Unknown today, superstars tomorrow: youngsters who took the FIFA World Cup by storm
The most famous young player in a World Cup was one who was also said to be the world’s most popular four-letter word.
In ‘My Life And The Beautiful Game’, before the game against Russia, Pele said: “I am sure that some of those in the stands are faintly amused to see a child on the field in a World Cup match, and some are probably outraged that as important an event as a World Cup match should be reduced to parody by having an infant on the field.”
Pele was an international for almost a year before the Sweden sojourn. He had everything an inside-forward needed — agility, muscles, ball control, a powerful shot and legs like they were hewn off tree trunks that helped him outjump taller defenders and score with headers.
Today such a talent would have gone into the World Cup already a star. But football wasn’t the globally televised sport it is now and digital connectivity was an idea whose time still hadn’t come.
That explains why more is known about Achraf Hakimi, Real Madrid and Morocco’s 19-year-old defender, going into this World Cup than it was 60 years ago about the player who became football’s first superstar.
From Guillermo Stabile in 1930 to Paul Pogba in Brazil, every World Cup has had a young star. From 2006, Fifa started an award for the best young player.
It went to Lukas Podolski but that Cristiano Ronaldo was on the shortlist --- along with Lionel Messi ---- was reason enough for English journalists to get uptight inside the cavernous auditorium of Berlin’s Olympic Stadium because they felt he shouldn’t have got Wayne Rooney sent off.
Diego Maradona was left out of the 1978 squad so it wasn’t till 1998 that another teenager would take the World Cup by storm.
Michael Owen could have been the story of France ’98 had David Beckham not had a momentary lapse of reason. Owen looked frail but give him a football and he was gone with the wind.
This edition should have its share of young players using the World Cup to further their careers. No wonder Manchester City are mulling new deals for Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane even though they have years to run in their current contracts.
James Rodriguez used his wonder goal against Uruguay in Brazil to secure a deal with Real Madrid. As did Toni Kroos who didn’t let a horrible mistake, which Gonzalo Higuain couldn’t capitalise on, cloud his future prospects.
While World Cup coaches talk about the need for a blend of youth and experience, the number of young players in a squad is also a statement on the health of football in that country.
One reason why Italy aren’t going to Russia is because ageing legs couldn’t take them there. Theirs is a study in contrast with Germany, France or, say, Spain who have in Marco Asensio a 22-year-old. Or even England who are the world’s under-17 and under-20 champions.
Young dreams should be dreamed together and young hearts shouldn’t be afraid, sang Cliff Richards many years ago. Even if they don’t know the song, Russia should see some footballers thinking on these lines.