With the exception of the goalkeeper, here is a strong XI of players at the World Cup who are under the age of 21.
GK: Diogo Costa (23, Portugal)
OK, so the goalkeeper is not under the age of 21. We are terribly sorry. We really are.
Costa is the fifth-youngest goalkeeper going to the tournament, yet he is one of the most sought-after in the world thanks to his fantastic start to 2022-23. Only two shot-stoppers in Qatar fit the quota of being under the age of 21 (Ibrahim Danlad 19, Ghana, and Simon Ngapandouetnbu, 19, Cameroon) but neither have a single minute under their belt for their respective countries.
Costa, on the other hand, has seven caps and started Portugal’s last two Nations League matches prior to the World Cup. Manchester United are believed to be interested, though he recently penned a five-year contract at Porto. His new deal has a €75million release clause and it’s probably a case of when, not if, United trigger it.
RB: Zeno Debast (19, Belgium)
Debast is actually a central defender but has been shifted to fill in at right-back here. The young defender earned a spot in Belgium’s World Cup squad thanks to a stellar year with Anderlecht.
The young defender made his Red Devils debut at the age of 18 in September’s Nations League win over Wales, playing the full 90 minutes against Rob Page’s side and then against the Netherlands as his team lost 1-0.
While Debast may struggle to pick up many minutes in Qatar, it will be important for him to be there given his ageing colleagues – Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld – are probably at their last major tournament. This could be the last chance saloon for the Belgians, who have no silverware to show for their golden era.
CB: Piero Hincapie (20, Ecuador)
Signed for €6.35m in 2021, Bayer Leverkusen will be rubbing their hands together seeing Hincapie’s development. There have been some links to the Premier League, but not too much said about the left-footed central defender.
He does usually start for Bayer but does have a mean streak in him. In 13 Bundesliga appearances this term, Hincapie has three yellow cards and two reds.
Going into the World Cup, Ecuador have not conceded a goal in six consecutive matches – all friendlies, but still impressive – winning two 1-0 and drawing the rest 0-0. What an amazing spectacle their curtain-raiser against Qatar on Sunday promises to be.
CB: Josko Gvardiol (20, Croatia)
Another left-footed centre-half here… which will make some people feel uneasy.
Having made his Croatia debut in June 2021, Gvardiol now has 12 caps and is the best young central defender at the tournament.
The majority of you will have heard of the RB Leipzig player due to the transfer rumours linking him with a move to Chelsea. The Blues will need to fork out around €90m if they want to sign the Croatian international, and if he has a good World Cup, that price could exceed €100m.
LB: Nuno Mendes (20, Portugal)
The Paris Saint-Germain star will be Portugal’s first-choice left-back in Qatar, allowing Joao Cancelo – who missed last year’s European Championships after contracting Covid-19 – to play in his natural position on the right.
PSG forked out €38m to sign Mendes from Sporting after an initial loan last season and he is already a crucial player for the French champions, and for his country, for whom he’s played 16 times.
Incidentally, Portugal’s last two games with Mendes playing have resulted in a 1-0 loss, meanwhile, they have won their previous two without him, with Mario Rui playing one while Raphael Guerreiro started the other.
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CM: Pedri (19, Spain)
19-year-old Pedri is one of the best players at the tournament, not just young players, but players in general. He’s a fabulous talent.
The 2021 Golden Boy winner is a consistent starter for Barcelona and Spain. He played an integral part in Luis Enrique’s side’s road to the semi-finals of Euro 2020 and having played 629 minutes at that tournament, Pedri represented La Roja at the Olympics as his nation lost the final to Brazil. Of course, the final went to extra-time, as did all three of Spain’s knockout games at the Euros, as the teenage playmaker played 73 games across an entire season…
A mid-season World Cup will be a piece of cake for him, then.
CM: Jude Bellingham (19, England)
Our star-studded midfield continues with Borussia Dortmund and England teenager Bellingham, who needs to start for the Three Lions in Qatar. I already know deep down that Gareth Southgate will bench him and start Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice together. Although they are two great players, the former has barely played this season and, in my opinion, Bellingham is the most in-form player in the entire squad alongside Harry Kane and Benjamin White.
It is no surprise to see Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, and basically every top club, drooling over the 19-year-old as a Dortmund exit looks inevitable in 2023. After what will be three amazing years in Germany, the former Birmingham City midfielder will likely move on for anywhere between €120-200m.
CM: Gavi (18, Spain)
Another Spaniard? Another one? Well, they are bloody brilliant, to be fair.
Pedri was Golden Boy winner last year and Gavi was Golden Boy winner this year. Barcelona are blessed to have these two young men at the club and could be set for the next 15 years with them in midfield. It’s kind of scary that they have found Xavi and Iniesta’s regens at the exact same time. A new Sergio Busquets is surely on the cards, although Frenkie de Jong is pretty good.
Spain have a good chance of going far with some terrific young talent, and the fact many are backing them to do well with two teenagers in midfield is a testament to how brilliant they are.
Gavi didn’t play at the Euros last year but has been a mainstay in Enrique’s midfield ever since.
FW: Jamal Musiala (19, Germany)
Germany star Musiala – who admittedly is probably more of a midfielder, starts in our versatile attack.
Valued at a whopping €100m by Transfermarkt, Musiala could have declared for Nigeria or England, which would have been fun with him and Bellingham forming a partnership on the international stage, but it was not to be as the young playmaker opted to represent his birth country, where his mother is from.
The Bayern Munich starlet played for the Three Lions at under-21, u-17, u-16, and u-15 level, but, in February 2021, made the decision to play for Germany and was subsequently named in Hansi Flick’s squad for the European Championships. And with his form for the Bundesliga champions showing no signs of letting up, he will have the opportunity to shine at a World Cup.
FW: Youssoufa Moukoko (17, Germany)
Borussia Dortmund have 11 players at the World Cup, and two of them are in this starting XI.
At 17 years of age, the youngest player in the team leads the line, with German wonderkid Moukoko hoping to get some minutes in the biggest competition in sport. Moukoko was actually born in Cameroon and grew up in Yaounde until 2014, when he moved to Germany.
Moukoko turns 18 on the day the World Cup kicks off and it is no surprise that his 143 goals in 90 games for Dortmund at youth level have seen him feature more often for the first team in 2022-23. In 14 Bundesliga matches this term, the teenage striker has found the back of the net six times.
FW: Xavi Simons (19, Netherlands)
There are some brilliant young attackers going to the World Cup, as you will see below, but we have opted for Simons here, even if Ansu Fati is probably better. It’s nice to include some different nations.
Amsterdam-born winger Simons spent three years with Paris Saint-Germain before joining PSV on a free transfer in July. He has been terrific in Holland and was named in the World Cup squad as a result.
Simons’ call-up to the tournament in Qatar was the first time Louis van Gaal has selected him, meaning he could make his national team debut in the showpiece tournament.
It would not be too much of a surprise to see the former Manchester United boss call upon the 19-year-old winger given his form this term. In 22 matches across all competitions, Simons has 10 goals and four assists and is definitely one to watch this winter.
Here are a bunch of players who didn’t make the cut…
The honourable mentions are: Antonio Silva (Portugal), Armel Bella-Kotchap (Germany), Ansu Fati (Spain), Karim Adeyemi (Germany), Jeremy Doku (Belgium), Kenneth Taylor (Netherlands), Yunus Musah (USA), Abdul Fatawu Issahaku (Ghana), Pape Matar Sarr (Senegal), Joe Scally (USA), Ismael Kone (Canada), Yeremi Pino (Spain), Garang Kuol (Australia), Jewison Bennette (Costa Rica), Bilal El Khannouss (Morocco), Hannibal Mejbri (Tunisia), Jakub Kamizski (Poland), Luka Sucic (Croatia), Kamaldeen Sulemana (Ghana), Facundo Pellistri (Uruguay).
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