insight

Teenage kicks

Talented young players are nothing new – but are they establishing themselves earlier than ever before?

WORDS Graham Hunter

When was your personal revelation moment? The moment it hit home that we might be witnessing the most joyous, uplifting and impressive wave of young football talent ever to smash its way to the top of world football? Was it when Salzburg’s Norwegian wünderkind Erling Braut Haaland scored eight goals in his first five Champions League appearances this season – more than any other player in the competition’s history? He’s 19.

Perhaps it was when Real Madrid’s petit but precocious Brazilian forward Rodrygo marked his home Champions League debut with a perfect hat-trick, tearing Galatasaray apart with a left-footed finish, a header and then a right-footed third? Very few players, even greats, ever manage that feat. Plus: it was only his fourth start for Los Blancos; he’s just 168cm tall; he also laid on an assist for Karim Benzema; and he’s 18. Not your eureka moment?

Don’t worry, there’s a plethora of others to choose from, all evidence that something truly special is happening. João Félix was 19 when, back in July, Atlético Madrid made him their record signing at €126m from Benfica (the second most expensive teenager in football history). Another little addendum: his first Madrid derbi followed almost immediately, during which he scored one and made two more in a 7-3 win, albeit in a summer friendly.  

But the reason Félix isn’t the most expensive youngster on the block is Kylian Mbappé: his move from Monaco to Paris set that record at €180m. He made his Ligue 1 debut aged 16, was a French champion aged 18 (29 matches, 17 starts, 15 goals), has added several trophies at Paris and is probably the most valuable footballer in the world. Was his impact the moment you noted the seismic shift in teenagers achieving things that, not long ago, would have felt very special for a 26-year-old?

Granted, there are still eyebrows raised if a team’s standout footballer is 16 or 17. But, by the age of 18 to 20, expectations, criticism, responsibility and marketing demands are doled out as if these superkids were in their mid-twenties. Mbappé’s skills developed so quickly that at Russia 2018 he became the youngest Frenchman to score at a World Cup; he also emulated Pelé by becoming the first teenager to strike twice at said tournament, and the first since the Brazilian to register in the final. And by now it won’t surprise you to learn that Mbappé’s 100th senior goal, for club and country, came this summer – again, by the age of 19.

Haaland, Rodrygo and Mbappé are among the dazzling young talents making an impact in the Champions League

Let’s extend the list. Jadon Sancho left Manchester City for Dortmund aged 17 (new language and new culture, don’t forget), was named Bundesliga player of the month during his debut season (aged 18), became the youngest player to score eight German top-flight goals and out-assisted Lionel Messi last term. Wait, you want younger achievers? How about Barcelona’s Ansu Fati? In September he made his full home debut against Valencia. When he scored– and assisted Frenkie de Jong – during that 5-2 win, Barça’s tyro talent became the youngest footballer in Liga history to bury and create goals in the same match. He was 16.

You’ll probably have a personal favourite: Vinícius Júnior(19), Take Kubo (18), Eduardo Camavinga (17), Christian Pulišić (21 now, but 17 on his Dortmund debut) or Gianluigi Donnarumma (closing in on 200 club matches for AC Milan aged 20 and the Italian national team’s youngest ever keeper at 17). Take your pick. The question is, are we witnessing a fluke era or is this the logical result of broader factors? Most football sages think it’s the latter.  

One is Salzburg coach Jesse Marsch, who has helped his teenage Norwegian – son of former Nottingham Forest, Leeds and Manchester City midfielder Alf-Inge Haaland – set new standards for what a budding striker can achieve in the Champions League. Marsch doesn’t ignore the younger Haaland’s lineage, nor that he was guided by Ole Gunnar Solskjær at Molde. But the American gives the 19-year-old himself huge credit for his precocious form.

“Erling Haaland is an incredible professional,” says Marsch.“ He shows up early, he leaves late and he’s always taking care of his body and how he can get better at nutrition. When he needs little pointers, we’re here for him. But he also has his family and his father, and a really solid foundation to understand how to handle these moments. Because he’s so naturally gifted and a really good young man, the positive effect that he has on our whole group is massive. He’s been a lot of fun to work with. Every day he comes with energy and I like guys like that.”

Marsch’s words sound like a template for talented teenagers: nature and nurture must intersect as much – and as profitably – as possible. Another palpable factor, according to Fabio Capello, is the UEFA Youth League, launched in 2013. “Travelling around Europe, you improve your knowledge and face different kinds of sides: a different pace, a different style of football, a different mindset,” says the venerated coach. “These are very important moments to improve as a player. I played in international youth tournaments but this is different, because it’s the best club academies.”

Millennial teenagers are regarded differently than they would have been 20 years ago

Frank Lampard’s budding Chelsea stars Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori are all Youth League winners. Matthijs de Ligt, now at Juventus, is another leading name to have honed his skills in the competition. Just three months after his last Youth League appearance he became the youngest footballer to start a major European final, when he represented Ajax in the 2017 Europa League showpiece at 17. The centre-back then reached the Champions League semi-finals last season, scoring twice along the way for Erik Ten Hag’s young side.

“Millennial teenagers are definitely regarded differently than they would have been 20 years ago; there have been a lot of changes in the past decade,” says Ten Hag. “The most important is the internet. The world is getting smaller and teenagers are used to that. The 1990s were totally different and talented kids are now growing up more quickly. In recent years there has been a big change in how prepared teenagers are, both physically and mentally. Those things go hand in hand and they have to do with academies getting progressively better over the past decade.

“There’s more structure in every facet of football so our professionals coach kids to learn more quickly. They come through earlier because of the better infrastructure in the whole of Europe. And the UEFA Youth League helps: it forces them to take responsibility earlier. How you develop talent is a big spectrum but competition is the most important. Now they are being confronted by Champions League-style competition at an earlier stage and that helps them vault into their clubs’ first teams.”

Final word to young Haaland. Asked recently about his eighth Champions League goal and his place in history, he said: “It’s a nice record to have but I don’t really care so much about the records. I just care about my team.” You see, he doesn’t just play like a 26-year-old: he talks like one too.

When was your personal revelation moment? The moment it hit home that we might be witnessing the most joyous, uplifting and impressive wave of young football talent ever to smash its way to the top of world football? Was it when Salzburg’s Norwegian wünderkind Erling Braut Haaland scored eight goals in his first five Champions League appearances this season – more than any other player in the competition’s history? He’s 19.

Perhaps it was when Real Madrid’s petit but precocious Brazilian forward Rodrygo marked his home Champions League debut with a perfect hat-trick, tearing Galatasaray apart with a left-footed finish, a header and then a right-footed third? Very few players, even greats, ever manage that feat. Plus: it was only his fourth start for Los Blancos; he’s just 168cm tall; he also laid on an assist for Karim Benzema; and he’s 18. Not your eureka moment?

Don’t worry, there’s a plethora of others to choose from, all evidence that something truly special is happening. João Félix was 19 when, back in July, Atlético Madrid made him their record signing at €126m from Benfica (the second most expensive teenager in football history). Another little addendum: his first Madrid derbi followed almost immediately, during which he scored one and made two more in a 7-3 win, albeit in a summer friendly.  

But the reason Félix isn’t the most expensive youngster on the block is Kylian Mbappé: his move from Monaco to Paris set that record at €180m. He made his Ligue 1 debut aged 16, was a French champion aged 18 (29 matches, 17 starts, 15 goals), has added several trophies at Paris and is probably the most valuable footballer in the world. Was his impact the moment you noted the seismic shift in teenagers achieving things that, not long ago, would have felt very special for a 26-year-old?

Granted, there are still eyebrows raised if a team’s standout footballer is 16 or 17. But, by the age of 18 to 20, expectations, criticism, responsibility and marketing demands are doled out as if these superkids were in their mid-twenties. Mbappé’s skills developed so quickly that at Russia 2018 he became the youngest Frenchman to score at a World Cup; he also emulated Pelé by becoming the first teenager to strike twice at said tournament, and the first since the Brazilian to register in the final. And by now it won’t surprise you to learn that Mbappé’s 100th senior goal, for club and country, came this summer – again, by the age of 19.

Read the full story
Sign up now – or sign in – to read the rest of this feature and access all articles for free. Once you have signed up you will also be able to enter exclusive competitions and win great prizes.
Haaland, Rodrygo and Mbappé are among the dazzling young talents making an impact in the Champions League

Let’s extend the list. Jadon Sancho left Manchester City for Dortmund aged 17 (new language and new culture, don’t forget), was named Bundesliga player of the month during his debut season (aged 18), became the youngest player to score eight German top-flight goals and out-assisted Lionel Messi last term. Wait, you want younger achievers? How about Barcelona’s Ansu Fati? In September he made his full home debut against Valencia. When he scored– and assisted Frenkie de Jong – during that 5-2 win, Barça’s tyro talent became the youngest footballer in Liga history to bury and create goals in the same match. He was 16.

You’ll probably have a personal favourite: Vinícius Júnior(19), Take Kubo (18), Eduardo Camavinga (17), Christian Pulišić (21 now, but 17 on his Dortmund debut) or Gianluigi Donnarumma (closing in on 200 club matches for AC Milan aged 20 and the Italian national team’s youngest ever keeper at 17). Take your pick. The question is, are we witnessing a fluke era or is this the logical result of broader factors? Most football sages think it’s the latter.  

One is Salzburg coach Jesse Marsch, who has helped his teenage Norwegian – son of former Nottingham Forest, Leeds and Manchester City midfielder Alf-Inge Haaland – set new standards for what a budding striker can achieve in the Champions League. Marsch doesn’t ignore the younger Haaland’s lineage, nor that he was guided by Ole Gunnar Solskjær at Molde. But the American gives the 19-year-old himself huge credit for his precocious form.

“Erling Haaland is an incredible professional,” says Marsch.“ He shows up early, he leaves late and he’s always taking care of his body and how he can get better at nutrition. When he needs little pointers, we’re here for him. But he also has his family and his father, and a really solid foundation to understand how to handle these moments. Because he’s so naturally gifted and a really good young man, the positive effect that he has on our whole group is massive. He’s been a lot of fun to work with. Every day he comes with energy and I like guys like that.”

Marsch’s words sound like a template for talented teenagers: nature and nurture must intersect as much – and as profitably – as possible. Another palpable factor, according to Fabio Capello, is the UEFA Youth League, launched in 2013. “Travelling around Europe, you improve your knowledge and face different kinds of sides: a different pace, a different style of football, a different mindset,” says the venerated coach. “These are very important moments to improve as a player. I played in international youth tournaments but this is different, because it’s the best club academies.”

Millennial teenagers are regarded differently than they would have been 20 years ago

Frank Lampard’s budding Chelsea stars Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori are all Youth League winners. Matthijs de Ligt, now at Juventus, is another leading name to have honed his skills in the competition. Just three months after his last Youth League appearance he became the youngest footballer to start a major European final, when he represented Ajax in the 2017 Europa League showpiece at 17. The centre-back then reached the Champions League semi-finals last season, scoring twice along the way for Erik Ten Hag’s young side.

“Millennial teenagers are definitely regarded differently than they would have been 20 years ago; there have been a lot of changes in the past decade,” says Ten Hag. “The most important is the internet. The world is getting smaller and teenagers are used to that. The 1990s were totally different and talented kids are now growing up more quickly. In recent years there has been a big change in how prepared teenagers are, both physically and mentally. Those things go hand in hand and they have to do with academies getting progressively better over the past decade.

“There’s more structure in every facet of football so our professionals coach kids to learn more quickly. They come through earlier because of the better infrastructure in the whole of Europe. And the UEFA Youth League helps: it forces them to take responsibility earlier. How you develop talent is a big spectrum but competition is the most important. Now they are being confronted by Champions League-style competition at an earlier stage and that helps them vault into their clubs’ first teams.”

Final word to young Haaland. Asked recently about his eighth Champions League goal and his place in history, he said: “It’s a nice record to have but I don’t really care so much about the records. I just care about my team.” You see, he doesn’t just play like a 26-year-old: he talks like one too.

When was your personal revelation moment? The moment it hit home that we might be witnessing the most joyous, uplifting and impressive wave of young football talent ever to smash its way to the top of world football? Was it when Salzburg’s Norwegian wünderkind Erling Braut Haaland scored eight goals in his first five Champions League appearances this season – more than any other player in the competition’s history? He’s 19.

Perhaps it was when Real Madrid’s petit but precocious Brazilian forward Rodrygo marked his home Champions League debut with a perfect hat-trick, tearing Galatasaray apart with a left-footed finish, a header and then a right-footed third? Very few players, even greats, ever manage that feat. Plus: it was only his fourth start for Los Blancos; he’s just 168cm tall; he also laid on an assist for Karim Benzema; and he’s 18. Not your eureka moment?

Don’t worry, there’s a plethora of others to choose from, all evidence that something truly special is happening. João Félix was 19 when, back in July, Atlético Madrid made him their record signing at €126m from Benfica (the second most expensive teenager in football history). Another little addendum: his first Madrid derbi followed almost immediately, during which he scored one and made two more in a 7-3 win, albeit in a summer friendly.  

But the reason Félix isn’t the most expensive youngster on the block is Kylian Mbappé: his move from Monaco to Paris set that record at €180m. He made his Ligue 1 debut aged 16, was a French champion aged 18 (29 matches, 17 starts, 15 goals), has added several trophies at Paris and is probably the most valuable footballer in the world. Was his impact the moment you noted the seismic shift in teenagers achieving things that, not long ago, would have felt very special for a 26-year-old?

Granted, there are still eyebrows raised if a team’s standout footballer is 16 or 17. But, by the age of 18 to 20, expectations, criticism, responsibility and marketing demands are doled out as if these superkids were in their mid-twenties. Mbappé’s skills developed so quickly that at Russia 2018 he became the youngest Frenchman to score at a World Cup; he also emulated Pelé by becoming the first teenager to strike twice at said tournament, and the first since the Brazilian to register in the final. And by now it won’t surprise you to learn that Mbappé’s 100th senior goal, for club and country, came this summer – again, by the age of 19.

Haaland, Rodrygo and Mbappé are among the dazzling young talents making an impact in the Champions League

Let’s extend the list. Jadon Sancho left Manchester City for Dortmund aged 17 (new language and new culture, don’t forget), was named Bundesliga player of the month during his debut season (aged 18), became the youngest player to score eight German top-flight goals and out-assisted Lionel Messi last term. Wait, you want younger achievers? How about Barcelona’s Ansu Fati? In September he made his full home debut against Valencia. When he scored– and assisted Frenkie de Jong – during that 5-2 win, Barça’s tyro talent became the youngest footballer in Liga history to bury and create goals in the same match. He was 16.

You’ll probably have a personal favourite: Vinícius Júnior(19), Take Kubo (18), Eduardo Camavinga (17), Christian Pulišić (21 now, but 17 on his Dortmund debut) or Gianluigi Donnarumma (closing in on 200 club matches for AC Milan aged 20 and the Italian national team’s youngest ever keeper at 17). Take your pick. The question is, are we witnessing a fluke era or is this the logical result of broader factors? Most football sages think it’s the latter.  

One is Salzburg coach Jesse Marsch, who has helped his teenage Norwegian – son of former Nottingham Forest, Leeds and Manchester City midfielder Alf-Inge Haaland – set new standards for what a budding striker can achieve in the Champions League. Marsch doesn’t ignore the younger Haaland’s lineage, nor that he was guided by Ole Gunnar Solskjær at Molde. But the American gives the 19-year-old himself huge credit for his precocious form.

“Erling Haaland is an incredible professional,” says Marsch.“ He shows up early, he leaves late and he’s always taking care of his body and how he can get better at nutrition. When he needs little pointers, we’re here for him. But he also has his family and his father, and a really solid foundation to understand how to handle these moments. Because he’s so naturally gifted and a really good young man, the positive effect that he has on our whole group is massive. He’s been a lot of fun to work with. Every day he comes with energy and I like guys like that.”

Marsch’s words sound like a template for talented teenagers: nature and nurture must intersect as much – and as profitably – as possible. Another palpable factor, according to Fabio Capello, is the UEFA Youth League, launched in 2013. “Travelling around Europe, you improve your knowledge and face different kinds of sides: a different pace, a different style of football, a different mindset,” says the venerated coach. “These are very important moments to improve as a player. I played in international youth tournaments but this is different, because it’s the best club academies.”

Millennial teenagers are regarded differently than they would have been 20 years ago

Frank Lampard’s budding Chelsea stars Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori are all Youth League winners. Matthijs de Ligt, now at Juventus, is another leading name to have honed his skills in the competition. Just three months after his last Youth League appearance he became the youngest footballer to start a major European final, when he represented Ajax in the 2017 Europa League showpiece at 17. The centre-back then reached the Champions League semi-finals last season, scoring twice along the way for Erik Ten Hag’s young side.

“Millennial teenagers are definitely regarded differently than they would have been 20 years ago; there have been a lot of changes in the past decade,” says Ten Hag. “The most important is the internet. The world is getting smaller and teenagers are used to that. The 1990s were totally different and talented kids are now growing up more quickly. In recent years there has been a big change in how prepared teenagers are, both physically and mentally. Those things go hand in hand and they have to do with academies getting progressively better over the past decade.

“There’s more structure in every facet of football so our professionals coach kids to learn more quickly. They come through earlier because of the better infrastructure in the whole of Europe. And the UEFA Youth League helps: it forces them to take responsibility earlier. How you develop talent is a big spectrum but competition is the most important. Now they are being confronted by Champions League-style competition at an earlier stage and that helps them vault into their clubs’ first teams.”

Final word to young Haaland. Asked recently about his eighth Champions League goal and his place in history, he said: “It’s a nice record to have but I don’t really care so much about the records. I just care about my team.” You see, he doesn’t just play like a 26-year-old: he talks like one too.

close
To access this article, as well as all CJ+ content and competitions, you will need a subscription to Champions Journal.
Already a subscriber? Sign in