Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Marc Overmars, Michael Owen and Landon Donovan—all of these players share a common bond.
Before they were old enough to order a beer stateside, they were world-class players on the biggest of stages, so much so that they won the FIFA World Cup Best Young Player Award given to the premier player no older than 21 years of age.
The fantastic five listed above went on to mature into stars both young and old, but is that always the case? After settling the world alight representing their country before they were old enough to know or fear failure, did the tournament’s budding stars all continue to sprout into stardom, or did they peak at an early age? What young player will join the storied list this summer in Brazil?
We all know that Pelé, just 17 when he won the award for scoring a hat trick to send Brazil to the 1958 final and a double to earn the country’s first crown, went on to become the symbol for excellence on a soccer field. The living legend set a high standard for the FIFA Best Young Player Award that has carried through the years.
Hungarian Flórián Albert scored a tournament best four goals in 1962 at just 20 years old and became known as “The Emperor.” He won the Ballon d’Or five years later.
Franz Beckenbauer’s name only enhances the award’s mystique. A New York Cosmos teammate of Pelé, he’s the greatest German player of all time and one of only two men to win the FIFA World Cup™ as a player and coach. He played sweeper, scored two goals in his first cup match as a 20-year-old and only went up from there.
The 1970 award winner, Peruvian Teófilo Cubillas, also went on to be reguarded as the best player in his country’s history. All he did was score in all four La Blanquirroja matches in the tournament as a 21-year-old and later become one of only two players to score at least five goals in two tournaments.
Władysław Żmuda (1974) helped Poland to third place at age 20, then played in three more cups and appeared in 21 matches, third most all time. Italy’s Antonio Cabrini (1978), France’s Manuel Amoros (1982), and Belgium’s Enzo Scifo (1986) all earned more than 70 caps for their countries and honors along the way.
Robert Prosinečki, who represented Yugoslavia in 1990 was talented and brave enough to play for both Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Winner of the 1994 honor Marc Overmars was so fast they called him “the Roadrunner.” He scored for Holland on his international debut, won the UEFA Champions League with Ajax and appeared almost 100 times for both Arsenal and Barcelona.
Michael Owen was just an 18-year-old player when in 1998 he became the youngest ever Englishman to net in a FIFA World Cup™, making him a revelation for the Three Lions. He later completed a big money move from Liverpool to Real Madrid and represented Newcastle United and Manchester United, as well.
In 2002, Landon Donovan put his name in lights when he helped the USMNT defeat Portgual in the group stage and netted to down Mexico in the Round of 16. As he prepares to appear in his fourth FIFA World Cup™, Donovan holds the record for most goals, assists and appearances in a USA shirt.
The two most recent winners of the award both hail from Germany—Lukas Podolski and Thomas Müller. Podolski, now an Arsenal man, beat out Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for the honor after scoring twice inside the opening 12 minutes against Sweden to take his team to the quarterfinals.
Müller of Bayern Munich was handed the No. 13 shirt of famous former players Michael Ballack and Gerd Müller and rose to the challenge, scoring goals in knockout rounds against England and Argentina.
Remarkably, no man to win the FIFA Best Young Player Award has crashed and burned after earning the honor. All have gone on to successful careers and backed up their early promise.
In our view, five men stand ready to shine and shoulder expectations that come with the distinction.
Here’s our list of five early favorites for the award, with the age they’ll be come tournament time this summer:
Ross Barkley, 20, England
His case: Barkley looks destined to follow the footsteps of Wayne Rooney, another Everton prospect who bloomed and went on to worldwide stardom. The attacking midfield starlet has been a part of the England setup since joining the U16 side at age 14. He led the Three Lions to victory against Spain in the final of the 2010 UEFA European U17 Football Championship.
Though he has just three caps for England, that’s more experience than Müller had when he got his shot in 2010, and he plays with intellect and brute strength that belie his young age. He’s brilliant from a free kick (ask Swansea), dynamic and gifted with amazing natural technique.
Julian Draxler, 20, Germany
His case: A star for Schalke and wanted by big clubs the world over, Julian Draxler could dazzle in Brazil if he works his way into the highly competitive Die Mannschaft Starting XI. Talented from an extremely early age, Draxler was the fourth youngest ever German Bundesliga debutant at 17 years old. Two seasons later, the attacking midfielder led his club in scoring.
He has 10 caps for Germany, including one earned when he scored against the USMNT last summer. At home, they compare him to Michael Ballack. Abroad, he’s seen as a future forward with the skills of Robin van Persie.
Stephan El Shaarawy, 21, Italy
His case: Talk about a player who has the looks of a real star, and you could be talking about Stephan El Shaarawy. His hair points to the heavens and his strikes point to the back of the net.
Born in Italy the son of an Egyptian father and Italian mother, he’s known as “The Pharaoh,” and likened to Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka for his ability to play on the wing or through the middle and dazzle with deft dribbling skills.
Already a phenom for AC Milan, where he combines with compatriot Mario Balotelli, El Shaarawy stands poised to take his skills to a global stage.
Romelu Lukaku, 21, Belgium
His case: It’s getting difficult to believe that Romelu Lukaku is still only 20. He’ll celebrate a birthday before the FIFA World Cup™, but he’s already a regular among English Premier League elites having bulged the back of the net with regularity in loan spells at West Brom and now with Everton. The Chelsea striker is a force up top, knocking down long balls, linking well and finishing with exquisite control and power.
He was a major part of the Belgian team that qualified for the tournament finals for the first time since 2002, scoring two goals against Croatia to book a ticket to Brazil. The stage won’t phase him either as he’s been playing for the national senior team since he was 16.
Paul Pogba, 21, France
His case: Winner of the 2013 Golden Boy award given to the best young player in Europe, Paul Pogba will be at the heartbeat of Les Bleus hopes this summer. He’s donned a French shirt at every level—U16, U17, U18, U19, U20 and the senior side—and distinguished himself at each turn.
A star for Serie A kings Juventus, Pogba was dominant for France in the playoff against Ukraine and has established himself as one of the first names on Didier Deschamps’ team sheet.
Last summer he inspired France to 2013 FIFA U20 World Cup Turkey™ glory and earned the Golden Ball. We’re all eager to see what he does for an encore in Brazil.
Who are you backing to win the FIFA Best Yong Player Award? Did we leave someone out? Put your thoughts down here now and you might look awfully smart come July.