The World Cup is a stage for players to perform. The greats have all shone there: Pele, Maradona, Romário and Baggio. These names are esteemed champions, although not all have won the main prize. Not only is the World Cup a stage for the well-known stars of the global game, it is a platform for younger heads; those with little to no experience at the highest level who can become household names across the world in the space of a single summer.
In the build-up to the 1990 World Cup in Italy, tensions in Yugoslavia were reaching boiling point and a civil war, which was to come the following year, beckoned. Despite the political divisions within the country, Yugoslavia sent a national team made up of players from across the country, including stars from nations which would later become Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Slovenia.
Among them was Robert Prosinečki, a German-born 21-year-old who was making his first strides in professional football with Red Star Belgrade. Going into the tournament, Prosinečki was very much an unknown quantity for the rest of the football world, but in Yugoslavia he was already an established part of a successful club side.
Playing as an attacking midfielder, Prosinečki had to make do with two substitute appearances in the group stages but, despite his limited playing time, he made quite the impression. In the final group game against the United Arab Emirates, Prosinečki jumped the queue on the edge of the penalty area and, ahead of Dragan Stojković, lifted the ball over the goalkeeper and into the net in the third minute of stoppage time.
Even though the goal wasn’t of great importance, only expanding the Yugoslavian lead, Prosinečki had made his mark on the tournament with a touch of craft and class. He didn’t feature in the last 16 win over Spain but made his first World Cup start in the quarter-final tie with Diego Maradona’s Argentina.
With Yugoslavia down to 10 men before half-time, their talented side were up against it but battled hard and arguably deserved to go through, creating their share of chances on the counter-attack. In the fateful penalty shoot-out, Prosinečki calmly slotted his penalty home but was one of just two scorers as Argentina progressed in Florence.
Success continued to fall in the path of this blonde prodigy as Red Star won their only European Cup the year after, before Prosinecki departed for a career in Spain with first Real Madrid, then Oviedo, Barcelona and Sevilla. After the end of the fighting in what had become Croatia, Prosinečki returned to play for Dinamo Zagreb, where he won three league titles and played an integral part in the Croatia side that finished in third place at the 1998 World Cup in France. During depressing and violent times in his home country, Prosinečki became one of the shining lights in the darkness and was given his global bow in the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
Four years after the colourful tournament in Italy, the United States hosted their first World Cup, with modern legends, including Lothar Matthäus, taking to the field. Before the finals, the Netherlands knew they had a special talent among their ranks. Those who had seen Marc Overmars play for Ajax were all too aware of his skill.
Arsenal and Barcelona were to come for the young winger, but for now he was tasked with helping the Netherlands to World Cup glory for the first time. The right wing was home to Overmars during the tournament, with his pace and ball control his most valuable assets. Goal scoring was never his strongest suit, and the fact that he didn’t need to find the net during the finals to win the Young Player award was all the more telling.
The Dutch reached the knockout rounds after a scare in the group stage and found their feet against the only team from the British Isles. Ireland had a mixture of old heads and fresh blood but were unable to stop Oranje and Marc Overmars. Terry Phelan’s stray header unleashed Overmars and the youngster burst down the right flank before cutting the ball back to Dennis Bergkamp to finish.
Roy Keane and Andy Townsend couldn’t haul their country level and their task was made almost impossible by Wim Jonk’s goal just before half-time. An Overmars corner found the head of Aron Winter during their quarter-final tie with Brazil, but his equaliser was in vain as Bebeto rocked the Dutch cradle and sent them home.
After the US, Overmars went on to have a stellar career at the very top of European football, winning the Champions League with Ajax before leaving to pursue success in England and Spain. He went into the next World Cup having netted the second in Arsenal’s FA Cup final triumph over Newcastle, but another rapid forward stole the show that summer in France.
After a stunning start to his footballing career at Liverpool, Michael Owen forced his way into Glenn Hoddle’s England squad at the age of just 18. In the build-up to the tournament, Owen’s England teammate David Beckham was at the centre of a media storm concerning his relationship with Victoria Adams.
Beckham and Owen were left on the bench for England’s opening win over Tunisia but, mainly thanks to the English public’s wishes, the two players were given starting berths in their next game with Romania. The changes yielded a first World Cup goal for Owen as he and Beckham combined to equalise before Dan Petrescu netted in added time to give the Romanians all three points.
Owen’s pace caused panic within the Colombian defence in the last group game but it was Beckham who claimed global approval for his exquisite free-kick in the second half to seal the win and progress into the knockout stage.
Lying in wait in the last 16 were Argentina. A rivalry between the South Americans and the English had intensified during the decade before due to events on and off the pitch. Despite the tension between the two nations, animosity and hostility made way for sheer brilliance on the part of the 18-year-old striker.
After Gabriel Batistuta had given the Argentines the lead with an early penalty, Owen was brought down by Roberto Ayala, already struggling to deal with the youngster’s pace. Alan Shearer, Owen’s strike partner, converted the penalty and brought the scores level in Saint-Étienne. Moments later, Owen catapulted himself onto the world stage when he picked up the ball just inside the opposition half. José Chamot was left behind, Ayala was left tangled, and Owen lifted the ball into the top corner to give England the lead.
The goal, in his words, changed his life and sealed his position as the standout rookie at that World Cup. Penalties denied England once again in a major tournament but that mesmerising goal has gone down in football history. Several prolific years at Liverpool followed, among them an incredible FA Cup final performance and a Ballon d’Or, before he made the move to Real Madrid. Injuries blighted a career that promised so much but Owen’s form as a teenager eclipsed that of most strikers a decade his senior.
If Michael Owen was unknown to World Cup viewers in 1998, then Landon Donovan had merely scratched the surface of footballing fame as the USA headed into the finals in Japan and South Korea in 2002. The 20-year-old attacking midfielder was back in the States having failed to make his mark on European football with Bayer Leverkusen, and not few outside San Jose would’ve known his name.
Donovan played in several different positions during the tournament and his versatility turned out to be just one of several assets the boy from California possessed. The Americans started their campaign in fine form with a win over Portugal and a draw with hosts South Korea before succumbing to defeat at the hands of Poland. Donovan had an equaliser disallowed for a slight push on a Polish defender but did manage to get on the scoresheet in the second half.
A mouthwatering tie awaited in the last 16 against neighbours Mexico, who boasted stars such as Rafael Márquez, Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Luis Hernández. Donovan’s side got off to a flying start in Jeonju as Brian McBride put them in front before Donovan notched his second goal of the tournament with a stooping header at the back post. Having played the majority of that game as an attacking midfielder in Bruce Arena’s 3-5-2 formation, Donovan was once again deployed as a striker in their quarter-final match-up with Germany. Sadly for the US, though, missed chances and Michael Ballack’s solitary goal were enough to put the eventual finalists through.
Being the best young player at a World Cup doesn’t always foreshadow a career at the very highest level, however, and despite a couple of productive loan spells at Everton, Donovan never broke through into European football in the way that many thought he would.
The pressure on such young shoulders weighs heavy at any World Cup but it’s even greater when that tournament just happens to be in your home country. Polish-born Lukas Podolski was the second-youngest member of Germany’s 2006 squad and had just made the big move to Bayern Munich from his beloved Köln.
Partnered with Miroslav Klose up front in a 4-4-2 formation, Podolski’s searing pace and hammer of a left foot complimented his partner’s aerial prowess and hold-up play. It took until the third group game for Podolski to get off the mark in the tournament, converting Oliver Neuville’s cross from the right to give Germany a 3-0 lead after Klose’s brace before half-time.
The hosts progressed as group winners and met Sweden in the last 16, where Podolski would really announce himself to the world. In under four minutes he’d put Germany ahead with an opportunistic right-footed finish when the ball fell to him inside the area, doubling his tally eight minutes later. The Swedish attack of Henrik Larsson, Freddie Ljungberg and a young Zlatan Ibrahimović couldn’t pull their team back into the game as Podolski became the hero for Die Mannschaft.
After a tight 1-1 draw in their quarter-final tie with Argentina, the Germans prevailed on penalties, with Podolski safely dispatching his. Roberto Ayala was better against the best young star at this tournament than he was the last but was one of those who missed from the spot as the host country began to believe. Sadly, Fabio Grosso’s famous late goal in extra-time of the semi-final went down in World Cup history and sent the Germans packing but, as a true testament to Podolski’s performances at those finals, he was left on the pitch during those extra 30 minutes while Klose was substituted.
Like Donovan, Podolski’s club career didn’t reach the heights that many anticipated but he went onto become one of the most cherished players in the German side for the next decade, finally getting his hands on the World Cup trophy in Brazil in 2014. During that tournament, Podolski didn’t feature but one man who was instrumental in Germany’s triumph was Thomas Müller. His potential for success on the world stage was obvious from his first major tournament in South Africa.
The Thomas Müller of the 2010 World Cup drew similarities with the Jabulani ball used in South Africa: unpredictable, a bit unnatural, and utterly entertaining. Deployed on the right, Müller scored and assisted on his World Cup debut in a 4-0 rout of Australia in Durban. Having impressed with his movement for the majority of the game, he finally got the goal he deserved when a turn on the edge of the box sent Scott Chipperfield to the floor, his subsequent shot finding the bottom corner.
Germany’s next two games were tight and were both settled by a single goal; Milan Jovanović’s strike gave Serbia their first World Cup win while Mesut Özil earned Germany all three points against Ghana. By the time Die Mannschaft’s second round tie with England had come around, it was almost 20 years to the day since they last met in a World Cup.
Penalties decided the semi-final in 1990, a match that took place when Thomas Müller was just a year old. Now it was his chance to make history. After a whirlwind of a first half, culminating in Frank Lampard’s controversially disallowed goal, Müller and Germany put England to the sword in a ruthless second-half display. Two goals for the Bayern star on the counter-attack, the first fired past David James at his near post and the second a tap-in from an Özil cross, sent England’s waning golden generation home.
Once again, it was Argentina who would suffer at the hands of the tournament’s best young player, but 2010 was to represent a defeat like few others in their history. Bastian Schweinsteiger bent in a free-kick for Müller to head home after just three minutes before Germany fired three further strikes past Sergio Romero to score four for the second consecutive knockout game. However, a booking in the 34th minute would cost Müller a place in the team for the semi-final clash with Spain, and as evidence for his outstanding contribution in the tournament to date, Germany were duly knocked out.
Another opportunistic finish in the third-place playoff against Uruguay earned Müller a fifth goal of the summer, which brought him level with David Villa, Wesley Sneijder and Diego Forlán. The Golden Boot went home in Müller’s hands, however, thanks to his three assists as he became the first player since Flórián Albert of Hungary in 1962 to win both the Best Young Player award and the Golden Boot.
Müller doubled his World Cup goals tally in the following World Cup as Germany went all the way in Brazil, while six Bundesliga titles and a Champions League triumph have come Bayern and Müller’s way since his international bow at the 2010 World Cup. On their way to the trophy in 2014, Germany defeated a strong France side in the quarter-finals where Müller and co. were lining up against a 21-year-old Paul Pogba.
Since leaving Manchester United for Juventus in 2012, Pogba had flown under the radar for football fans outside Italy, with many followers in England writing his career off. Alongside Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal at the Italian giants, however, Pogba’s game developed and he made his France debut in 2013.
Pogba played on the right of a midfield three in Brazil and thrived against the weaker opponents in the group stages. Wilson Palacios fouled the 21-year-old inside the penalty area in France’s opening game with Honduras but Pogba was dropped to the bench for their second match against neighbours Switzerland. With Les Bleus racing to a three-goal lead, Pogba, on as a substitute, clipped a delightful ball into the path of a prolific Karim Benzema who slotted through the legs of Diego Benaglio.
Pogba produced another impressive display against Ecuador before proving the game-changer against Nigeria in Brasília as his header opened the scoring in a tense last 16 clash. Germany proved to be too much for Didier Deschamps’ France but Pogba’s name was the talk of much of the football-mad host nation long after his country had flown home.
Since his breakthrough in Brazil, Pogba has played in Champions League, Europa League, Coppa Italia and FA Cup finals, as well as featuring for France in Euro 2016 as the host nation finished as runners-up to Portugal. His performances for Juventus led to a world-record transfer fee and a move back to Manchester for Pogba, but consistency has been lacking for one of the league’s most gifted players.
Going further back than recent tournaments, the award has been handed out to the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Antonio Cabrini but, rather interestingly, only one Young Player of the Tournament has ever taken the main prize home – Pelé in 1958. Judging by recent finals, the best young player usually puts in a notable performance against Argentina so I think you can pencil in Kylian Mbappé for the award this summer.
By Billy Munday @BMunday08