Time stops for no man, and that holds true in football. Xabi Alonso, Francesco Totti, Frank Lampard, and Philipp Lahm are just a few of the players who retired in the past year. This is the hard truth of football, that the players we grew up watching—the ones who made us fall in love with the game—will one day have to surrender to time. Football, you see, isn’t a long-term profession. It’s a sport where the health of the game is maintained through the retirement of older players and the bringing in of new blood. Retirement is the doorway through which the youth take the lead. The retirement of so many skilled players raises the question: who are the world’s next prospects for the future of football? The competition to become football’s next global superstar is fierce; these five players, all under the age of 21, demonstrate their intentions with every touch of the ball.
Vinicius Paixao de Oliveira Júnior— Real Madrid and Brazil U20
On 23 May 2017, at the age of 16, Flamengo sold forward player Vinicius Júnior to Real Madrid which had long coveted his dribbling at speed, strength on the ball, creativity when moving centrally, and range of finishes, from lobs to instinctive toe-pokes. Junior’s talent had helped Brazil win the 2017 South American U-17 Championship. He scored two goals in their 3-0 win against Ecuador and another brace in their victory against Colombia. His performance won him awards as the tournament’s best player and top scorer. In Madrid, the Brazilian featured in a number of the club’s pre-season games during their US tour, but his official debut came on September 29, 2018, in a La Liga derby against Atlético Madrid, which ended in a draw. In his ten appearances in the first half of the 2018-19 season, Junior has scored five goals and created three assists. Although Vinicius faces high expectations, his presence today shows he is the present and future of Real Madrid and Brazilian football.
Kylian Mbappé—Paris Saint-Germain and France
Kylian Mbappé was the driving force in France’s World Cup winning team. His breathtaking soccer skills have propelled him to global frame in a matter of months, with people mobbing him for autographs when he steps outside. All this is made more impressive with the realization that he’s just turned 20. It’s clear that Kylian embodies more than an extraordinary soccer player and his accomplishments prior to the lifting the World Cup prophesied what was to come, scoring 13 goals in the 2017-2018 Ligue 1 season and winning the trophy for PSG. In a blur, Mbappé flies past defenders at speeds over 20 mph before shooting the ball into the net and then dropping to his knees, a broad grin upon his face. Over the next three years alone we should expect his maturity levels to increase and we’ll see the development to the No. 9 position. He is playing wing at the moment for France and Paris Saint-Germain but Kylian’s future lies as a center forward. That is the best position in which he can use his amazing qualities to the best way possible.
Jadon Malik Sancho—Borussia Dortmund and England
Nicknamed the “Rocket,” Jadon was previously a youth player with Watford and Manchester City, and signed his first senior contract with Dortmund in 2017. The midfielder debuted for Dortmund’s first team on August 20, 2018 when he was subbed on during a DFB-Pokal cup game. Midway through the 2018-2019 season, he has had seven goals and 12 assists in 29 appearances in his two seasons with the Bundesliga side. He’s known to cause problems for defenders with his speed—he loves to charge upfield—and his skills on the ball, including his accurate crosses from the right and impressive stepovers. Jadon has been tipped for big things by Fabian Delph, the vice-captain for England’s national team, who expressed his confidence in the youngster, noting he’s a special player and saying, “I really believe the sky’s the limit for him.”
Gianluigi Donnarumma—AC Milan and Italy
Signed by Milan as a 14-year-old, Donnarumma made his professional debut for the club before his 17th birthday. From the moment he slipped on the black-and-red striped jersey, both Milan and Italy have had high expectations about his future. Donnarumma is a quality keeper with a towering frame—1.96m or 6’5”—which allows him to dominate the game. The shot-stopper can fend off both high and low whipped shots and reflexively bat away balls that fly around his shoulders. The teenager is widely regarded as Gianluigi Buffon’s long-term successor, but in recent seasons the pressure at the San Siro has left some disappointed in his performances. But an Italian goalkeeper of class is always going to be judged by the one who came before, Buffon, whose gloves he will take over. But the number of games, and the amount of experience, it takes to get to the highest level is higher for goalkeepers than any other position on the field. For example, Buffon made his professional debut for Parma in November of 1995, but only began hitting his stride in the fall of 2001 with Juventus. Five years later, Buffon led Italy to its 4th World Cup title, conceding just two goals. Given time, Gigio is likely to reach great heights.
Carel Eiting—Ajax and Netherlands U21
Eiting is such a talent, a ball-playing defensive midfielder with great vision and spectacular passing and ball control. In many ways his style of play evokes Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso. He is strong and agile, enabling him to put in clean tackles and maneuver through tight spaces when pressed. Carel has such cross-pitch vision and composure that he can calmly pick out teammates from far distances, and that awareness makes him the smartest player on the pitch at almost any given time. It’s clear Eiting is a magician on the ball who will mature into an even more well-balanced defensive midfielder, one who will continue to delight fans of Ajax and the Dutch national team.