For decades, the World Cup has been the stage for the planet’s best young footballers to make a name for themselves.
Since the turn of the century we’ve seen the likes of Landon Donovan (2002), Lukas Podolski (2006), Thomas Müller (2010) and Paul Pogba (2014) honoured as the best young players of the tournament, solidifying their status as marquee players.
Mesut Özil’s breakout performance at the 2010 World Cup led to a transfer move from Werder Bremen to Spanish giants Real Madrid, while also catching the eye of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, where Özil has played since 2013. Four years ago, Colombian midfielder James Rodríguez took the footballing world by storm, finishing as the tournament’s leading scorer and making jaws drop with stunning goals like this one. Rodríguez joined Real Madrid 18 days after Colombia was eliminated in the quarterfinals.
Careers can be made at the World Cup if a young player is able to put together an impressive tournament. Who are the candidates to do just that this summer in Russia? Here’s a look at 10 potential breakout stars.
Timo Werner, 22, forward, Germany
The first choice to start up front for a vaunted German attack, the 22-year-old has as good a shot as any at taking home the Golden Boot trophy as the tournament’s top scorer. Werner has combined for 42 goals in all competitions over the last two seasons for up-start Bundesliga side RB Leipzig, and has a stellar scoring record in his young international career: seven goals in 13 appearances, including a Golden Boot performance in last summer’s FIFA Confederations Cup. A similar performance in Russia could see Werner move on from Leipzig, which wouldn’t come as much of a surprise given recent comments about his future.
Hirving Lozano, 22, forward, Mexico
Lozano flourished in Europe this season after making the jump from Liga MX side Pachuca to Dutch giants PSV last summer. The 22-year-old forward racked up 17 goals in 29 league performances for the Eindhoven club, and will feature prominently in Mexico’s attack. He’s already being linked with Premier League outfits Chelsea and Everton, so an eye-opening showing in Russia could see Lozano make a big-money move to England.
Ismaïla Sarr, 20, forward, Senegal
Following in the footsteps of Ousmane Dembélé, Sarr could be the next up-and-comer to make the step from French side Rennes to a European juggernaut. The 20-year-old chose a move to Rennes over Barcelona last summer with his own development in mind, but may not be able to keep bigger clubs at bay much longer with a good tournament. Sarr, alongside Keita Baldé and M’Baye Niang, is among Senegal’s wealth of young attackers who will need to step up in assistance of Sadio Mané if the nation is to get out of the group stage.
Cristian Pavón, 22, midfielder, Argentina
Pavón, who currently plays for Argentinian club Boca Juniors, will feature in a starting XI with Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria – some of the world’s best attacking players. But it could be the 22-year-old who plays the most vital role (outside of Messi) for Argentina’s hopes of winning a trophy in Russia. Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli recently referred to Pavón as “Messi’s new partner” who has “very special characteristics for communicating” with arguably the world’s best player. A breakout tournament with his country in Russia this summer could see Pavón make a big-money move to Europe.
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) May 30, 2018
Sergej Milinković-Savić, 23, midfielder, Serbia
Already among the best players in Serie A, the man known as SMS can push his profile even higher with a dominant performance for his country in Russia. Milinković-Savić is a do-it-all midfielder who scored 14 goals this past season for Lazio and has been linked to Manchester United and Juventus. Lazio will be able to command the reported €114 million it wants if the 23-year-old midfielder puts together a memorable performance for Serbia this summer.
Lee Seung-woo, 20, midfielder, South Korea
After starring for South Korea in last summer’s FIFA Under-20 World Cup, the winger was named to his nation’s World Cup squad just days after making his debut for the senior team, which included setting up Tottenham star Son Heung-min’s wonder-goal in a 2-0 win over Honduras.
A product of Barcelona’s renowned academy, Lee made the move to Serie A side Hellas Verona last summer. However, the Catalan club has a buy-back option through 2019. With Verona now relegated, a big splash for South Korea at the World Cup could see Lee’s stock rise and prompt a move back into one of Europe’s top leagues.
Rodrigo Bentancur, 20, midfielder, Uruguay
Anchored with a strong back line and bolstered by two of the world’s top scorers, Uruguay has designs of a deep run in Russia. La Celeste‘s success, however, may hinge on a revamped midfield whose projected starters are all under the age of 26. The youngest, Bentancur is a versatile midfielder who featured in as many as three different positions in 20 appearances this season for Italian champions Juventus in his first year with the club. Likely to play on the left of a midfield three, Bentancur will be looking to hook up regularly with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
Davinson Sánchez, 21, defender, Colombia
The young centre-back made 29 starts in the Premier League in just his first season with Tottenham – plus eight more in the Champions League – and impressed Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino enough to make the likely departure of Toby Alderweireld this summer an easier pill to swallow. Sánchez and 23-year-old Barcelona centre-back Yerry Mina will make up one of the tournament’s youngest centre-back duos on a Colombia side that will look to build off 2014’s run to the last eight.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, 19, defender, England
Thanks to a break-out campaign for Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool in the Premier League, capped by an impressive showing in his team’s heartbreaking Champions League final loss, Alexander-Arnold could be Gareth Southgate’s first-choice right wingback for the Three Lions. He’s steady in defence and dangerous in attack, so more of the same from the 19-year-old in Russia could raise his star even higher.
Rúben Dias, 20, defender, Portugal
The shocking omission of Wolverhampton midfielder Rúben Neves means Dias slots in as Portugal’s most likely youngster to have a breakout tournament. The European champions will be relying heavily on older players this summer, and the squad’s biggest concern is in defence. Pepe will be a constant on the back line, but the spot as his centre-back partner is very much up for grabs. Should Bruno Alves (36) or Jose Fonte (34) struggle, the introduction of young blood into the side could see Dias make his first real impact for the senior team on the biggest of stages.