Goal medallists: Who will be the successors to Messi and Ronaldo?
The world may be divided about who the best football player in the world is today, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. But, for the last decade and more, it’s definitely been one of them. Sure, Robert Lewandowski is a great finisher, Antoine Griezmann is special on the counter, Kevin De Bruyne controls the play like it’s a video game, and every club has their own talisman that its supporters feel is God’s gift to the sport, life, and everything. But, the best in the world? Not really. That slot has been reserved for Messi or Ronaldo.
This year, however, the baton will be passed — a new set of stars will emerge; not just to be applauded and appreciated, but to rule. In a world changed forever by the coronavirus disease, football, too, will have a new order.
Make no mistake, both Messi and Ronaldo are still formidable. Let’s face it, though, the cracks are just starting to show. The air of inevitability around them has diminished; neither of them was in the last-eight of the Champions League — the last time that happened was in 2004-05, when social media had barely been born; and by the time the next World Cup ends in December 2022, the Argentine will be almost 36 and the Portuguese nearly 38.
So, roll over Beethoven. And (well, might as well borrow the entire phrase), dig these new rhythm and blues.
The big question, then, is, who’s it going to be?
But before we jump in, a moment to philosophise, as all sports writers must.
Achieving stardom is an inexact procedure, a function of several factors the subject has no control over. The great Socrates (the Brazilian footballer, though he had strains of the philosopher too) found Europe too cold, literally and otherwise, and didn’t have a good time in soccer’s most developed continent. Thierry Henry grew into a legend at Arsenal after an insipid season at Juventus. And had Brazil listened to their team psychologist’s advice and not played Pele in the 1958 World Cup, who knows how that career would have turned out?
With a minimum of 50 club games in Europe’s top five leagues as the cut-off, we look at players who could be the next big thing. By virtue of their role, attacking players get a disproportionate amount of interest in such discussions, but then for every Johan Cruyff and Diego Maradona, there is a Franz Beckenbauer and Gordon Banks, a Fabio Cannavaro or Virgil van Dijk.
That is why we’ve zeroed in on the precocious from across the pitch: from Gianluigi Donnarumma in goal to Erling Braut Haaland who has more than a nose for a goal.
If Haaland is proof that some players have it in their blood — his father Alf-Inge Haaland played for Norway, Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Manchester City and his mother Gry Marita Braut is a former heptathlete — the rise of Jadon Sancho is in no small part due to his growing up in an area (south London) that has produced a string of professional players.
“I would class myself as a street footballer, obviously that’s where it all started, on the street,” he told the website Goal.com.
Alphonso Davies, meanwhile, grew up in Canada — not exactly known for its soccer culture — but at 20 is already a defensive mainstay at Bayern Munich.
This conversation on the “arty dozen” (read on to see who else made the cut) comes at a strange time in European football. Real Madrid president Florentino Perez launched his wrecking ball of a project — the proposed breakaway European Super League — last month and saw it disintegrate in hours, as a public outcry encouraged clubs that had signed on to pull out. Perez now says his club can’t afford either Haaland or Kylian Mbappe, the first teenager since Pele to score in a World Cup final.
Keen to shed the image of an avaricious American, Liverpool owner John Henry now reportedly wants to sign Mbappe to make amends for associating with the Super League. And Bayern are trying to outdo Manchester United and Arsenal by offering Eduardo Camavinga regular game time even though he is still a teenager.
Back to the new Messi and Ronaldo, see who else made it to our Top 12, spread across positions of attack, defence, midfield and goal.
JADON SANCHO, 21
Pep Guardiola called him a player of “huge quality” while talking about Manchester City’s quarter-final opponents in the 2020-21 Champions League. Manchester United tried hard to sign the winger after he graduated from the City academy at 17, but couldn’t match Borussia Dortmund’s reported asking price of 120 million Euros.
Barcelona, Real Madrid and Liverpool too have been interested in the England international who “exploded” (his words) onto the scene in the 2018-19 Bundesliga and could be a key player in this year’s European championships.
In 2017, this Chelsea and Ronaldinho fan had Kolkata thirsting for more. Wide midfielder Jadon Sancho had three goals and two assists in the 2017 Under-17 World Cup before Dortmund called him away. Days after he left India, Dortmund played their No 7 — a shirt they reserved for him after Ousmane Dembele left — from south London, an area which had seven players in the U-17 World Cup winning squad, against Eintracht Frankfurt.
It was quite a baptism by fire. Sancho said he tried dribbling a player and was promptly sent to the floor, dispossessed. “Welcome to adult football, eh?” he said in an interview with FourFourTwo magazine.
But under Dortmund coaches Peter Stoger and Lucien Favre, Sancho grew. In 12 months, he was replacing Raheem Sterling as England substitute against Croatia. In 2018-19, he completed the most dribbles in Bundesliga. Days after his grandmother died in 2018, he scored in the Ruhr derby against Schalke. That goal was also dedicated to his younger brother, who died when Sancho was five.
“I couldn’t wait till you grew up, teach you football and win the cup,” is a line from a self-written poem tattooed on the 21-year-old’s left forearm.
The best compliment you can give this player born to immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago? Call him a street footballer. Growing up in a tough neighbourhood in south London, he’s said football kept him on the straight and narrow after school. It helped that Harefield Academy, the school he moved to as a boarder at 11, had a partnership with Watford, which would be his first club. From there, he joined the City academy, was fast-tracked to the senior team and then to Dortmund.
This has meant years away from his family. “I miss them a lot,” LifeBlogger has quoted him as saying, “but I wanted to do what’s best for me.”
GIANLUIGI DONNARUMMA, 22
At four, Gianluigi Donnarumma would tag along with elder brother Antonio to Club Napoli in Naples, the city where he was born. By the time he was eight, “Gigio” was being tipped for big things. Accelerated development has been a way of life since. At 11, he was 6’2”; he is now 6’5”.
In October 2015, when Donnarumma first played for Milan — the club he supported as a boy — he was 16 and the youngest goalkeeper to debut in Serie A. At 17, he played for Italy for the first time and no one younger had played in goal for them in 104 years.
At 22, he has played over 200 games for Milan. If he wears 99 it is to tell the world the year of his birth.
“Gigio is the Maradona of goalkeepers,” his agent Mino Raiola said in 2017, after letting Milan know that 11 clubs were interested. Milan agreed on a 6 million Euro annual deal until 2021. They also called back brother Antonio, who is also a shot-stopper (as was uncle Enrico Alfano).
From being timid and the youngest on the team, Donnarumma is now “one of the guys who has been around the longest”; one who has survived three presidents and six coaches. So he realised the need to “make myself heard”, he has said in interviews. And from his father Alfonso Donnarumma almost agreeing to a deal with Inter, he is now a Milan mainstay.
In him, Italy have a goalkeeper who has not only succeeded Gianluigi Buffon as the national team’s first choice but could also rival the latter’s longevity. Buffon, 43, started playing for Italy when he was 19 years and 274 days old. By the time he was that age, Donnarumma had already played almost three years of international football.
ALPHONSO DAVIES, 20
His rise at Bayern has a lot to do with the adage “never waste a crisis”. Niklas Sule and Lucas Hernandez were injured and that forced David Alaba into central defence, opening up the left-back slot for the player who was signed from Vancouver Whitecaps for $13.5m, then the highest sum ever paid for someone from Major League Soccer (MLS).
Alphonso Davies’s first season was unspectacular — 74 minutes over six games. Things changed in 2019-20, with coach Hansi Flick reviving Bayern and getting the world to talk about the winger converted to left-back. As the planet grappled with Covid-19, Bayern, who had lured him with an elaborate five-year growth plan, extended his contract until 2025.
Tied for the Golden Boot in the 2017 Gold Cup, Davies’s ability to accelerate and change direction makes him an asset at both ends of the pitch. That Bayern rely on his pace to go forward could be seen in the 2019-20 Champions League round-of-16 tie against Chelsea. One of his runs set up a goal; he had the most successful dribbles (6) on the team and completed 89.9% of his passes.
In the 2019-20 Bundesliga, only Sancho had more dribbles and Sancho was bossed when the teams met that term, with Bayern winning 4-0.
“My progression here in Germany has been a really good one,” the 20-year-old from Edmonton, Canada, told Canadian website SaltWire.
Davies wins a lot of defensive balls with his pace and his development “has been phenomenal”, added Flick. At 15, he was the second-youngest after Freddy Adu to debut in the MLS. He was Bundesliga’s rookie of the season in 2019-20 and was on the Champions League squad of the season.
“Phonzie”, as he is called at Bayern, is also a poster boy for a changing Canada where one in approximately five wasn’t born in the country. Davies was born in a refugee camp in Ghana after his parents fled Liberia during the second civil war. The family moved to Canada when he was five and he began playing at eight. “Boys on the football pitch made me feel at home,” he has said.
Edmonton’s most famous sporting icon is still the ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky and, for her part in helping them win the 2012 Olympics bronze, the country’s most famous footballer would still be Christine Sinclair. With Canada set to co-host the 2026 World Cup, that could change.
ERLING BRAUT HAALAND, 20
Norway were almost certain to miss out on the knockout stages of the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland when they faced minnows Honduras in what would turn out to be an inconsequential group stage game. Despite the result having no bearing on the later stages of the tournament, the game made headlines around the world. Followers of the sport who hadn’t yet heard of Erling Braut Haaland, son of former Leeds United and Manchester City player Alf-Inge Haaland, would be sure to remember the name now.
The then-18-year-old forward scored, quite incredibly, nine times in a 12-0 win for Norway. “I think I should have scored 10,” Haaland told reporters after the game. It was the world’s first glimpse into the kind of devastation the young Norwegian could wreak on opposition defences.
Now 20, Haaland is already feared across Europe. There is talk of potential bids of over 150 million Euros from the continent’s elite clubs. Averaging almost a goal per game in over 50 games for Borussia Dortmund, at a time where the club has struggled for form, tells only part of the story.
The secret behind the meteoric rise of the prolific forward lies, perhaps, in resisting the temptation to sign for Europe’s most famous clubs and choosing instead to focus on getting as much game time as possible.
Moving from Bryne to Molde in Norway and then to RB Salzburg in Austria while snubbing bigger names, and then reportedly turning down the likes of Manchester United to move to Dortmund, has certainly worked for Haaland.
“It was up to me and my team to try to find the right club for him. We visited Salzburg and some other clubs as well, more glamorous clubs if you would like to say that. But Salzburg is the perfect match for Erling,” Haaland Sr said, explaining his son’s move to Austria in an interview with Sky Sports in 2019.
KYLIAN MBAPPE, 22
“I confess to you that I do not know him. I don’t watch football a lot when I’m home. I have a baby to take care of,” Manchester City’s Belgian star Kevin De Bruyne told reporters in February 2017, when he was asked about a young talent on the Monaco team named Kylian Mbappe. This was just before the two teams met in a Champions League knockout tie. By the end of that tie, De Bruyne had learnt quite a bit about the French forward, whose two goals over the two legs were crucial in knocking City out of the competition.
A little over a year later, De Bruyne admitted his mistake. “He is a star for the next 10 to 15 years,” he said of Mbappe, ahead of Belgium’s World Cup semi-final clash against France. France would go on to reach the final, and Mbappe would score to secure his country’s triumph.
Only 22, it is somewhat difficult to believe that Mbappe has already scored a combined 170 goals for club and country. He was the world’s most expensive teenager when Paris Saint-Germain bought him for 180 million Euros in 2017. If he is to move again, Mbappe, now an even better and more versatile forward who is blessed with explosive speed, is sure to challenge club teammate Neymar’s world record transfer fee of 222 million Euros.
“I scored exactly 1,025, so 1,000 goals is possible for him,” Brazilian great Pele told AFP in 2019. At the rate the young Frenchman is going, Pele’s projection doesn’t look far-fetched.
Born in Paris, football courses through his blood. Father Wilfried Mbappe, originally from Cameroon, is his agent but more importantly was his first coach at AS Bondy. His mother Fayza Lamari, originally from Algeria, is a former handball player. His brothers Ethan and Jires Kembo Ekoko play football too.
EDUARDO CAMAVINGA, 18
He’s said he’s a fan of compatriot Paul Pogba, and Eduardo Camavinga has often been compared to the Manchester United midfielder . It was Pogba that Camavinga coincidentally replaced on the France squad last summer, when the former was diagnosed with Covid-19.
That helped him get his national team debut. At 17, he became the youngest Frenchman to play for Les Bleus in more than a century. The Rennes midfielder has established himself as a crucial part of his club’s first XI in the last couple of seasons and has already amassed close to 80 appearances for club and country. And he is still over seven months away from his 19th birthday.
“The more matches I have played, the more I have become a competitor. I want to win all the matches. Before coming into Ligue 1, I was not a very defensive player, but I got a taste for defending, helping my team, and today I am proud. I have also improved in terms of my clarity and approaching the goal,” Camavinga told reporters during a national team camp last year.
With his stock rising across Europe as a versatile, highly capable midfielder who can be the engine of his side, there is reportedly already significant interest from some prominent clubs on the continent. Europe’s richest clubs will undoubtedly be willing to shell out a fortune for the young Frenchman.
That’s some transformation for a boy born in a refugee camp in Angola to Congolese parents fleeing Kinshasa. The family moved to Brittany in France in 2004. In 2013, their house was burnt down, a tragedy that forged the desire in Camavinga to reclaim it all and more through football.
(All figures as of April 28, 2021. Sources: transfermarkt; messivsronaldo.app, whoscored.com)
(Photos: Getty Images; HT Graphics: Puneet Verma)
Ansu Fati, 18
The Guinea-Bissau born youngster’s breakthrough campaign at Barcelona last season saw him earn a call-up to the Spanish national team. A knee injury has kept him out for most of this season but Ansu Fati, who joined Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy at 10, is already being touted as the next big thing in Spanish football.
Phil Foden, 20
Manchester City, Midfielder
Winner of the Golden Ball at the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup in India, Phil Foden has earned the nickname “Stockport Iniesta” among Manchester City fans for his versatility in the middle of the pitch. He has gradually grown into a more central figure in Pep Guardiola’s side and is expected to be part the core of the England national team in the coming years.
Dean Henderson, 24
Manchester United, Goalkeeper
The English goalkeeper showed immense promise during his loan spell at Sheffield United last season and is being viewed as the long-term successor to David de Gea at Manchester United. At 24, he is still young for a goalkeeper and is likely to carry United and English hopes for the next decade.
An extremely talented footballer who can dictate games with his ability to move across the midfield and play in different roles, Pedri joined Barcelona last summer after an impressive run with Las Palmas in the second division. He’s had no trouble finding his feet at Barca, already taking a central role in a star-studded team.
Eduardo Quaresma, 19
Sporting Lisbon, Centre-back
Eduardo Quaresma has barely begun his senior professional career and is already being tracked by some of Europe’s elite clubs. The young centre-back is highly rated in Portugal but has found limited opportunities for first team appearances this season.
Joao Felix, 21
Atletico Madrid, Forward
The highly skilful forward is arguably the most promising youngster in the Portugal national team at present. After his breakthrough season at Benfica in 2018/19, he moved to Atletico Madrid, where he has taken a more prominent role this season after a hot-and-cold campaign in the previous one.