In soccer, as in most sports, there is always a fascination with the most gifted and talented young players in the game. Every club wants to spot or create the next Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, something which is of course no mean feat. One of the dangers of this is that coaches, fans and particularly the media, can tend to put unnecessary and potentially detrimental pressure on a player when overhyping them at such a young age.
Often players who are touted for greatness in their teens never make real on their promise and potential. The likes of Freddy Adu and Nii Lamptey are fine examples of players who did just that, and there are a myriad of reasons why that can happen. Conversely however, promising young players do indeed often turn out to be excellent players. Just in recent years the likes of Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney both had huge pressure and expectation put on them at a young age and went on to achieve greatness within the game.
The players on this list are 20 of the most highly rated footballers on the planet under the age of 20. Some are already full internationals and established stars, while others you may never have heard of and are yet to burst onto the scene, being held in the wings by coaches or gaining experience at lower levels. Here are the top 20 most talented teenagers in world soccer right now:
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20 Gedion Zelalem
We kick off the list with a 19-year-old who has long been tipped as a potential future star, and a player for whom next season is likely to be massive. Gedion Zelalem was born in Germany to Ethiopian parents, but moved to America at the age of 9, and is therefore eligible to play for all three nations. Having first represented Germany, Zelalem most recently played in the U.S.'s youth sides. The robust midfielder has made two senior appearances for Arsenal and is currently on-loan at Rangers, where he has made 18 appearances this season and largely impressed.
19 Jose Maria Amo
Touted as the 'next Sergio Ramos', 17-year-old Sevilla defender Jose Maria Amo has won a lot of plaudits despite his tender age. Amo, who has represented Spain at under-16, under-17 and under-19 levels, was tied down on a new contract by Sevilla last year amid interest from a number of European clubs, most notably Manchester City. The center-back has played eight games for various Spanish national youth teams, scoring two goals, and also played six games in the UEFA Youth League, scoring once.
18 Lee Seung-woo
Dubbed the 'Korean Messi', unlike others who have received that tag, Lee Seung-woo has shown genuine promise. He joined Barcelona at the age of 13, and made a remarkable achievement in his first season at the club. While playing for Barcelona Infantil A Team, Seung-woo scored 39 goals in 29 games, breaking a record previously held by Lionel Messi. Since this achievement, the South Korean prodigy has been highly regarded, but was banned from playing for Barca by FIFA and was part of the reason the club was handed a transfer embargo. In January 2016 though, his ban was lifted and he began training with the first team, Seung-woo is expected to make his debut shortly.
17 Marcus Rashford
A player who has really burst onto the scene in recent weeks, Marcus Rashford has been at Manchester United since the age of 7 and scored prolifically at all levels of the United youth system. He made his first team debut against FC Midtjylland in the Europa League, scoring twice as Manchester United won the game 5-1. His brace saw him keep his place for United's league game, at home to Arsenal, in which he made it a "double double", scoring a second brace in as many games as the Red Devils ran out 3-2 victors. Quick of feet and mind, Rashford became Man Utd's third youngest Premier League goal scorer.
16 Simone Scuffet
Simone Scuffet's goalkeeping abilities drew comparisons with Gianluigi Buffon when the shot stopper was only 17 years of age, no pressure then. Scuffet is now 19, and still regarded as one of the brightest goalkeeping prospects in world football. He has played 23 times in Serie A for Udinese, and a further 22 games on-loan with Como. Standing at 6 feet and 3 inches between the sticks, Scuffet has represented Italy at under-16, under-17, under-18, under-19 and under-21 levels, making a total of 34 appearances for various Italian national youth sides.
15 Ante Coric
Croatia have produced a number of gifted midfielders in recent years, but few have shown as much promise at such a young age as Ante Coric. The Dinamo Zagreb playmaker has made over 50 appearances for his club, and is still only 18 years of age. Signed for just over $1 million at the age of 15, joining Zagreb from Red Bull Salzburg, Coric would now be worth at least ten times that figure. The 18-year-old has represented Croatia at every youth level between under-15s and under-21s, and is widely expected to make his full international debut in the imminent future, although he faces stiff competition in a wonderfully gifted Croatian central and attacking midfield roles.
14 Timo Werner
One-time Tottenham target Timo Werner made his Stuttgart debut just three weeks after turning 17, making him the youngest debutant in the clubs history. Having represented Germany at every level from under-15 to under-21 age groups, Werner has long been considered a potential future star. The 19-year-old has played 84 games for Stuttgart, scoring 10 goals, and is showing signs that he will turn into a quality player. Stuttgart were understandably reluctant to sell Werner in the summer when Tottenham came calling, and will be looking to retain the forwards services this summer too.
13 Kelechi Iheanacho
A Nigerian international at the age of 18, Kelechi Iheanacho first announced himself to the world at the 2013 U-17 World Cup, which Nigeria won. Following the tournament, a number of clubs began tracking Iheanacho, but it was Manchester City who eventually signed the youngster in 2014. Since then, Iheanacho has played 20 games for the club and scored 9 goals, an incredibly impressive goal scoring record for a player of his age. Just breaking into a Manchester City line-up worth hundreds of millions is an exceptional achievement, and Iheanacho will be looking to step up his involvement under Pep Guardiola next season.
12 Breel Embolo
Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and Wolfsburg are just some of the clubs who have been heavily linked with Basel striker Breel Embolo, with the latter of those having reportedly had a $29 million bid rejected, an indication of how highly the Swiss outfit rate the 19-year-old. Embolo, who was born in Cameroon but raised in Switzerland, has already played 74 games for Basel and scored 26 goals in all competitions. He made his international debut at 18 and has won 7 caps for Switzerland to date, scoring once.
11 Martin Odegaard
When such hype and expectation surrounds a player from such a young age they often drown under the weight of expectation. Martin Odegaard certainly had more hype and pressure than most, making his international debut and joining Real Madrid at the age of just 15. The talented teenager made his club debut in the Icelandic top tier at the age of 14, and has been long considered the great hope of Icelandic football. Now aged 17, Odegaard has played 34 times for Real Madrid Castilla and once for Real Madrid's first team. There have been rumours of a lack of application, but Odegaard is still so young and so talented that with the right coaching and attitude he should still make it to the top.
10 Youri Tielemans
The quality of players produced by Belgium in recent years has been nothing short of exceptional. The country is currently experiencing the greatest Golden Generation in their history, and Youri Tielemans could potentially be a future star of the countries national team. Aged 18, the midfielder has already made an incredible 117 appearances for Belgian giants Anderlecht, firmly establishing himself as one of the nations leading prospects. As well as becoming a regular for Anderlecht, Tielemans has also become a regular for Belgium's under-21's, and will most likely win his full debut imminently.
9 Andrija Zivkovic
The youngest player to ever play for the Serbian national team and the youngest player to ever captain Serbian giants Partizan, those stats tell you all you need to know about the early promise of Andrija Zivkovic. The gifted Serbian winger set both those records at the age of 17, and two years on, his progress shows no signs of relenting. The FIFA under-20 World Cup winner has already played 93 games for Partizan, scoring 24 goals, and the Serbian champions face an uphill battle to deter Europe's elite from snatching their star man. They rejected bids in excess of $10 million last summer and Zivkovic reportedly has his heart set on joining Benfica.
Gerson Santos da Silva, better known simply as 'Gerson', is somewhat surprisingly the first South American on this list, given the plethora of talent that tends to come out of the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Columbia. There is sometimes a little less known of youngsters plying their trade in South America than those who emerge in Europe, but the talents of Fluminense's attacking midfielder Gerson certainly haven't gone under the radar.
He began playing regularly for Fluminense at 17, and in January he was snapped up for $17 million by Roma. A high premium for a player of 18, and a mark of how highly regarded the Brazilian under-20 international is. Other clubs that expressed an interest were Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Juventus. Gerson is currently back on-loan at Fluminense from Roma.
7 Ruben Neves
Neither the Porto nor the Portuguese national team are sides lacking in talent in the centre of midfield, so for a player at 18 years of age to have amassed 64 appearances there for Porto and already become a full international is a mark of the sheer class displayed by Ruben Neves at such a young age. He is the youngest Portuguese player in Champions League history and the youngest Primeira Liga goal scorer in the history of Porto. The youngster has been likened in style and ability to compatriot Joao Moutinho, and he made his international debut in November 2015 as a stand-in for the injured Moutinho.
6 Gabriel Barbosa
Given the conveyor-belt of talent that exists at Santos in Brazil, ever since the departure of Neymar to Barcelona, all eyes have been firmly fixed on who be the next star to emerge from the Sao Paolo club. From day one, Gabriel Barbosa has been touted as that man. Despite being given an almighty bill and having to fill the boots of one of the most talented players in world football, Barbosa has done exceptionally well. He made his debut in January 2013, aged 16, and has gone on to score 47 goals in 132 games for the club, not all that far from the 136 goals in 225 games that Neymar managed. Barbosa is yet to make his Brazil debut, and has a buyout clause of $55 million in his current Santos contract.
5 Alen Halilovic
We spoke about the plethora of talent in midfield that Croatia have produced in recent years earlier in this list, and the fact that two Croatian midfielders make this list is further testament to that. Alen Halilovic is even more highly rated than Ante Coric. Halilovic became the youngest player in Dinamo Zagreb history when he made his debut aged 16 in 2012, a few months later, he became the youngest debutant in the history of the Croatian national team, still only 16.
In 2014, he was signed by Barcelona, where he will surely have the ideal mentor in compatriot and similar player, Ivan Rakitic. Halilovic is currently gaining La Liga experience on-loan with Sporting Gijon, where he has played 23 games and scored 5 goals to date this season.
4 Julian Brandt
The overhaul of youth development in Germany over the last two decades has been a remarkable success, and the country's triumph at the 2014 World Cup, a final won with a goal scored by a 22-year-old. The world champion's production line shows no signs of letting up, and Julian Brandt is arguably the most talented teenager in Germany right now, at least since Leroy Sane turned 20. Brandt is a gifted winger with all the crossing and technical abilities at a young age which suggest he should make it to the top, providing the desire and huger is there.
Now aged 19, Brandt has played 55 league games already for Bayer Leverkusen, scoring 9 goals. He has represented Germany at every youth level and is widely expected to make his full debut in the near future.
3 Dele Alli
The English national team may have seemed in the doldrums after the country's dismal display at the 2014 World Cup, but there are actually a number of talented young players emerging in England. Harry Kane, Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterlin, John Stones and Luke Shaw are just some of the highly talented England players in their early 20s, but in terms of the teens, currently one man stands head and shoulders above the rest. Dele Alli joined Tottenham from MK Dons last summer, and remarkably, despite being only 19, Alli has already played 125 first team games, reportedly making him the most experienced teenager in European football.
Since joining Spurs, Alli's career has been propelled into the stratosphere. He has been a pivotal player in a title challenging side, scoring 7 goals in 37 games from midfield and appearing to be a wonderfully complete player with pace, power, skill, intelligence, creativity and not least the ability to score a goal. As well as making a big impression in the Premier League, Alli also made his England debut, and scored a superb goal in his first start, which came against France. Barring injury, Alli is a certainty for England's squad at Euro 2016.
2 Gianluigi Donnarumma
The second goalkeeper to make this list, Gianluigi Donnarumma is a truly remarkable prospect. Goalkeeping is one position where players tend not to break into the first team until at least their early 20s, and most much later. This is especially true at a top club, who would normally rather farm their young goalkeepers out to gain experience with others than risk throwing them straight in at the deep end with the strains and pressures which come with playing in goal for a big club. Donnarumma is the exception to all of these rules. The Italian shot stopper is only 17 years of age, yet he has already played 19 games for AC Milan.
Already tipped as the 'next Buffon', a dreaded title for any talented young Italian goalkeeper; in this case, there could be some credence to such claims. Buffon himself didn't become a first team regular until he was 19. Donnarumma made his Milan debut at the age of 16, and is currently vying it out with Christian Abbiati to be the clubs number 1, but with Abbiati already 38 years old, Donnarumma's involvement is only likely to increase. A complete goalkeeper, the 17-year-old has the world at his feet and need only keep his head and he will surely become a world class player.
1 Kinglsey Coman
The most talented teenager in world soccer right now as far as we are concerned in Kingsley Coman. The French winger has been involved in France's youth set-up since under-16 level, and he is now already a full international. Blessed with explosive pace and quick feet, Comas came through the PSG academy, but the club lost him on a free transfer having failed to agree terms to a new contract with the player. He then joined Juventus, where he played 22 games in two seasons, including playing in the Champions League final as an 18-year-old in his final season.
In the summer of 2015 though, Coman was on the move once more, joining Bayern Munich on a two-year loan deal for just shy of $10 million. Bayern have the option of making the move a permanent one once the loan deal comes to an end for a further $24 million, an option they will most likely take up. Coman has played 24 times for the Bavarian giants since joining them in the summer, and with Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery both ageing and seeing increased injury problems, Coman's importance to Bayern is only likely to grow.
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