expected to be on the move this summer.

    He may be playing in a somewhat obscure league where visibility (and competition) is not the greatest, but he will definitely be tested if he transfers into a league where the level of play is much higher.

Javier Hernandez, Mexico

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    The third of Mexico's trio of rising youngsters is Javier Hernandez, who is becoming a star in the making behind Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov with Manchester United.

    Despite his primary use as a substitute and spot starter behind the other to strikers, Chicharito ultimately has proven to be highly efficient in the final third, notching 10 goals in 20 EPL appearances, good for second on the squad behind Berbatov's 19 scores.

    The 22-year old striker simply finds ways to put balls in the net, the best indication of a goal-threat.

    Though he is easily seen as the third option for Sir Alex Ferguson, he is proving to be just as potent as the rest, and his stock and production only will rise as his career continues.

Stevan Jovetic, Montenegro

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    Arguably one of the best young players in the Serie A is Stevan Jovetic, an ultra-talented forward with a versatile skillset that makes him a distributor, a finisher and a playmaker. At 21-years old, the Montenegro international is deadly close to a complete package.

    Although he suffered a knee injury before the 2010-2011 season began, Jovetic still has an incredibly high ceiling. His timetable for a return is set for April.

    Creative dribbling technique, control and an overall great vision and feel on the pitch allows him to play very well in space.

    For any further conversation, refer to Fiorentina's 2-0 victory over Liverpool in last year's UEFA Champion's League. 

Alexis Sanchez, Chile

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    Alexis Sanchez may often be overlooked as a great young talent playing for Udinese, but the Chilean's playmaking abilities are far from that.

    The diminutive winger plays with a blistering pace, but with incredible control, footwork and technical ability, allowing him to maneuver through defenses.

    At 22-years old, he may be on the outskirts of a rising star. And while his game is close to full potential, there are definitely bigger achievements to grasp for the 5'6" Chile international.

    After returning to Udinese on loan in 2008, Sanchez has shown improvement in each of his last three seasons as he inches closer to fulfilling his role as a star on the international stage.

Jack Wilshere, England

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    The Arsenal midfielder has already begun to draw plenty of attention to himself with his precise delivery and tactics all over the field.

    Though he could be the product of a great system that Arsene Wenger has employed with the Gunners (see Cesc Fabregas), there is no questioning the young Englishman's ability in the midfield.

    Playing for a club as well-known and scrutinized as Arsenal, Wilshere has had plenty of applied pressure and has met those challenges with brilliant performances on multiple ocassions.

    At just 19 years old, Wilshere has claimed two caps on the national squad. The talent levels surrounding the 5'8" midfielder will only push his growth towards the better end of the spectrum.

Bojan Krkic, Spain

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    Playing in the shadow of Lionel Messi can't exactly be the easiest way to increase visibility, but that's what Bojan Krkic has dealt with the better part of four seasons with Barcelona.

    The 20-year old possesses a skill set that is strikingly similar to that of Messi's, though the glue-enabled boots aren't of quite the same caliber. Still, the young Spaniard is a smooth dribbler with great technique.

    Leaving the cavern that is Messi's shadow may be his way to bigger spotlight and greater success, but it is no sin to sit behind one of the world's greatest while he fully matures.

Mario Balotelli, Italy

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    With the Mario Balotelli transfer saga in the summer of 2010, the young Italian's name became very well-known, likewise his childish attitude which is still apparent more than half a year later.

    Is it too late to call the monstrous striker a rising star? Maybe. But until he claims consistent first-team selection (that would mean snatching the job from the likes of Carlos Tevez and/or Edin Dzeko), Super Mario will continue to be a footballer to watch in the next five years and beyond.

    His body is an incredible specimen, and he possesses great strength, mobility and control. But all of that seems to go to waste whenever he pouts, and it tends to be quite often.

    At just 20-years old, Balotelli has plenty of time and space to develop maturity. And when it catches up to his physical attributes, he likely could be a huge force for club and country.

Neymar, Brazil

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    Commonly considered Brazil's next best thing, he's already garnering widespread popularity at home for his on the pitch magic, but his youth still precedes him.

    Neymar turned 19 just last month, but his skill level is arguably through the roof. With a great dribbling gift, pace, cleverness and power, the 5'8" playmaker is considered by many to be the next superstar in the making. 

    A number of globally known clubs in Europe sought out the Brazilian forward during January's transfer window, but he remained with his childhood club Santos.

    Though Neymar has been with Santos since 2003, he will have to leave his native roots to ascend to new levels of stardom.