Few sights in world football inspire as much excitement and anticipation as emerging youth talent.Supporters, scouts and pundits alike are eager to discover the next generation of world-class stars who will leave their mark on the game. Some of these young talents end up becoming high profile flops, others evolve into simply good but not great players, but a certain few become truly special players.
Often there is an element of obscurity from which these players rise to prominence. Lionel Messi famously signed a contract with Barcelona on a napkin when he was just 12 years old, whilst still a youth player for Argentinian club Newell’s Old Boys. Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Manchester United from Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon at the age of 18 after United’s players raved about him on the plane back to Manchester and urged Sir Alex Ferguson to sign him.
Of the current crop, Eden Hazard, David de Gea and James Rodriguez – players who have risen meteorically in recent years and are now regarded as some of the best in the world – all began their careers as little known teenagers plying their trade in smaller leagues (Belgium, Spain and Colombia respectively) where they honed their skills and accrued experience before establishing themselves with Europe’s elite.
Who will form the new generation of talented teenagers? Perhaps it will be the following five players, all of whom have been scouted and analysed as having the potential to become genuine world-class footballers.
1. Alen Halilovic (Croatia/FC Barcelona B)
Position: Attacking Midfielder
Alen Halilovic is only 18, but already holds the records for: youngest goalscorer in the Croatian first division (16 years and 101 days, for Dinamo Zagreb in September 2012); youngest debutant for the Croatian national team; and the second youngest debutant in the history of the UEFA Champions League.
Signed by Barcelona in March 2014 on a five-year contract worth 2.2 million euros, Halilovic is playing in Barcelona’s reserve team ahead of his expected transition into the senior team next season. Halilovic possesses the same exceptional balance and low centre of gravity abundant in teammate Lionel Messi, which allows the former excellent control and the ability to dribble past defenders with ease.
He also has the same deft touch and all-round technical play. Perhaps his greatest asset, however, is his maturity and vision. Halilovic can create and score goals with exceptional quality, and plays nominally as an attacking midfielder either in wide positions or in a central role behind the striker. Consistency, though, will be the greatest factor in determining whether he can rise to the level of Europe’s elite.
2. Sergi Samper (Spain/FC Barcelona B)
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy has been a never-ending production line of talent, and 19 year old Sergi Samper looks like being the latest superstar to leave La Masia and join Europe’s elite. Samper, who has been at Barcelona since he was six years old, has been capped at every youth level for Spain and has already been given contract by the club until 2017.
Samper fits the mould of fellow La Masia graduate Sergio Busquets, and typically plays in a holding midfield role where he relies upon intelligence and skill rather than physical strength. His style of play is focused on retaining possession whilst moving the ball forward with purpose, and his positioning and passing skills are accordingly superb – a hallmark of his education and upbringing within the Spanish ‘tiki-taka’ philosophy.
But his true talent is his tactical intelligence; Samper has remarkable anticipation with the ability to predict his opponents’ movements. Like Halilovic, Samper is likely to compete with members of the senior team for a berth in central midfield next season.
3. Adnan Januzaj (Belgium/Manchester United)
Position: Winger/Attacking Midfielder
Adnan Januzaj undoubtedly be familiar to those who have kept a keen eye on world football in the past twelve months, having enjoyed a meteoric rise since his debut for Manchester United last season. Having started his career at Belgian club Anderlecht, Januzaj joined Manchester United at the age of 16 in March 2011, and was promoted to the first team by Sir Alex Ferguson towards the end of the 2012-13 season.
Under the doomed regime of David Moyes, Januzaj consistently outshone his more experienced teammates and appeared to be United’s most effective attacking force in several games, adding dynamism to an otherwise flat attack. It was enough for Marc Wilmot to select Januzaj for Belgium’s World Cup squad despite having played only a single season of senior football.
Januzaj’s second season has been a struggle, with little playing time under Louis van Gaal following the arrivals of Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao. He does though remain in United’s long-term plans, being a technical midfielder capable of playing both as a winger or ‘in the hole’. Januzaj has excellent vision and passing, and combined with pace and good control has the ability to take the ball past defenders with ease.
That being said, Januzaj has a relatively lightweight physique and was often too easily muscled off the ball last season. He also needs regular game time in order to continue his development, being not quite good enough to make the starting eleven but far too good to be a benchwarmer.
4. Marquinhos (Brazil/Paris Saint-Germain)
Marquinhos has only played three full seasons of first-team football, but is already an established part of the Brazilian national team and a key player for French club Paris Saint-Germain. It speaks volumes about a player aged just 20, that he is now in contention to replace compatriot Thiago Silva – widely regarded as the best defender in world football – in the starting lineups for both club and country.
Marquinhos already has the look of a seasoned defender. He has excellent anticipation, remarkable composure, and impressive athleticism – attributes that emulate the all-round physical, imposing and authoritative style of compatriot and defensive partner Thiago Silva. His level of development and consistency is extraordinary for a player of his age, and it is no surprise that Marquinhos is fast proving himself to be one of the best central defenders in Europe.
5. Simone Scuffet (Italy/Udinese)
Unless you’re a seasoned observer of Italian top-flight football, chances are you’ve never heard of Simone Scuffet. A product of the youth setup at Udinese, Scuffet started his first game for Udinese against Bologna aged just 17. Scuffet kept his place in team through injury to the first-choice keeper, and was so impressive that he relegated his predecessor Brkic to the substitutes’ bench on his return.
At 187 cm, Scuffet has the commanding presence needed by goalkeepers. He is quick to respond to danger, confident in the air, and has excellent reflexes. Crucially, he marshals his defence and commands his penalty box in a manner that belies his young age. Indeed, Scuffet exudes an air of calm and authority which complements the added responsibility he is likely to shoulder as he develops.