On the rise: Football’s hottest 21 under 21

The 2010 FIFA World Cup was a great platform in which many of the games youth prospects were given a stage to shine and introduce the new wave of football’s talent. With many of the past decade’s superstar players now officially “over-the-hill”, players  such as Thierry Henry, Clarence Seedorf, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Alessandro Del Piero and Michael Ballack to name a few, has given way for football’s young talent to shine through and try to establish themselves as the game’s next legend.

Below are twenty-one of the games hottest prospects 21-years-old or younger. The top ten are in no particular order as are the honorable mentions. Various factors went into creating this list including number of league, cup and senior international appearances along with statistics such as goals and assists coupled with the impact the player has had on their club and national teams alike.

I also took in to account the level of competition the players have encountered, for example someone who scores 20 goals in 60 caps in the English Premier League gained more clout than someone who scored 25 goals in 55 caps in the Swiss Super League. Although there was no mathematical formula to creating this list it was still unbelievably hard to narrow it down to just twenty-one players, and here they are.

Eden HazardOn the rise: Football’s hottest 21 under 21

Age: 19

Position: Midfielder

Country: Belgium

Club: Lille OSC

Hazard has been quite established for some time now in France, being the reigning Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year for the past two season’s, the only player to win the award twice. At only 19 years old, Hazard is one of the youngest already established players in European football and it’s only a matter of time before his talents are harvested by a top Premier League or La Liga club.

His natural position on the pitch is as an attacking midfielder, much like a younger Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard but has the flare of a Ronaldo or Messi. Hazard is also highly versatile, able to operate on either side of the pitch or as a supporting striker as well. His brilliant technical skill, combined with his speed and creativity makes him one of football’s most elegant young prospects to watch play, not to mention he holds the personal “stamp-of-approval” from French legend Zinedine Zidane who personally pitched Hazard to Real Madrid last summer.

NeymarOn the rise: Football’s hottest 21 under 21

Age: 18

Position: Striker

Country: Brazil

Club: Santos FC

Neymar has gained a lot of notoriety over the summer with his alleged transfer to Chelsea, however the £28.6 million deal fell through and the Brazilian will continue to play in his native Brazil. However, despite not playing in Europe, Neymar is still one of the hottest prospects in football and most popular among transfer rumors next summer.

Unlike most of the other players on this list, Neymar was not part of his national team’s 2010 World Cup squad, where former Brazil coach Dunga choose to keep the 18-year-old off of his roster in a very controversial move which ignited much animosity with Brazilian fans. However, current Selecao boss Mano Menezes has called up the young phenom among others, such as Real Madrid’s Marcelo, in a roster overhaul of young talent where Neymar lived up to his hype scoring in his first cap against the United States last month.

During his time at Santos, Neymar has recorded 35 goals in 61 appearances and has drawn comparisons to fellow teammate Robinho by fans. Neymar is an explosive foward who can play as a lone striker or on either wing and equipped with natural Brazilian flare, speed and finishing makes him undoubtedly one of this decades soon to be superstars.

Thomas MullerOn the rise: Football’s hottest 21 under 21

Age: 21

Position: Foward

Country: Germany

Club: Bayern Munich

Muller has made quite a name for himself in the past year racking up both domestic and international honors most 21-year-old’s only dream of. During Germany’s third place finish in South Africa, Muller was the team’s most consistent player and finished with five goals and three assists which earned both the tournament’s Young Player and Golden Boot award, in the latter edging out superstar’s such as Diego Forlan, Wesley Sneijder and David Villa among others.

Muller also had a fantastic Bundesliga performance in the 2009-2010 season as Bayern Munich was able to capture the German championship with Muller scoring twelve goals in the process. Muller also found success in Bayern’s Champions League campaign in which they placed second to Inter Milan.

Muller had yet another brilliant tournament scoring two goals and providing much support to teammates Arjen Robben, Ivica Olic and Miroslav Klose. As one of the most established players on this list, Muller already hold’s respectable career honor’s at only 21 and is developing into one of the game’s finest finishers.

Mesut OzilOn the rise: Football’s hottest 21 under 21

Age: 21

Position: Midfielder

Country: Germany

Club: Real Madrid

Ozil bears much similarities to his fellow countryman Muller, as it seems Germany was a breeding ground of football success in the late 80’s. Ozil is more of a deep-lying player than Muller, with his natural position as the playmaker or attacking midfielder, but can also operate as a winger as he mainly does for his national team. Like Muller, Ozil made his mark on the football world during the World Cup with his brilliant crosses and run’s down the wing.

The 21-year-old finished the tournament with two goals and provided huge assists for Die Mannschaft during their knockout stage win’s against England and Argentina, a performance that earned him a Golden Ball nomination. However after the conclusion of the World Cup, Ozil was the topic of many transfer rumor’s as many believed his skill to be sold to one of Europe’s elite clubs.

In August, Ozil was sold to Real Madrid from Werder Bremen for a fee in the region of €15 million. Ozil has all the tools in place to become a superstar, including the “Special One” as his skipper and a lineup around him that has the potential to play together for half a decade.

Holger BadstuberOn the rise: Football’s hottest 21 under 21

Age: 21

Position: Defender

Country: Germany

Club: Bayern Munich

Badstuber is your typical German defender and is well on his way to becoming the next Jurgen Kohler. Badstuber began his career with Bayern Munich’s youth academy at age 16 quickly being promoted to their reserve team. He spent two season’s with Bayern’s youth team gaining 55 caps and scoring 7 goals.

In 2009, he signed his professional contract with Bayern’s senior squad along with teammate Thomas Muller. Since his signing Badstuber has been a regular fixture in Bayern’s starting eleven and is one of three players along with Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger to have started every game in their 2009-10 Bundesliga campaign.

Badstuber was first called up to Germany’s senior side in their provincial World Cup squad after impressive performances with their U-21 team. Badstuber was eventually selected by coach Joachim Löw for Germany’s 2010 World Cup squad where he started two games and made appearances in all six of them.

At only 21-years-old, Badstuber has already won one Bundesliga title, a bronze medal in the FIFA World Cup and was a runner-up in the UEFA Champions League. Standing at 6’2.5″ (1.89m), Badstuber is a strong physical presence who possess exceptional speed, passing and free-kick ability making him one of the most dangerous young defenders in football.

Romelu LukakuOn the rise: Football’s hottest 21 under 21

Age: 17

Position: Striker

Country: Belgium

Club: RSC Anderlecht

Although only 17 years of age, Lukaku has caught the attention of many club scouts and football connoisseurs alike with his flashy Youtube highlight reels and dominating performances. During the 2009-10 UEFA Champions League, Lukaku became the third youngest player to score a goal in the prestigious tournament at only 16 years 218 days old.

During his youth career, Lukaku averaged more than a goal per game including 121 goals in 88 matches with RSC Anderlecht’s youth outfit. Despite his early success, many speculated Lukaku to become a flop, however he finished among the Belgian Pro League elite last season scoring 15 goals in 25 league matches.

Standing at 6’3″ (1.91m) tall, Lukaku is a dominating physical presence and a nightmare for opposing teams in the air. Known for his breakaway speed, technical ability and prolific finishing it’s no wonder why he is already being referenced as a young Didier Drogba, or at least a distant relative.

Simon KjærOn the rise: Football’s hottest 21 under 21

Age: 21

Position: Defender

Country: Denmark

Club: VfL Wolfsburg

Kjær gained national attention with his brilliant performance with Denmark’s senior side during the 2010 World Cup which showcased his outstanding defensive abilities. Kjær started off with local Danish Superliga club FC Midtjylland where he shined during their 2007-08 season attracting attention from numerous European clubs including Lille OSC, Middlesbrough, Tottenham and Chelsea.

However, Kjær ultimately signed with Italian club Palermo in 2008 where he developed into one of Serie A’s most talented young players. During his 2-year stint at Palermo, Kjær recorded 62 caps with 5 goals which helped him win the 2009 Danish Talent of the Year award. In 2010, Kjær left Serie A and signed with Bundesliga club VfL Wolfsburg in a 4-year, £12 million deal in an effort to improve one of Germany’s worst defensive clubs.

Kjær is also a very important component in Denmark’s national side being called up after coach Morten Olsen was impressed by his play with Palermo and the Danish youth sides. Kjær established himself on the starting eleven after brilliant performances with Denmark during the 2010 World Cup qualifiers after replacing an injured Per Kroldrup.

During the 2010 World Cup, Kjær was a major force in Denmark’s defense starting the first two games but missed out on the third due to two yellow cards however his play spoke for itself and it was easy to see that Kjær is one of football’s finest young defenders.

Theo WalcottOn the rise: Football’s hottest 21 under 21

Age: 21

Position: Winger

Country: England

Club: Arsenal

Despite being only 21-years-old, Walcott has already made quite a name for himself with his play for Arsenal and the English national team. Walcott debuted at only 16 years and 143 days for Southampton’s first team in 2006, making him the youngest in the clubs history. He managed to net four goals his first year which attracted the attention of his current club, Arsenal, who signed Walcott on his seventeenth birthday.

Walcott was also part of the English national team during the 2006 World Cup in a very controversial move where many believed his inexperience and age to be too few compared to other alternatives such as Darren Bent and Jermaine Defoe. Walcott also became the youngest player ever in England’s history to play a full international cap which came against Hungary in a friendly at Old Trafford, he was only 17 years and 75 days old.

Walcott has had a brilliant start to the 2010-11 season where he already found the net four times and has been moving to a more secure spot in The Gunners starting eleven.

Alexandre PatoOn the rise: Football’s hottest 21 under 21

Age: 21

Position: Striker

Country: Brazil

Club: AC Milan

My personal favorite out of all the prospects in football, Alexandre Pato is your typical Brazilian foward; flare, speed and technical skill all intertwined into a South American football machine. Pato arrived in Milan back in 2007 on a €22 million transfer to the then, European champions, despite a €14 million bid from Manchester United.

Despite his high expectations, relative inexperience combined with the intimidation of San Siro, Pato lived up to his hype by becoming Milan’s top goal scorer by netting 18 total goals in his first full season with the club, a feat that earned him 2009 Serie A Young Player of the Year award.

After a brilliant start to the 2009-10 season, Pato was plagued by a hamstring injury that resulted in only 20 appearances. However, Pato is now in full health and has been called up to the revamped Brazilian national side under new coach Mano Menezes. Is Pato the next Ronaldo? maybe not, however he possesses all necessary attributes for the perfect foward; aerial ability, speed, finishing and Brazilian ethnicity which makes him one of football’s deadliest prospects.

Mario BalotelliOn the rise: Football’s hottest 21 under 21

Age: 20

Position: Striker

Country: Italy

Club: Manchester City

I think we can all agree that Balotelli is not a “fan favorite” and you will certainly not find me playing with him in FIFA 11, however, we can all agree this half Ghanaian, half Italian hybrid does have talent. Balotelli eventually landed in Milan with Internazionale after a failed trial at Barcelona. After impressive performances with Inter’s youth Primavera squad, Balotelli eventually landed in their first team for the 2007-08 season in which he was deployed as both a late game substitute and occasional starter.

During the 2008-09 season Balotelli became the youngest player ever to score in a UEFA Champions League match being 18 years and 85 days old. However drama soon followed after a fall-out between him and former Inter boss, Jose Mourinho occurred regarding his disciplinary problems and lack of effort in training sessions.

The tensions carried into the 2009-10 season as team captain Javier Zanetti and veteran Marco Materazzi both showed their concerns with the young striker as well as Inter faithful’s after Balotelli was seen sporting a AC Milan jersey on the Italian show Striscia la Notizia. After being frozen out of Inter’s lineup, Balotelli returned with even more drama after he threw his jersey to ground after their Champions League match against Barcelona in response to fan’s criticism of him.

During the 2010 summer transfer window Balotelli completed his inevitable move away from San Siro to City of Manchester in a deal worth an estimated £24 million. However despite his issues Balotelli is still one of the games top prospects. During his time at Inter he recorded 20 goals in 59 appearances including three Serie A championships, one Coppa Italia title and one UEFA Champions League title, quite an impressive resume for a 20-year-old.

Honorable mentions:

  • Andre Ayew (20, Ghana, Olympique de Marseille)
  • Javier Pastore (20, Argentina, Palermo)
  • Bojan Krkic (20, Spain, FC Barcelona)
  • Phillippe Coutinho (18, Brazil, Inter Milan)
  • Ricky van Wolfswinkel (21, Netherlands, FC Utrecht)
  • Yann M’Vila (21, France, Stade Rennais)
  • Giovani dos Santos (21, Mexico, Tottenham Hotspur)
  • Mamadou Sakho (20, France, Paris Saint-Germain)
  • Carlos Vela (21, Mexico, Arsenal)
  • Sergio Canales (19, Spain, Real Madrid)
  • Miralem Pjanic (21, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Olympique Lyonnais)

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