The forthcoming season of world football is set to be the most thrilling in recent history – concluding with one man holding aloft that hallowed golden trophy in Jo’berg next summer.
As top-flight action kicks off around the globe, who should we be looking out for? Which players are capable of bursting on to the international scene and emulating the famous exploits of an adolescent Owen during France ’98?
As we travel around the world’s continents, we will discover the wonderkids that are expected to transform their country’s fortunes and get the vuvuzela horns blowing louder than ever in next summer’s tournament, along with those flying lower under the radar.
From England, Holland and Germany, to Italy, current European Champions, Spain, and France – it’s easy to see that Europe isn’t short on spectacular youngesters who could all make a difference. And don’t forget about South America. They’ve got a young player who could really turn the tides.
Follow along as we scout 12 youngsters who could help their respective countries in South Africa at the 2010 World Cup.
Those following England’s fortunes will be yearning to see John Terry lift the trophy next July and there is plenty of recent evidence to suggest Fabio Capello’s side stand a very good chance in South Africa – achieving seven wins from seven games to date – and, as the season progresses, they may have plenty more to shout about.
England are a side in transition under Capello and the cultured Italian has made it clear that his World Cup squad is far from impermeable to fresh talent. And no wonder with the young talent that his adopted country bears.
The most recent to raise both his profile and the expectation laid upon him is Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere.
The 17-year-old enjoyed a highly promising pre-season – scoring two well-taken goals against Rangers in the Emirates Cup – and his talents have not gone unnoticed. The skillful youngster can play on either flank and, despite being English, possesses a sweet left foot.
Wilshere should be given plenty of opportunities to impress this season under Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman deploys his youth players and reserves in each round of the Carling Cup and, should he make his mark, he will be tasting Premier League action soon enough.
Scott Sinclair and Michael Mancienne
The talents of both Scott Sinclair and Michael Mancienne will also be adjudged under Capello’s watching-eye.
Former Bristol Rovers academy star Sinclair, 20, joined Chelsea in 2005 for a fee set by tribunal and despite failing to make a significant impact at Chelsea; the striker has shown glimpses of his natural ability.
He will spend this season on loan to Roberto Martinez’s Wigan, and will be expecting many more minutes on the pitch to impress and stake his claim for potential international super-stardom.
Michael Mancienne is another Chelsea prospect that has been shipped out on loan – this time to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The 21-year-old centre-half will have a tough battle on his hands to displace either John Terry or Rio Ferdinand at the heart of England’s defence, but injuries could play a part in what will prove a gruelling season for the imperious pair.
Having represented England at every youth level – recently starring for the Under-21’s – Mancienne will be desperate to catch the attention of Fabio Capello in anticipation of next year’s finals.
Netherland’s coach Bert van Marjwik has a wealth of established talent at his disposal as he sets out to go one better than the World Cup finals of 1974 and 1978, and mastermind his nation’s first-ever World Cup win. But, there are few gifted young players with the potential to earn a starting berth in the senior side in time for 2010.
Ibrahim Affelay, 23, will be one hoping to breakthrough and set the tournament alight. Despite his tender age, the skilful winger has already competed in 113 senior matches for PSV in the Eredivisie and notched 25 goals along the way.
He was part of Marco van Basten’s Euro 2008 squad, but only managed several substitute appearances.
Gregory van der Wiel
Ajax right-back, Gregory van der Wiel, has his sights firmly set on World Cup success. The 21-year-old possesses ‘pace to burn’ and has already drawn comparisons to Barcelona and Brazil star Dani Alves for his forward surges.
The right-back position has proved problematic in the recent past and van der Wiel looks certain to make it his own.
Also worthy of a mention is forgotten-man, Ryan Babel. The Liverpool attacker, who was once hailed by van Basten as the ‘new Henry’, has failed spectacularly to live up to his promise thus far.
Babel, 22, represents the Dutch national team on a regular basis, but often proves ineffective. This season the ‘flying Dutchman’ will need to show his worth consistently for the Merseyside club if he is to be given any hope of starting for the oranje in next year’s finals.
Historically, German football has failed to yield stardom-bound naturally gifted youngsters. This is far from the case as we examine the exciting prospect of Werder Bremen’s Mesut Ozil.
The 20-year-old attacking midfielder has been handed the daunting responsibility of filling the boots of the brilliant Brazilian, Diego, following his move to Turin giants Juventus.
Ozil led Germany’s Under-21 side to their first-ever European Championship success – creating two and scoring one of the four they put past England in the final – and scored the winner for Bremen in the German Cup final.
Werder Bremen’s number 11 has played just two full internationals for the senior German team, but will undoubtedly be adding many, many more over the coming years.
Italy, despite being current World Champions, are in need of invigoration. The man for the job could be Sebastian Giovinco.
The dominative Juventus playmaker, also noted for his mazy dribbling ability, enjoyed a productive Olympic tournament in Beijing – scoring in the Italian’s opening game from distance and starring in the nation’s second game – before Italy’s defeat to Belgium in the quarter-finals.
Expect the ‘Atomic Ant’ – as he is known by the bianconeri faithful – to progress his game during the Serie A season, and to become a major part of Azzuri boss Marcello Lippi’s World Cup plans.
Another Italian prospect to look out for is Inter fire-brand protégé Mario Balotelli.
The pacey striker made his debut for Inter at the tender age of 17. In his second game, he smashed home a brace.
His progress continued until recently – being subsequently criticised by both Inter coach Jose Mourinho and Italy Under-21 coach Pierluigi Casiraghi for unprofessional behaviour.
If the talented youngster can stop missing flights when reporting for national duty and actually partake in a training session at Inter, or maybe even link up with Gianfranco Zola at West Ham United – he may resurrect the current world champions just in time to mount a serious defence of their crown.
It would prove difficult to improve on the current European Champions, but that is the challenge facing Spain’s latest batch of talented hopefuls – the most notable of which being Barcelona’s Bojan Krkic.
To some it may seem that he has been on the scene for an amount of time significant enough to have made a bigger impact, but the tricky striker is still only a few days away from his 19th birthday.
During those tender years, Bojan – as he is referred to – has bagged 889 goals in just seven years of youth football for the Catalan club, enjoyed the most prolific debut season in Spanish football history – beating the record of Real Madrid icon Raul – and was even set to be included in Spain’s Euro 2008 squad (prior to opting out of the tournament, citing fatigue and personal reasons).
His second season at Barcelona proved less productive, appearing mainly as a substitute, but the young Spaniard still managed to score 10 goals (three in the Champions League, five in the Copa del Ray and two in La Liga).
This year Bojan will be determined to add to his single senior cap, and play his way into starting recognition at both club and national level – although Torres, Villa, Messi, Ibrahimovic and Henry stand in his way.
‘Les Blues’ have produced phenomenal young talent in recent years, and the current burgeoning French hope, Yoann Gourcuff is no exception.
The young Frenchman is Ligue 1 side Bordeaux’s influential playmaker, and has recently drawn comparison to one of the game’s greatest-ever players, icon and legend, Zinedine Zidane – French newspaper L’Equipe actually ran the headline “Gourcuff is Zidane” in January.
Gourcuff, who recently celebrated his 23rd birthday, won Ligue 1 Player of the Year award last season during his loan spell from AC Milan, which was made permanent in a £15 million deal during the summer, and scored 12 goals in the process as he led his side to their sixth Coupe de la Ligue title.
His failure to impose himself at Milan was largely down to his position – in the hole behind the striker – which was inhabited by Kaka, with another special Brazilian, Ronaldinho, second in line to the throne.
Following Kaka’s move to Madrid, Milan coach Leonardo made an attempt to scupper the deal that saw Gourcuff’s departure, but failed as the French club had a firm option to buy the player for £15 million – a right Bordeaux boss Laurent Blanc was not about to give up.
The South American youngster that deserves our full and undivided attention is known in his homeland as ‘El Nino Maravilla’ (‘The Wonderboy’ to me and you) – Alexis Sanchez.
The explosive Chilean – known for his audacious style – signed for Udinese last summer and, to the surprise of many, appears to be remaining at the Stadio Friuli for the coming season.
At just 20 years of age, Sanchez has wowed crowds in Chile, Argentina and Italy, and has amassed 20 caps for his country – bagging five goals along the way – and the versatile attacker will be expected by millions of hopeful Chileans to shine brighter than anyone competing in next year’s finals.