The 20 Next Big Stars of World Football
Each generation is defined by a select group of players who can lay claim to being bona fide stars of world football. But who will be next?
In this slideshow, we look at 20 players who have the potential to be the next big icons of the beautiful game.
We aren't delivering a selection of players you've never heard of, but we are deliberating who could potentially achieve Cristiano Ronaldo- and Lionel Messi-like proportions of fame in the coming seasons.
To be considered for inclusion, all players must be aged 25 or under. We have not included the likes of Neymar, Eden Hazard, David Alaba or Mario Goetze, as these players can arguably be considered "big stars" already.
Arranged in an order that we feel best represents how close to superstardom these players are, this list is not exhaustive and there are a wealth of players who could have been included.
Is there anyone you feel is missing? Add your suggestions below.
20. Martin Hinteregger
Club: Red Bull Salzburg
Martin Hinteregger could be the next big star defender. Let's face it, from Manchester United, to Liverpool, to Barcelona—there are plenty of top-level teams who need a centre-back's services ahead of the 2014/15 season.
Hinteregger has played for Austria at every youth level from under-17 upwards and recently earned a call-up to the senior squad, making his debut against the USA in November 2013.
With Salzburg, Hinteregger had a great run in the Europa League this season—remaining unbeaten up until the second leg of the last 16. The 21-year-old was suspended for this game.
Very calm and good on the ball, the 6'1" Austrian's style is aggressive and physical, and it's easy to imagine him playing in the Premier League.
The left-footed defender scored a goal from around 70 yards out when playing against Schalke in a pre-season friendly this term. View it here—it's rather special.
What They Say
Hinteregger played the 90 minutes against the Liverpool striker Luis Suarez and he emerged with credit, even though Suarez's influence grew as the game wore on. ...
...The tall and imposing Hinteregger caught the eye with his physicality and his composure on the ball. His style appears to be tailor-made for the Premier League. Since establishing himself at Salzburg, Hinteregger has also attracted the interest of Arsenal.
19. Remy Cabella
French playmaker Remy Cabella has been at Montepellier since 2009. This summer, he looks likely to get a move elsewhere and become a much bigger name in the process.
A Ligue 1 winner in 2011/12, the former team-mate of Olivier Giroud is lightning quick and creative and has a good shot in his locker. His best position is playing behind the striker, though he can also operate on the right wing.
This season, he has put away 13 goals and provided five assists for Rolland Courbis' side and featured in all but one Ligue 1 game.
What They Say
During the 2012/13 campaign, Montpellier deputy chairman Laurent Nicollin claimed that it would take a bid of €100 million for the club to consider parting ways with Cabella. He told Radio Monte Carlo (h/t SkySports.com):
He is non-transferable. We try to anticipate and plan things, even in football, but it's complicated.
The desire of the club is to keep Remy - he was told and knows this. If a club arrives and offers €100 million, it will be discussed.
18. Florian Thauvin
At 21, Florian Thauvin has already been on the books of a host of French clubs as a senior player, including Grenoble, Bastia, Lille and Marseille. The move between the last two clubs saw the winger's integrity come into question, as he tried to push through a move to join Marseille without even kicking a ball for Lille (per James Eastham of FourFourTwo.com).
Last season, the France under-20 international hit 10 goals in Ligue 1 while on loan at Bastia and put a further three away when playing in the Under-20 World Cup, which France went on to win. This season, he's hit eight goals for l'OM at club level and five in three games for the under-21s.
Quick and agile and with a good shot on goal, Thauvin does look like an exciting young talent. If he can mend the reputation he has as a spoilt enfant terrible, he could go on to become a world star.
What They Say
In December, James Eastham wrote for FourFourTwo.com:
He's got bags of talent, but also the mental strength to go with it. Marseille's a notoriously difficult place for young footballers to thrive, yet Thauvin has settled immediately, all the more remarkable considering the transfer saga that preceded his move and the fact he missed out on a proper pre-season.
17. Andre Hahn
Club: Augsburg (will move to Borussia Monchengladbach this summer, per Transfermarkt)
Andre Hahn is poised to become a huge name in German football. Largely unknown just 18 months ago, the 23-year-old signed for Augsburg in January 2013 from Kickers Offenbach of the German fourth tier for just €250,000.
This season, he has been a standout player for the Bavarian team. He has scored 10 times in 29 games and registered five assists to date in the Bundesliga. Those numbers are the same, interestingly, as Arjen Robben's.
The right-sided attacker's performances for Augsburg led to a call-up to the German national team for their friendly against Chile on 5 March.
What They Say
Upon signing for Gladbach, sporting director Max Eberl told the club's official website (h/t FourFourTwo.com):
Andre Hahn has undergone an incredible development at Augsburg this season. He is one of the top-scoring wingers in the league and will certainly strengthen us in attack.
We had strong competition in our efforts to sign him and are pleased that he has chosen us.
16. Eliaquim Mangala
Club: FC Porto
Eliaquim Mangala is likely to be on the move this summer. After joining FC Porto in 2011 for a fee of €6.5 million, the French centre-back is already worth more than three times that amount, according to Transfermarkt.com.
Some recent below-par performances and a spell on the Porto bench cannot take away from the fact that Mangala is an excellent defender and deserves to be as highly rated as he is.
Capped twice by France, he has made over 50 appearances for Porto and won back-to-back Primeira Liga titles over the last two seasons. He has scored five goals this term, three of them in the Europa League.
What They Say
France head coach Didier Deschamps told FourFourTwo.com in March: "For me, he is not a surprise...Eliaquim operates in a large Portuguese club and plays in the Champions League. He is one of those players that I think has the potential to be a [regular] international."
15. Alberto Moreno
Born and raised in Seville and a product of the Sevilla youth academy, Alberto Moreno has impressed since being promoted to Los Rojiblancos' senior ranks in March 2013.
Eight months later, he received his first call-up to the Spain senior squad for a World Cup qualifier against Belarus, before making his debut against Georgia—completing 90 minutes in a 2-0 win.
The attacking left-back, who won the Under-21 European Championship in Israel last year, started life as a midfielder before he converted to the position that has seen him win plaudits for his performances at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
As the current season draws to a close, the 21-year-old is being linked with a number of clubs, as reported by Paul Hetherington in the Daily Star. These sides, which include Chelsea, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United, point toward the level of football that Moreno is capable of.
For anyone who hasn't seen Moreno in action yet, click here. It's worth it.
What They Say
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque was quoted as saying, per FourFourTwo.com:
We want to work like a club that looks to its youth sides. We are not absolute in this matter, but yes, we like giving opportunities to the youngsters, which harvests good results. Alberto is demonstrating to have that level and that's why we have called him up.
14. Gerard Deulofeu
Club: Everton (on loan from Barcelona)
Gerard Deulofeu has impressed in the Premier League this season. A product of the Barcelona youth academy, he played seven times for Barca's senior team before getting a season-long loan move to Everton in July 2013.
He has a string of titles to his name with Spain's youth sides, including the personal honour of being named the UEFA European Under-19 Championship Golden Player in 2012. At the time, UEFA.com's Paul Bryan wrote:
There were moments at the 11th UEFA European Under-19 Championship when the Barca youth-team product seemed determined to dismantle opposing defences by himself, his unwavering focus and drive almost acting against the best interests of the team. Yet it was the team that benefited most when Deulofeu got it right, and in the end, his decision-making and finishing counted highest among the factors that led to Spain's victory.
With his quick feet, pace and dribbling skills, the 20-year-old is the epitome of a tricky winger. Equally adept playing out wide or as a No. 10, Deulofeu has scored three times in the Premier League this term. He also put away 18 for Barcelona B last season.
He looks like he is going to be a phenomenal player for club and country.
What They Say
In November, Everton boss Roberto Martinez told the Mirror's John Cross, "He has shown great things already. But for any young player, it takes time to adapt. In the new year he will explode on the league. He has so much talent."
13. Roberto Firmino
Brazilian playmaker Roberto Firmino appears to be on the cusp of becoming a household name. It's been a standout season for Hoffenheim's No. 10, who has put away 20 goals and registered 15 assists in all competitions so far this term.
As yet uncapped by Brazil, Firmino's Bundesliga performances have seen him linked with a number of clubs, including Liverpool and Chelsea. However, the 22-year-old recently extended his current deal at the Rhein-Neckar Arena to last until 2017, per SkySports.com.
He could be involved in the 2014 World Cup with Brazil, and if he continues on his upward trajectory, Firmino will be a star of world football in the future.
What They Say
On Bundesliga.com, Hoffenheim chairman Peter Rettig commented on Firmino's new deal, saying, "We're very happy that the club has been able to keep Roberto Firmino, a hugely important part of this young team."
Sporting director Alexander Rosen added, "He’s a player with incredible ability, who has developed immensely in the last year under Markus Gisdol."
12. Domenico Berardi
Club: Sassuolo (on loan from Juventus)
Domenico Berardi's biggest on-pitch moment came on 12 January 2014, when he exploded onto the scene by scoring four goals against AC Milan. The 4-3 win was a huge feat for Sassuolo, who are competing in the top flight of Italian football for the first time in their history.
The 19-year-old has registered 13 goals in 26 Serie A matches this season. Last term, in Serie B, he put away 11 goals for the Neroverdi, which led to the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Southampton vying to sign the forward before Juve agreed to a co-ownership deal with Sassuolo, as reported by Sam Cunningham in the Daily Mail.
Berardi was discovered in 2010 by Sassuolo scout Luciano Carlino when visiting his brother at university in Modena, as seen on Goal.com.
Tall, physical and an excellent finisher, expect to see Berardi in Juve colours next season. A star of the future? We think so.
What They Say
Carlino recounted spotting Berardi for the first time to Tuttosport (h/t ESPNFC.com):
He's a player from former times with an incredible hunger. Compared to the other good boys I've seen, Domenico was more determined and less spoilt than the average. From a technical point of view, it was enough to see him kick ten shots and score ten goals, all in the top corner. Impressive. He has a left foot capable of lethality from any position. For his light touch and ability to cut in with pace, he reminds me of [Arjen] Robben.
11. Julian Draxler
Club: Schalke 04
At Schalke since the age of eight, Julian Draxler is one of the most exciting young prospects in the Bundesliga. Arsenal are long-term admirers of the Germany international, who has racked up almost 150 appearances for his club side since breaking into the senior team aged just 17 years and 117 days.
Fast, composed and lethal on the counter-attack, the attacking midfielder has already won two pieces of silverware with Schalke—the 2010/11 DFB Pokal and the DFL Supercup.
The German side, managed by Jens Keller, are desperate to keep hold of Draxler. As reported by Sport-BILD (h/t SkySports.com), a summer move to Arsenal or Bayern Munich has already been ruled out by club chairman Clemens Tonnies.
What They Say
Former Schalke coach Felix Magath told Bundesliga.com:
For his age, he's got a very advanced understanding of the rhythm of the game. He's very focused and not prone to sloppiness... He's cheeky and self-confident out on the pitch and he's always looking to score. All that makes him a very awkward opponent for anybody.
10. William Carvalho
Club: Sporting Lisbon
Reports claim that William Carvalho will be joining Manchester United this summer, as seen on talkSPORT. After a revelatory season for Sporting Lisbon, a move to Manchester could be the next step on the road to becoming a future star of the game.
The strong, composed central/defensive midfielder spent one-and-a-half seasons on loan with Cercle Brugge before returning to the Jose Alvalade Stadium this season. Upon his return, he was promoted to Sporting's first team and has played in 27 Primeira Liga games so far this term.
Carvalho has been capped by Portugal at all levels from under-17 up and was called up to the senior squad this season for the two-legged World Cup play-off against Sweden. He played in the second leg and made a subsequent appearance in a friendly against Cameroon. He seems likely to make it to Brazil 2014.
What They Say
Sky Sports Scout was asked about Carvalho in February. This is what they had to say:
Suddenly Portugal have found themselves a player who many think could be world-class in his role of a holding midfielder.
The one thing that immediately impresses with Carvalho is his maturity, and his calmness - very rarely is he panicked on the ball, but he also has the ability to release the ball quickly.
Carvalho is not slow and can bring the ball forward himself, but nine times out of 10 he allows the ball to do the work as he loves to spread the ball out wide.
At the moment, he has a very uncomplicated game and manner - but the part he plays for Sporting is crucial and he does it so well. Commanding the space in front of the defence, his long limbs see him cover the ground quickly and clear up most danger.
A good defensive midfielder is worth his weight in gold and there is little doubt Carvalho is a real find for Sporting.
9. Adnan Januzaj
Club: Manchester United
Anyone who has watched Adnan Januzaj in action for Manchester United this season knows that the teenager is something special.
The Brussels-born player broke into the United first team this season after making his debut in the Community Shield in August.
Januzaj has gone on to make 24 appearances in the Premier League this term, scoring four goals and registering three assists. The young midfielder has been a bright spark in what has been a largely forgettable season for David Moyes' side.
It looks like there is plenty to come from the 19-year-old in the years ahead at Old Trafford.
What They Say
Robin van Persie told David McDonnell in the Mirror last October:
He's a great player and I'm a great fan of his. I thought earlier in preseason that he has something special.
Over the years I've seen so many young players and I can honestly say that of all the young players I've seen he is right up there in the top one or two.
8. Raheem Sterling
Raheem Sterling's dribbles at breakneck speed and composure in front of goal for Liverpool have taken many people's breath away this season.
The Reds player has enjoyed a stellar campaign under Brendan Rodgers, who, in using Sterling both on the wing and as a No. 10, has reaped the rewards from a player who was rumoured to be leaving Anfield for a Championship loan deal in January, as reported by in the Mirror.
He's exciting, he's unpredictable, and he is only in his teens. Sterling is still the unfinished article, but there is much, much more to come from him.
In years ahead, he will be a star player for club and country.
What They Say
Former Liverpool player and manager Graeme Souness discussed Sterling with SkySports.com:
I can't believe how strong and quick he is and he's got the ability to see the picture as well - he's got absolutely everything.
I've never met him so I'm not sure how tall he is or his physique but he's bullying people a lot bigger than him and muscling people and I think he's a star.
Given his age, he could become a worldy.
7. Luke Shaw
If you haven't already heard of Luke Shaw, where have you been? The 18-year-old left-back has quickly become one of the most talked-about young players in the Premier League and appears to be on the wish list of a large number of other clubs.
2012/13 was his breakout season in the Premier League, as Shaw clocked up 25 appearances for the Saints following his promotion to the first team at St Mary's.
This term, he's been a mainstay in the side that have impressed under Mauricio Pochettino. His 31 games at left-back have already seen him named in the PFA Young Player of the Year shortlist, as reported in The Guardian.
As an attacking full-back playing for Southampton, it's easy to make comparisons with Gareth Bale. However, Shaw does possess many of the same qualities as the Real Madrid man: he has pace going forward and is quick to track back, as well as being physically strong and calm with a great left foot.
According to Martin Lipton in the Mirror, Shaw could be on his way to Manchester United this summer, with Chelsea also interested.
With years ahead of him in the game, expect Shaw to go on to very big things.
What They Say
Southampton teammate Adam Lallana told the Daily Star's David Woods, "He's an outstanding talent and one of the best—probably the best—players I've ever seen at 18."
6. Alen Halilovic
Club: Dinamo Zagreb (will join Barcelona this summer)
It's hard to believe that Alen Halilovic is still only 17 years old. The young midfielder has been constantly linked with a move away from Stadion Maksimir for quite some time after impressing for the Croatian side.
Reviews of the player's game moot whether he could be "the new Lionel Messi," or "the next Luka Modric," as reported by Aleksandar Holiga in The Guardian. Comparisons of this nature occur frequently in the game, but in Halilovic's case, they might just prove to be true.
In recent years, Halilovic has been linked with a number of clubs, including Manchester United, Manchester City and Real Madrid, as seen in the Daily Mail.
However, it was announced in late March that the teenager will be heading to Barcelona this summer—a deal which is still expected to go through despite the club's transfer ban, reports Ed Aarons in The Guardian.
So how does he play? Well...a bit like Messi. His diminutive frame and his shaggy hair make for an obvious physical comparison, but his dribbling, pace, strength on the ball and finishing skills bear more than a passing resemblance to the Argentinian.
Halilovic looks like a genuine star in the making.
What They Say
Former Croatia striker Davor Suker told Cope (h/t Goal.com), "Halilovic is a star. He reminds me of Messi. He is young, but we can trust him and he handles the ball very well."
5. Kurt Zouma
Club: St Etienne (on loan from Chelsea)
Young centre-back Kurt Zouma has been attracting plenty of interest from overseas since making his senior debut for Saint Etienne in 2011.
His progress suffered a setback this season after he was banned for 10 games for violent conduct, but aside from that, his consistent performances in the heart of defence for St Etienne and the French under-20 team cannot hide the fact that he is good. Very good.
The 6'3" defender cuts an imposing figure. He has bags of confidence and is incredibly quick to boot. He's already been signed by Chelsea, as reported by The Guardian's David Hytner in January, with Chelsea loaning him straight back to the St Etienne after completing his signing.
Zouma has represented France at every youth level and won his first call up to the senior squad last October.
What They Say
Upon capturing Zouma, Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho told The Telegraph and agencies:
We liked the profile, we think he's very much adapted to the Premier League. He is a young player for a position where we also need the future.
He's a player with big potential, physically ready. One thing is to be physically ready, another thing is to be tactically ready. Well done Chelsea.
4. Paul Pogba
Paul Pogba has already established himself as one of the most exciting young players in world football. But will he achieve "big star" status, akin to that of past Juventus greats Alessandro Del Piero, Pavel Nedved and David Trezeguet?
His recent form has been patchy. Whether this is down to fatigue—Pogba has played in 57 games for club and country this season—or problems associated with constant transfer speculation, we do not know. However, it cannot be denied that the 21-year-old has become a key player for the Old Lady. His rock-solid defensive contribution, two-footed play, ability to score screamers and excellent passing are impossible to go unnoticed.
Formerly of Manchester United, Pogba signed for Juve in summer 2012. In his first season in Turin, he gradually forced his way into the first team—taking in 27 league appearances and eight Champions League games. This term, he hit the ground running, bagging four goals and three assists in Juve's first 15 Serie A ties.
As the season has gone on, his performances have dropped off somewhat. Yet the links to a summer move away from Juventus remain. On SkySports.com, the midfielder is linked with Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco and Manchester United.
What They Say
When discussing his teammate, Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon said (via talkSPORT): "Pogba has been a real surprise, as when he arrived nobody thought he could be this good. He is an extraordinary player who maintains great humility. I think he will make history for Juventus and France."
3. James Rodriguez
Already held in very high regard, James Rodriguez threatens to become one of the brightest talents in world football in the coming years.
The Colombian's performances for FC Porto between 2010 and 2013 earned him a move to Monaco for the cool sum of €45 million last summer. The attacking midfielder has slotted into life in Ligue 1 with apparent ease, scoring nine goals and creating a further 11 in his 32 appearances this season.
A Europa League and three-time Primeira Liga winner with Porto, Rodriguez looks to be one of the most exciting players to feature in the 2014 World Cup. He can play on either wing or as a No. 10, where he is able to provide service to club and countryman Radamel Falcao—if fit—and former Porto team-mate Jackson Martinez.
He's already got the big-money move to France, so what next? Fame of Cristiano Ronaldo-like proportions.
What They Say
When asked what he thought about comparisons to Colombia legend Carlos Valderrama, Rodriguez told UEFA.com: "It makes me proud when they compare me to great players. But I am James and I continue to be James. I am my own person and the world can see me that way."
2. Raphael Varane
Club: Real Madrid
It seems that France have a golden generation of players who are about to burst onto the scene and become huge stars, each in their own right.
Adding to Paul Pogba, Florian Thauvin and Kurt Zouma, who all appear elsewhere in this slideshow, is Raphael Varane, the highly rated centre-back at Real Madrid.
The Lille-born defender moved to La Liga in 2011, swapping Lens for Real Madrid. You may have heard of the man who helped to push through the move: a certain Zinedine Zidane, as seen on Goal.com.
Injuries have hampered his progress this term, but in his 17 games for Madrid he has looked every bit like a world-class defender. Varane is likely be part of Didier Deschamps' plans in Brazil this summer.
What They Say
When asked about Varane in March, Jose Mourinho told The Sun (h/t Elliott Bretland in the Daily Mail): "I think he is the best young central defender in the world. Already I think he's the best."
Club: Atletico Madrid
What a season it has been for Atletico Madrid, and what a season it has been for the club's 22-year-old midfielder, Koke.
Already dubbed "the next Xavi," as seen on ESPN.co.uk last year, Jorge Resurreccion Merodio, or "Koke," could walk into most teams in Europe at the moment.
2012/13 was his breakout season, with the attacking midfielder playing in 33 of Atletico's 38 La Liga ties and winning the UEFA Super Cup and the Copa del Rey.
For Spain, Koke won the European U-21 Championships last year, which saw him called up into Spain's senior squad, for whom he has now won seven caps.
Very strong, versatile and creative, Koke is responsible for 13 assists and six goals in La Liga this season, with a further four assists coming in Europe and the Copa del Rey. Crucially, it was a strike from Koke that sent Atletico into the semi-finals of this year's Champions League at the expense of Barcelona.
Spain have produced reams of world-class talent in midfield over the years. In Koke, they have one more genuine star of the future.
What They Say
Koke is an extraordinary footballer. He has everything: talent, physical ability, he is a footballer of the present and the future.
He has been marked out as the conductor of Spain's orchestra for the next 10 years.
I have a special affection for him because we play in the same position and I think he is an extraordinary player.
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