FIFA World Cup 2022 | Jamal Musiala, Alvarez, Gavi... top young talent to watch this World Cup

FIFA World Cup 2022 | Jamal Musiala, Alvarez, Gavi... top young talent to watch this World Cup

Updated: 7 days, 20 hours, 37 minutes, 25 seconds ago

Mentored by Thomas Muller, 19-year-old Jamal Musiala (above) has already played 100 matches for Bayern Munich. (Image via Twitter/@JamalMusiala)

It was not until the last of Brazil’s group stage matches at the 1958 World Cup that the world came to know of a precocious, powerfully built 17-year-old boy called Pele. He didn’t get to do much in that game, but in the next, the quarter-final against Wales, the boy took an assured touch inside the box with his back to the goal, swivelled with excellent close control and scored the goal that would take Brazil to the semis. It was only the beginning. In the next match, against France, the legend of Pele laid its foundation as the boy scored a hat-trick. Then he did it again in the final, becoming the youngest player to play in a World Cup final, score in a World Cup final, score a hat-trick in the World Cup final, and win the World Cup.

See more stories, photos See more stories, photos

The discovery of young, new players who can send whole stadiums full of people into a frenzy is one of the great joys of the World Cup. From 18-year-old Michael Owen in 1998 dazzling everyone with his speed, to 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe scoring in the 2018 final to lead France to the title, it’s hard to think of anything else at a World Cup more gratifying than the success of a fresh-faced teenager.

The World Cup in Qatar will see a handful of preternaturally gifted young players trying to announce themselves on the big stage and, in some cases, shoulder the heavy responsibility of carrying the expectations of footballing powerhouses. Mbappe is young enough to qualify for this list, but is being kept out because he already had his breakthrough in the last Cup and has since gone from strength to strength. Here are some who are still largely untested, at least at the national level, but have shown incredible promise since making their breakthroughs at the club level.

1. Jamal Musiala, 19, Germany

Look at the lean, baby-faced Musiala and it’s hard to believe that this is a boy who has already played 100 games for the Bavarian giants Bayern Munich. Mentored by Thomas Muller at Bayern, Musiala needed just one season to establish himself as not just a regular, but also the spearhead of the club’s vaunted attack. The teenager will also take on that responsibility for Germany at Qatar. With his fierce pace and supreme confidence in front of the goal, it feels almost inevitable that Musiala will be a breakthrough star at this World Cup.

2. Vinicius Jr, 22, Brazil

Like Mbappe, it feels almost wrong to talk about Vini Jr on this list. For one, he has already made his breakthrough. Real Madrid’s La Liga winning and Champions League winning season was brought to life by the young Brazilian. Vini has already proved that he is world-class forward with breathtaking pace and superb finishing skills, scoring freely against all opponents in all conditions, including the Champions League final. Things can only go upwards from here for the most exciting Brazilian player right now, and it won’t be too much of a stretch to imagine Brazil winning the Cup and Vini finishing as the tournament’s golden boot winner.

3. Julian Alvarez, 22, Argentina

The beefy young striker has started to get game time from Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, and the little he has shown on the pitch would have thrilled the Argentine coaching staff. It’s the ultimate test of a forward who is still learning the craft to be put in a match situation with an attacking team as strong as City. You will need to have the speed, the awareness, the skill and the vision to match Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, Erling Halaand and others. Alvarez has given glimpses of that ability, proving that he is ready for the ultimate link-up—with Lionel Messi.

4. Aurélien Tchouaméni, 22, France

This is a French team without some of its most trusted, or at least, most seasoned players—N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba are both out with injuries. But such is the depth of talent in France—no doubt you’ve heard of the incredible success of players rising from the hard-up, strife-torn suburbs of Paris, the “banlieues”—that they may not even miss one of their greatest ever players (Kante, of course).

Tchouameni (who, to be sure, is from Bordeaux and not a Paris suburb) had the most difficult of tasks: step into the most powerful midfield formation in football right now, that of Real Madrid, and take over the veteran Casemiro’s hectic role of breaking up the opposition’s play as well was feeding the forward line. He has filled that spot for France admirably too—if replacing Casemiro is a tough task, being in Kante’s shoes is near impossible. Yet, the young French midfielder has belied his age and experience, playing a canny, patient, gritty game in the middle. He has struggled in the last few games for Real, but that does not mean he can’t find the mojo for his national team on the biggest stage.

Watch out also for his Real Madrid and France teammate Eduardo Camavinga—the 20-year-old, who was born in a refugee camp in Angola before finding a home in France with his parents, may be France’s secret weapon in Qatar. In 2020, when he replaced an injured Paul Pogba in the French team, he became the youngest player to play for the team since 1914. A box-to-box midfielder with a penchant for taking superb long-range shots, France may have to depend heavily on these two rising stars to progress in the World Cup.

5. Fede Valverde, 24, Uruguay

Another one from Real Madrid’s incredible stable of next-gen players, Valverde is the kind of footballer who is involved in every action in the match. Extremely fast, powerful and with a voluminous capacity for work, Valverde is a god-send for any manager and any team. He is excellent at falling back to defend, and can even operate on the backline if needed, has a sniper’s eye for breaking up opposition play, outpaces defenders with ease on the wing, and most tellingly, possesses a long-range shot-making ability that may be second to none. You can bet that whatever happens, Valverde will find at least one goal with a screaming rocket from way outside the box.

6. Phil Foden, 22, England

It’s one thing to be a prodigy, a young academy star who dazzles at age-group games, and quite another for the prodigy to slip into one of the greatest teams in football and carry on at exactly the same level. Foden has been a Manchester City phenom for over three seasons now, and he has simply gotten better with each passing year. So much so, that it’s hard to imagine a City formation without Foden in it, and it’s become extremely difficult to judge who has a bigger impact on the game among the team’s superlative attacking midfielders: Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva or Foden?

Foden’s passing range and vision, his speed, his one-on-one skills are all outstanding. If England has to do well in Qatar, a lot will depend on Foden’s orchestration of the attack.

7. Jude Bellingham, 19, England

If you can spot a more poised, assured, skillful, and intelligent teenaged midfielder right now than England’s Bellingham, you’ve found the next Messi. Bellingham plays with Borussia Dortmund, the Bundesliga club that specializes in giving a home to the best young talent in the world and making them thrive. But even by Dortmund’s lofty standard for teenagers, Bellingham’s big-match prowess and abilities—the club’s Champions League campaign is being driven by the Englishman’s goals and assists—has made him the centre of the football world’s conversations on young, rising talent. Bellingham will be in intense focus in upcoming transfer seasons, and he and Foden in midfield make this English squad an uncharacteristically exciting prospect at Qatar.

8. Pedri, 19, Spain

If England have Foden and Bellingham, Spain will depend on two teenagers to provide the sparks in their midfield too. Barcelona, in their desperate search to replace Lionel Messi, believes that they have found just the right person in Pedri.

That should tell you everything you really need to know about the boy who, by the time he was 18, was already playing his 50th game for Barcelona, had a record release clause inserted into his contract last year, and won the Golden Boy award given to the most promising young footballer in Europe, beating the likes of Bellingham and Gavi. Like Messi, Barcelona coach Xavi allows Pedri a free-roaming role. He does all the things Messi has made his own—deceptive positioning in the flanks before a sudden move to the middle, operating between the lines, dribbling and phenomenal close control when the situation demands it, the vision and ability to find penetrating passes, and even operating as a centre-forward if warranted.

9. Gavi, 18, Spain

If Pedri is compared to Messi, Gavi finds himself in the company of Xavi and Andres Iniesta. His passing, first touch, close control and change of pace harks back to the golden age of Spanish football when Xavi and Iniesta ran rings around all opposition.

Last year, Gavi, at 16, became the youngest player to take the field for Spain’s senior national team, and this year, he became the youngest to score for Spain. Gavi also won the Golden Boy award this year, in a smooth transfer of honours from one Spanish teenager to another.

If there’s one thing that may spoil the party for Pedri and Gavi, it is that Spain may be asking too much from the midfield duo: they are still boys, and very much at the start of their careers—how well can they cope if a nation’s World Cup hopes rest on them?

If there’s one thing that may spoil the party for Pedri and Gavi, it is that Spain may be asking too much from the midfield duo: they are still boys, and very much at the start of their careers—how well can they cope if a nation’s World Cup hopes rest on them?