Now more than ever, the best young players in world football command some of the most astonishing transfer fees clubs are willing to pay. Some managers prefer to invest in proven quality despite the premium price tag carried by such players, while others opt to comb through several countries across the globe in search of hidden gems.
The facilities of a club’s youth academy can play a key role in uncovering and nurturing the stars of the future. For example, the likes of Ajax, Barcelona and Southampton are renowned for producing the cream of the crop. It’s because not every club in world football has the capacity to develop the next Ronaldo or Messi that gives rise to the huge fees paid to take the best young players away from their boyhood clubs.
Special players who tick both boxes in terms of youth and ability come along every now and then. As the transfer market grows increasingly competitive, it seems clubs are ever willing to take risks on these starlets. Although it’s understandably difficult to gauge how a player will develop beyond his teenage years, it’s becoming more common for clubs to splash millions on a supposedly promising youngster before cutting their losses on a failed investment and selling them on at a significant loss.
However, like any high-profile transfer, not all of the inclusions in the list have achieved what many coaches, scouts, teammates and supporters had hoped they would. Some have developed into footballers ranking almost the best on the planet despite shouldering the burden of a hefty transfer fee. On the other hand, many youngsters have comparatively failed to live up to the hype generated by the astounding wealth ploughed into their acquisition.
Here the top 20 most expensive teenage footballers ever.
20 Stephan El Shaarawy – £10.85m
Once considered one of the most highly rated players of his generation, Stephan El Sharaawy’s stock has dwindled since bursting onto the scene in the 2013-14 season. The tricky winger joined AC Milan for £10.85m aged 18-years-old in June 2011 and became the club’s youngest ever Champions League goalscorer with a strike against Zenit just a couple of weeks shy of his 20th birthday. However, stuttering form and recurring injuries have rattled his momentum following an impressive 2013-14 season, restricting him to just 28 appearances for the Rossoneri during the following two campaigns. El Shaarawy is now spending a year on loan at Monaco, with the deal becoming guaranteed if he plays a certain amount of games.
19 Miralem Sulejmani – £11.38m
Following a protracted £11.38m move from Heerenveen to Ajax in 2008, Miralem Sulejmani made a hugely promising impact during his first season with the Eredivisie giants. The skilful wide man, who was 19-years-old at the time of the transfer, then became the most expensive Dutch player of all-time and matched the record with a 10-goal haul during his first campaign with the Amsterdam club. Sulejmani continued to impress and came within an approved work permit of joining West Ham in August 2010, but he remained in Holland before eventually signing for Benfica following an injury-ravaged final two seasons at Ajax.
18 Erik Lamela – £11.9m
Before his high-profile transfer to Tottenham Hotspur, Erik Lamela first made the pivotal move from his Argentinian homeland to Europe when he joined Roma as a 19-year-old in August 2011. The Serie A club fought off competition from Barcelona to prise the midfielder from River Plate for £11.9m, and he would continue wowing the rest of Europe throughout two seasons of eye-catching displays. Although Lamela is yet to fulfil his potential in the Premier League, he has offered glimpses of why Spurs were prepared to pay £21m to secure his services.
17 Cristiano Ronaldo – £12.25m
Cristiano Ronaldo epitomises why clubs risk tens of millions of pounds to get their hands on the most promising youngsters in world football. When Manchester United splashed £12.25m on a skinny 18-year-old winger in August 2003, Sir Alex Ferguson had a fair idea of what he was spending his money on. In April 2003, Ronaldo tore United apart in the inauguration of the Estadio Jose Alvalade with a performance Sir Alex described as “marvelous.” The Portuguese would leave Sporting for the English giants just prior to the beginning of the 2003-04 season and the rest is history.
16 Ever Banega – £12.6m
Ever Banega arrived at Valencia during a time when Los Che boasted one of the most potent attacking forces in Europe. Despite his £12.6m price tag, the 19-year-old failed to cement a starting berth in midfield supporting David Villa, Joaquin, David Silva and Fernando Morientes. Banega found himself behind David Albelda and Baraja in the pecking order during his first campaign, and he subsequently was loaned to Atletico Madrid for the 2008/09 season. Upon his return to the Mestalla, the Argentine gradually proved his worth and played a significant role in helping Valencia recover from the 2010s debt crisis.
15 Phil Jones – £13.51m
Since the Rio Ferdinand-Nemanja Vidic partnership split, Manchester United is yet to find a truly adequate pairing to marshal the heart of the back four. A 19-year-old Phil Jones arrived at Old Trafford from Blackburn for £13.51m and although his impact wasn’t instant, his signing was nonetheless a shrewd one. The England international has gone from strength to strength over the course of four full seasons at the club, leaving little doubt he could be a key figure in the Red Devils squad for years to come.
14 Robbie Keane – £13.65m
Now 35-years-old and plying his trade for L.A. Galaxy in the MLS, it’s remarkable to think Robbie Keane remains among the most expensive teenage footballers of all-time. His £13.65m transfer to Inter Milan in July 2000 came about following a stellar debut Premier League campaign with Coventry City. Although his quality was undoubted, his spell in the Serie ‘A’ was an outright failure. The Irishman returned to England on loan at Leeds in 2001 and resumed the prolific goalscoring form he has produced throughout most of his career.
13 John Obi Mikel – £14m
A proportion of Chelsea fans wonder why John Obi Mikel has lasted nearly a decade at Stamford Bridge, while others regard him as a loyal servant of the Blues. Believe it or not, the Nigerian spent much of his junior years operating just behind the striker before Chelsea picked him up for £14m and converted him to a defensive midfielder. Now 28-years-old, age and experience hasn’t improved his notorious lack of concentration in key areas of the pitch, a flaw that has undermined his ability to best utilise his physical qualities.
12 Calum Chambers – £14.16m
Another product of the fruitful Southampton youth academy, Calum Chambers has earned widespread praise from all corners of the Premier League since making his full debut in August 2012. Having impressed throughout his first two seasons in the English top-flight, it was only a matter of time before one of the big fish made a swoop for him. Arsenal won the race for Chambers in July 2014, splashing £14.16m on one of the most sought after youngsters in the country.
11 Sergio Agüero – £15.19m
A man who’s no stranger to being associated with remarkable stats and records, Sergio Agüero is the most expensive teenager Atletico Madrid has ever purchased. He joined the La Liga outfit for £15.19m as an 18-year-old in May 2006 and went on to bag 74 league goals in 149 appearances. Agüero, who moved to Manchester City in July 2011, has become not only the most prolific players in the Premier League, but a challenger to the Ronaldo-Messi duopoly at the summit of world football.
10 T9. Romelu Lukaku – £15.4m
Signing for Chelsea was a milestone Romelu Lukaku had likely only experienced in his dreams before the 18-year-old put pen to paper on a £15.4m deal in August 2011. With chances few and far between under then Blues manager Andre Villas-Boas, his fairytale transfer never got off the ground. Despite prolific loan spells with West Bromwich Albion and Everton during his three-year stint at Chelsea, the former Anderlecht striker failed to score for his parent club before switching to Everton on a permanent basis in July 2014.
9 T9. Alexandre Pato – £15.4m
It’s saddening to imagine what Alexandre Pato could’ve been if not for a string of injuries three seasons in to his promising AC Milan career. Having arrived in Italy for £15.4m as a 17-year-old in August 2007, his decline began in 2011 following three impressive campaigns in which he looked capable of developing into one of the best strikers in world football. His troublesome hamstrings almost completed suffocated his talent and he eventually returned to Brazil in January 2013 after two devastating final campaigns at the San Siro.
8 Sergio Ramos – £18.9m
To burden the title of the most expensive Spanish teenager ever requires a special amount of quality. Sergio Ramos, signed by Real Madrid for £18.9m in 2005, is unquestionably one of the greatest defenders of his generation, perhaps even all-time. The former Sevilla right-back was primarily asked to play a central role during his first few seasons at the Santiago Bernabeu, while providing cover on the right and defensive midfield. Ramos has since confirmed his status among the best defenders on the planet and claimed his fair share of silverware to boot.
7 Antonio Cassano – £19.95m
Antonio Cassano, who was nurtured in his hometown academy of Bari, made his Serie ‘A’ debut against local rivals Lecce and quickly emerged as one of the most highly rated young players in Italy. His £19.95m transfer to AS Roma in 2001 opened the door to the big stage and despite winning the Serie ‘A’ Young Footballer of the Year award in his debut season, and once more in 2003, the 19-year-old found himself in and out of the starting lineup due to disciplinary issues. In January 2006, enough was enough, and Cassano left for Real Madrid.
6 Marquinhos – £21.98m
A signing made possible by the Qatari-backed financial revolution at Paris Saint-Germain, Marquinhos is the most expensive teenage centre-back of all-time. Competing with countrymen Thiago Silva and David Luiz for a place in the starting eleven, the £21.98m Brazilian is arguably getting less time on the pitch than he could at another club. Having been at the Parc des Princes since the age of 19, Marquinhos may be growing tired of his lack of game time, so another big-money move to a club with a less crowded defensive roster could be on the horizon.
5 Anderson – £22.05m
One of the few notably expensive mistakes on Sir Alex Ferguson’s transfer dossier, Anderson seemingly crumbed beneath the weight of his £22.05m transfer from FC Porto. The Brazilian seemingly lacked the drive to succeed at Manchester United and after eight seasons of constant lowlights and failing to convince supporters he was worthy of wearing the famous red shirt, he returned to his home country with Internacional in February 2015.
4 Javier Saviola – £25.13m
Javier Saviola is an unusual case in which the first move of his career also attracted the biggest transfer fee. His switch from River Plate to Barcelona in 2001 cost £25.13m, a fee derived from his alleged potential to be one of the best footballers in the world, and perhaps even succeed Diego Maradona. Although the 19-year-old racked up 14 goals in his first season with Barca, but his importance to the squad gradually dwindled throughout his second season. He was loaned to Monaco in 2004-05 and then Sevilla in 2005-06 before playing one final season at the Nou Camp until his contract expired in July 2007.
3 Wayne Rooney – £25.9m
Considering Wayne Rooney’s massive £25.9m transfer to Manchester United went through over a decade ago, it was only a matter of time until he would be usurped as the most expensive teenage footballer ever. The former Everton starlet burst onto the scene with a stunning long range strike to end Arsenal’s 30-match unbeaten run in 2002, five days before his 17th birthday. He continued his good form throughout two seasons with the Toffees, but he eventually opted to submit a transfer request. United jumped the chance to pry the 18-year-old away from Goodison Park and, despite his ups and downs, he has remained there since.
2 Luke Shaw – £26.25m
For a player who has experienced so many highs by the age of 20-years-old, suffering a broken leg must surely be the nadir of Luke Shaw’s young career. Amid fierce speculation over where he would go once he left Southampton, the 18-year-old left-back joined Manchester United for £26.25m in June 2014 despite interest from his favourite club, Chelsea. Before being stretchered off the pitch against PSV in September 2015, Shaw had looked all but certain of establishing his place on the left of United’s back four. With fullback options in short supply, the Old Trafford faithful will be eagerly awaiting his return.
1 Anthony Martial – £35m
Anthony Martial has hardly placed a foot wrong since overtaking his Manchester United teammate Luke Shaw as the most expensive teenage footballer of all-time. The 19-year-old attacker completed his move to the Red Devils from Monaco in September 2015 for £35m, a fee which caught most of the football public by surprise. The amount could potentially rise to an astonishing £58.8m, which would fall just short of eclipsing the current British transfer record of £59.7m paid for Angel Di Maria. But the Frenchman looks the real deal so far, with four goals in seven appearances for his new club.