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World’s five best footballers aged 21 and under

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From left, Vinicius Junior, Erling Haaland, Phil Foden. Photo: MARCA
  • Erling Haaland is the most sought-after player in the world, and Manchester City, Real Madrid, and Barcelona are all interested in signing him 
  • Erling Haaland, Pedri, Phil Foden, Vinicius Jr are among the five best male players age 21 or under
  • Pedri’s developing shooting abilities were also on display against Sevilla, with a composed solo effort that sent two defenders spinning

The world’s best male players are getting younger. Still, with names like Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland, Barcelona’s Pedri, and Manchester City midfielder Phil Foden making headlines every week, is it finally time to crown successors to the legendary Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo?


Club/country: Real Madrid / Brazil

Age: 21

Estimated transfer value: €100m

Vinicius Junior. Photo: MARCA

The Brazilian’s inclusion in the top ten of the previous two editions of this ranking caused quite a stir.

However, this time, the only point of contention is whether he should have finished in the top three.

With 14 LaLiga goals and 11 assists, there’s no denying that the forward has made a significant breakthrough.

 He has improved on what he was already good at over the last year: He averages nine dribbles (52 per cent success rate) this season, up from 4.9 last season.

He also makes more tackles, wins more challenges, draws more fouls, and has doubled his number of key passes.

The flashy yet hardworking winger, who prefers to play on the left to cut inside with his right foot, has progressed from prodigy to borderline world star. Real Madrid deserves credit for sticking with him.


Club/Country: Borussia Dortmund / England

Age: 18

Estimated transfer value: €75m

Jude Bellingham. Photo: Eurosport

Bellingham is becoming increasingly crucial for both Dortmund and England. The ex-Birmingham City midfielder plays with assurance and maturity in his late twenties.

Despite his rapid development at Dortmund, he could soon find himself in the middle of a transfer tug-of-war between Europe’s top clubs.

Bellingham combines outstanding close control, technical prowess, ball progression, and tactical awareness with an ability to time late runs into the box.

He’s already close to being the complete “No. 8” in midfield, though he’s also featured successfully as an anchorman.

He takes up good defensive positions and executes blocks, and he’s also enthusiastic about his pressing duties on the other end.

He’s a gifted footballer who has the potential to become the best all-around central midfielder of his generation


Club/country: Man City / England

Age: 21

Estimated transfer value: €90m

Phil Foden. Photo: Planet Football

Foden is getting close to playing his 100th Premier League game for Manchester City.

Pep Guardiola, the manager, admitted that when Foden was 17, he had “never seen a player with this potential” (he only coached Messi from age 21). 

The England international has never shied away from big games. He is frequently one of the main protagonists when the game heats up, as we saw against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals.

Under Guardiola, Foden has progressed from a “No. 8” or “No. 10” midfielder to a multi-purpose attacking midfielder. 

While he used to be most threatening when making runs behind the defence from central positions, he now makes his impact when finding space wide left, almost like a traditional winger.


Club/Country: Barcelona / Spain

Age: 19

Estimated transfer value: €80m

Pedri Gonzalez

Pedri has had an extremely eventful first half of 2021. He became a rising star for Barcelona, a regular for Spain at Euro 2020, and won an Olympic silver medal in Tokyo.

However, after playing 70-plus games last season, several injury layoffs were unavoidable. (Most players are lucky to reach 50 points in a season.)

Pedri can play in any position in the centre of midfield and deputize in vast areas, making him the classic Barcelona player.

He has a silky touch on the ball and a natural sense of space and positioning, allowing him to play deftly between the lines.

His low centre of gravity and balance enables him to make quick directional changes that make opponents look foolish.

Furthermore, Pedri is an expert in possession and can distribute the ball using various techniques.

His developing shooting abilities were also on display against Sevilla, with a composed solo effort that sent two defenders spinning, which will be a contender for the goal of the season.


Club/Country: Borussia Dortmund / Norway


Estimated transfer value: €75m

Erling Haaland. Photo: Getty Images

Along with PSG’s Mbappe, he is the most sought-after player globally.

Last year’s top-ranked player is back, and Manchester City, Real Madrid, and Barcelona are interested in signing him when his reported €75 million release clause expires this year.

According to ESPN, City are the frontrunners, but all eyes will be on his future this summer.

Despite some recurring injury issues and an unusual dry spell after the year, it’s been business as usual for the Norwegian international: Goals, goals, and even more goals.

Erling Haaland possesses exceptional abilities, including speed, direct running, extreme physicality that makes him difficult to mark or stop without fouling.

A vicious left foot, and finishing skills that allow him to average one goal per competitive game.

Then there are his mental qualities: his temperament, his perseverance, and his boyish, contagious joy of playing football.

Even at 6-foot-4, his penetrative running (he thrives on exploiting space behind the defensive line) and sharp movement in the box when anticipating a cross or cut-back are of the highest order.


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