Which Top 5 Rising Young Superstars will Grace the 2022 FIFA World Cup?
With the over a decade-long rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, two of the finest exponents ever to grace the world stage at the same time, reaching its peak, and the probability of the two giants playing beyond the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar increasingly becoming unlikely due to age, the football world is getting prepared to witness the next generation of stars taking their place.
The World Cup has always presented the perfect occasion for rising football stars to announce their arrival on the global stage and showcase their skills to the world. The 2022 FIFA World Cup is an ideal opportunity for today's upcoming stars to emerge out of the shadows of the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry and influence the game at the highest level.
Of the many youngsters contending for the coveted Messi-Ronaldo crown, five players have so far separated themselves from the rest of the pack. They have caught the eyes of the world with their playing skills and displays of brilliance on the field.
From star midfielder Frenkie De Jong to highly-rated Portuguese forward João Felix, here is our top-five pick of the stars expected to take centre-stage at the 2022 World Cup and who might continue to hold the aces in global football for many years to come.
Frenkie De Jong (Barcelona & Netherlands)
In January 2019, FC Barcelona won the battle to sign up AFC Ajax's most coveted midfielder, Frenkie De Jong. The five-year contract for an initial fee worth €75 million, brought an end to one of the most keenly contested players' transfer sagas of the 2019 season.
For a then 21-year-old player to command the attention of the four topmost clubs in Europe - Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Paris Saint Germain and Barcelona - with all of them ready to break the banks to get him on their side, showed the worth and value placed on him.
Considered one of the best midfielders of the moment, De Jong's ball control skills are only rivalled by his killer passing and playmaking abilities. Simply put, the Gorinchem-born player was born to play football.
De Jong came to the fore during the 2018–19 season when he led Ajax to their first domestic double (league and cup) since the 2001–02 season. The midfielder had a 91.4 % pass accuracy, in all competitions during his last season with Ajax, as he helped the team finish the last five weeks at the top of the table.
The midfielder was also the stand-out player in his team's UEFA Champions League performance, as Ajax reached the semi-final of the competition for the first time since 1997. With De Jong's help, the team eliminated Juventus in the quarterfinals, and Real Madrid in the Round of 16, only to be knocked out by Tottenham Hotspur on away goals. De Jong had the most touches by any player on the pitch (87) and an 86.2 % pass completion rate in the semi-final.
The versatile player has received several individual accolades since he made his debut for the Ajax senior side in 2016. Among his many awards are the 2018-19 Dutch Football Talent of the Year, 2018-19 UEFA Midfielder of the Season and the 2018-19 Eredivisie Player of the Season. He was also named in the UEFA Champions League Squad of the Season: 2018–19 and 2019 FIFA FIFPro World 11.
With 2022 on the horizon, the Dutch midfielder, who made his international debut in September 2018, after replacing Georginio Wijnaldum at half-time during a friendly (2–1) win against Peru, is set to be a defining figure orchestrating the Netherlands foray from the midfield.
Ansu Fati (Barcelona & Spain U21)
History was made on August 25, 2019, when a smiling Ansu Fati was thrown into the fray, in the 78th minute, of a La Liga match between hosts Barcelona and Real Betis. He became the second-youngest player since 1941 to debut for Barcelona. The La Masia (Barcelona Academy) graduate was just 16 years and 298 days when he donned the checked shirt of the Catalan giants - 18 days older than the club's record holder Vicente Martinez.
Strong, quick on the ball and possessing self-confidence and agility beyond his age, the then almost 17-year-old player was one of the major revelations of the 2018-19 season. Since his debut at Camp Nou, he has continued to surprise the world with his mesmerizing skills. He is often compared to Messi and is widely tipped to take the place of the Argentine when he finally calls it quits.
Despite only 20 appearances since his debut, Fati, the son of an immigrant from Guinea Bissau, has already racked up impressive career stats based on his age.
For a start, in Fati’s senior debut year he became Barcelona's youngest goalscorer ever, and the third-youngest scorer in the history of La Liga, after scoring against Osasuna in August 2019 at the age of 16 years and 304 days.
He also emerged that same year as the youngest player in the history of La Liga to score and assist in the same match. At the age of 16 years and 318 days, Fati scored in the 2nd minute and provided an assist to Frenkie de Jong's goal in the 7th minute, helping Barcelona to an eventual 5–2 home win against Valencia.
At his 2019 Champions League debut, in a 0–0 away draw against Borussia Dortmund, he became the youngest player to feature for Barcelona in the competition. Playing at the age of 16 years and 321 days, he broke Bojan Krkić's previous record of 17 years and 22 days. He was the third-youngest player ever to appear in the competition.
In December that year, Fati also became the youngest goalscorer in UEFA Champions League history at the age of 17 years and 40 days. In the match, he scored the game-winner in Barcelona's 2–1 victory over Inter Milan at the San Siro.
As Spain begins their quest for a second FIFA World Cup title, Fati and his dazzling performances are expected to feature more prominently.
Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund & England)
Jadon Sancho parted ways with Premier League champions Manchester City and moved to Germany to join Borussia Dortmund in 2017. No one at that time could have predicted the 17-year-old would become one of Europe's most highly-rated attackers and an established England international.
With English-born players historically often finding it difficult to establish themselves in leagues outside of England, the London-born player has surprisingly become one of the exceptions to the rule.
The ex-Watford Academy player stormed onto the scene for Dortmund in a breakout 2018/19 season. He provided a league-high 17 assists and 12 goals - registering more goals and assists than anyone else in the Bundesliga other than Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski.
Possessing almost all the sought-after qualities in a top striker - passing, dribbling, key passes, ball possession, finishing, etc. – the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup winner with England seems to be getting better with age.
The Dortmund No. 7's goal in a win away to Cologne, on Match Day 2 of the 2019/20 season, was his 15th in the Bundesliga. That goal made him the youngest player in German 'top-flight' history to reach that mark. With ten goals and ten assists in the Bundesliga so far*, Sancho has become the first player to hit double-digits for both in any of Europe's top-five leagues.
With an ageing Harry Kane's scoring form seemingly in decline, England has found a worthy replacement in Sancho. The youngster confirmed his place on the national team's lineup when he fired in a brace in a 5–3 home victory over Kosovo in September 2019 in a Euro 2020 qualifier.
If England qualifies to play in Qatar, which is most likely considering that they have only missed the tournament only three times - 1974 (West Germany), 1978 (Argentina) and 1994 (United States) - the spotlight will be on Sancho.
No matter what happens between now and 2022, the 19-year-old superstar has little to worry about - he already has the world at his feet.
João Felix (Atletico Madrid & Portugal)
João Félix Sequeira piqued the world's interest in the summer of 2019 when Atlético Madrid fended off fierce competition from several top European clubs to sign the former Benfica player. A club-record transfer fee, worth €126 million (£113 million), made Felix the fourth-most expensive football transfer. The fee was also the second-most paid for a teenager, and the highest for a Portuguese player leaving the domestic league.
Felix was once described by ex-Benfica and Portugal forward Rui Costa as, 'having an extraordinary understanding of the game and the rare ability to know where to be in front of goal'. Indeed, at the end of the 2018/19 season, Felix was only behind Borussia Dortmund's Jadon Sancho for goal contributions. He helped the Lisbon-side claim the Portuguese league title with 15 goals and seven assists in 21 starts.
Sancho made his professional debut for Benfica in September 2016. His debut, at 16, saw him become Benfica's reserve team's youngest ever player. He made his senior debut in the semi-finals of the 2019 UEFA Nations League Finals, won by Portugal on home soil. After previously being capped for Portugal's youth teams at under-18, under-19 and under-21 levels, Felix ended 2019 by winning the prestigious Golden Boy award for being the best player in Europe under the age of 21. Since his move to Spain, the 20-year-old's fine form has continued ensuring his role as a pivotal figure at Atletico Madrid.
The Viseu-born player is expected to be officially crowned as Ronaldo's worthy successor should the European champions book their tickets for FIFA World Cup in 2022. A commendable performance in Doha will be the icing on the cake for the youngster.
Gianluigi Donnarumma — AC Milan & Italy
Characteristically, goalkeepers have been known to peak with age as they combine experience with natural talents and athleticism. Thus, some of the world's most famous goalkeepers have been in their prime around 30+ years of age.
However, the exception to the rule is Milan's 20-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma, who is defying all the odds with his remarkable skills and sharp reflexes in goal.
His physical strength and technical abilities, as well as his mental composure and decision making, has set him apart from the rest. These qualities, and more, saw him join Italy's national team. In September 2016, he became the youngest goalkeeper ever to play on the team at the age of 17 years and 189 days.
Donnarumma started professionally in 2015 when he became goalie for AC Milan, becoming the second-youngest goalkeeper ever to debut in Serie A, aged 16 years and 242 days. He broke into the starting lineup immediately winning his spot as the club's starting goalkeeper over other great goalies such as Diego Lopez and Christian Abiatti. His performances at the club saw him lauded as one of the most promising young goalkeepers in the world. In March 2016, he broke a further record becoming the youngest Italy under-21 player ever to play, aged 17 years and 28 days.
Donnarumma officially became Italy's first-choice goalkeeper following the retirement of legendary Gianluigi Buffon in 2018. Should Italy qualify for 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar, the six-footer from Castellammare di Stabia will expectedly be between the sticks for the Azzurri.
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