Wonderkids to Watch in 2021 by Zach Lowy

Best Young PLayers 2021
By Zach Lowy

2021 is finally underway, and there are plenty of young talents who will be aiming to establish themselves at the top level this year. BET Central takes a look at 10 (U-20) youngsters who could be set for a breakthrough year.

Here are Bet Central’s top 10 revelations of 2020.

Loïc Badé – RC Lens

“Football is a simple game. 22 men chase a ball around the pitch for 90 minutes, and at the end, the best centre back on the pitch is somehow always French,” – Gary Lineker.

Okay, I may have changed up a few of the words at the end, but the fact is, you would struggle and likely fail to find a single country with as much depth and talent in one position as France with centre backs. From Ibrahima Konaté to Jules Koundé, from Presnel Kimpembe to Dayot Upamecano, from Wesley Fofana to Mohamed Simakan, there isn’t a single nation in the world that comes close to France’s centre back production line.

At 20 years of age, Loïc Badé looks likely to be the next top centre back to emerge from France and establish his spot on the world stage. Born in the Parisian suburb of Sèvres, Badé bounced around several youth teams in the Paris area before joining Le Havre on December 30, 2016, following in the footsteps of Paul Pogba, Benjamin Mendy, and Dimitri Payet, amongst others who have developed in the renowned Normandy academy. Badé began his time in the reserve side in France’s fourth division, before making his professional debut on January 10, 2020, in a 1-0 victory against Chamois Niort. He quickly became a starter under manager Paul Le Guen, playing seven matches in total for Les Ciel et Marine before the suspension of football.

Upon the league’s suspension, Le Havre found themselves sixth in Ligue 2, whilst Lorient and Lens finished in the two automatic promotion slots. It’s why, after three-and-a-half years in Normandy, Badé rejected a professional contract with Le Havre and joined Lens on a free transfer. Playing in the top flight for the first time since 2014/15, Lens currently sit ninth in Ligue 1 and it’s thanks in no small part to the efforts of the 20-year-old defender. Playing in the middle of the back three, Badé combines physical brawn with an ability to read the game, precision on the ball, and a maturity beyond his years. It’s little wonder why people around the Stade Bollaert-Delelis are calling him the best young centre back to play for Lens since a little-known teenager by the name of Raphaël Varane.

Nuno Mendes – Sporting Lisbon

Despite amassing an incredible 50 trophies since the club’s founding in 1906, Sporting Clube de Portugal have struggled to keep pace with their rivals in the 21st Century, having failed to win a single league title since 2001/02, when prolific Brazilian striker Mário Jardel led them to the championship with 42 goals in 30 matches. What was once “Três Grandes” has gradually turned into Dois Grandes, as Porto and Benfica have consolidated power atop Portugal’s totem pole.

However, that may be set to change; Sporting currently sit atop the Liga NOS table with a four-point lead over both Benfica and Porto. Bolstered by the hiring of manager Rúben Amorim from Braga, Sporting are turning doubters into believers, and it’s thanks in no small part to the emergence of 18-year-old Nuno Mendes.

Born in Sintra, Portugal to Angolan parents, Mendes began his footballing education on the streets of Lisbon and did not play organized football until the age of nine, when his school teacher Bruno Botelho invited him to play for amateur club Despertar. It didn’t take long for him to make an impression, and soon, Mendes called the attention of each of “Três Grandes.” Sporting scout Akil Momade spoke with him on the phone to persuade him to join the Leões, but when he knocked on his front door as the 10-year-old was alone at home, Mendes, believing he was about to be robbed, went to the kitchen to grab a knife. Nevertheless, Momade eased his nerves and convinced him to join the academy. He progressed through the youth ranks before making his debut on June 12, 2020, in a 1-0 win against Paços de Ferreira, coming on as a substitute for Marcos Acuña.

The following match, Mendes became the youngest player to start for Sporting since Cristiano Ronaldo as Amorim’s side defeated Tondela at the Estádio José Alvalade. Three months later, Acuña joined Sevilla on a four-year contract to replace the outgoing Sergio Reguilón, who joined Tottenham Hotspur. With the Argentine plying his trade in Andalusia, Mendes has reaped the benefits, carving out a starting spot at left wing-back in Amorim’s 3-4-3. Mendes has attracted attention from the likes of Real Madrid, Inter, Liverpool, and Manchester United, but he won’t come cheap; last month, Mendes signed a contract extension to 2025 that saw him triple his salary and increase his release clause to €70 million.

Pedri – Barcelona

2007/08 was a transitional season for FC Barcelona. Two years after retaining the La Liga title and winning their first-ever Champions League trophy, Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona side finished a dismal third in the league, 18 points behind the eventual champions Real Madrid. Legendary players such as Deco and Lilian Thuram played their final matches in Blaugrana colours, whilst young talents such as Yaya Touré and Bojan Krkić began to stake a name for themselves in the first team. Former Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho would see his campaign riddled with injuries, a lack of dedication in training, and a nonstop partying lifestyle, and at the end of the season, he joined Milan for an initial fee of €22 million. As the Brazilian faded into obscurity, a 20-year-old Argentine by the name of Lionel Messi emerged as the team’s attacking talisman.

There is an eerily similar feeling at the Camp Nou today. After 13 years of Spanish managers, Barcelona hired another Dutchman this summer, bringing in former player Ronald Koeman. Despite a recent resurgence in form, Barcelona find themselves in third place, four points behind league leaders Atlético Madrid, who have three games in hand. And while Messi, unlike Ronaldinho, has withstood the test of time and remained the team’s leader in attack and one of the finest footballers in the world at 33 years of age, there is growing speculation that this season could be his last in Catalunya. The Argentine’s contract expires in five months and there is little to suggest that he is close to agreeing to a contract extension. Nevertheless, there has been one bright spot to Barcelona’s wearisome campaign: the emergence of Pedro González López, or “Pedri.”

Born in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Pedri joined Las Palmas’s youth set-up in 2018, and the following year, he made his professional debut for Pepe Mel’s side, starting in a 0-1 home loss against SD Huesca. Despite just making three appearances in the Segunda División, his performances for Las Palmas saw Barcelona sign the 16-year-old for a fee of €5 million, with Pedri penning a five-year contract on September 2, 2019, before being loaned back to Las Palmas for the rest of the season.

Barcelona’s attack has been one of the team’s biggest question marks this season. Ansu Fati has been out of action since November with a torn meniscus, Francisco Trincão has struggled to find the form that convinced Barcelona to splurge €31 million for him last January, whilst Philippe Coutinho has failed to convince after returning from his loan at Bayern Munich. But at 18 years of age, Pedri is proving to be a crucial player in attack, formulating fascinating chemistry with Messi and dazzling in a variety of positions. Although Koeman has largely experimented with a 4-2-3-1 this season, he has gone with a 4-3-3 in recent weeks with Pedri playing on the left side of midfield alongside Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong, and Barcelona have reaped the rewards, winning three of their last three matches. Pedri hasn’t taken the mantle from the legendary Argentine and assumed his status as the team’s talisman, but he is proving that there is life after Messi.

Matthew Hoppe – Schalke 04

On February 15, 2015, a 16-year-old Christian Pulisic left his home state of Pennsylvania and joined Borussia Dortmund’s academy. The rest, as they say, is history: Pulisic quickly rose up the youth ranks and became an established member of the first team under Thomas Tuchel, before joining Chelsea in the summer of 2019. He has not only emerged as the talisman of the United States National Team but influenced a generation of budding American footballers to depart the States and polish their skills in Germany. From Giovanni Reyna to Weston McKennie, from Tyler Adams to Josh Sargent, more and more American youngsters are leaving their homeland to cut their teeth in Germany, and the next player to make the jump is Matthew Hoppe.

Born in Yorba Linda, California, Hoppe began his footballing development at the Barcelona Residency Academy in Arizona, scoring 29 goals and 23 games in the 2018/19 season and signing a Letter of Intent to play for San Diego State University. However, like McKennie, Hoppe soon rejected the athletic scholarship after earning a trial at Schalke’s academy, where he was assigned to the U-19 side. Despite posting average numbers at the youth level (3 goals in 17 appearances in the U-19 Bundesliga West, 1 goal in 16 appearances in the Regionalliga West), Hoppe was given his professional debut on November 28, starting in attack in a 1-4 loss to Borussia Mönchengladbach.

The 19-year-old was used as a substitute against Bayer Leverkusen, Freiburg and SSV Ulm, but his fortunes changed for the better after the appointment of Christian Gross, who became Schalke’s fourth manager of the 2020/21 season on December 27. After the Christmas break, Gross started Hoppe in the opening match of the Rückrunde, but it was to little avail as Hertha trounced Schalke at the Olympiastadion.

On January 9, Schalke hosted relegation rivals Hoffenheim at the Veltins-Arena, with a chance to make history…for the worse, not the better. Die Königsblauen had not won a single league match since January 17, 2020, and a loss to Hoffenheim would have seen them equal the all-time Bundesliga record of 31 games without a win, previously set by Tasmania Berlin in 1966.

Whilst Gross went with a 4-2-3-1 against Hertha, he switched to a 4-4-2 vs. Hoffenheim, with Hoppe partnering veteran striker Mark Uth in attack. Both teams came close to breaking the deadlock early on, but it was Hoppe who opened the scoring before halftime; receiving a pass from Amine Harit, he zoomed past Stefan Posch and dinked the ball over Oliver Baumann and into the back of the net. Hoppe would add another two goals before being subbed off in the 88th minute, becoming the third-youngest player to score a Bundesliga hat-trick and the first American to score a Bundesliga hat-trick. His heroic performance saw Schalke leave the Bundesliga’s bottom spot for the first time since early November, but with The Miners still, seven points away from safety, they will need their young American striker to continue his excellent form if they are to avoid their first relegation since 1988.

Kaio Jorge – Santos

From Pelé to Gabigol, from Neymar to Rodrygo, Santos’ academy has constantly produced talented attacking players throughout the years. The next player to emerge at Vila Belmiro could be Kaio Jorge, who at 18 years old is already making a name for himself in the Santos first team.

Born in Olinda, Pernambuco, Kaio began his development while playing futsal in the indoor courts of local side Nautico before joining the academy of Sport Recife, where his father Jorge Ramos had played professionally from 1999 to 2000. At the age of ten, Kaio moved south to the state of São Paulo, joining Santos’s academy in 2012. After a string of impressive performances for the youth sides, the 15-year-old Kaio was promoted to Santos’s u-20 side, and 10 months later, he made his professional debut under manager Cuca, coming on as a substitute for Bruno Henrique in a 1-0 victory against Athletico Paranaense.

Whilst he would only make three appearances during the Brasileirão campaign, 2019 would be a vital year for Kaio’s budding career. After prolonged negotiations, Kaio signed a professional contract with Santos on January 11, and whilst he struggled for game-time at the club level under Jorge Sampaoli, his breakthrough would come in November as Kaio netted five goals in the FIFA U-17 World Cup to lead Brazil to victory on home soil, winning the Bronze Boot trophy as Brazil claimed the championship for the first time since 2003.

After a successful season with the Peixe, Sampaoli left Santos in December and joined Atlético Mineiro. This decision bore plenty of fruits for Kaio, who scored his first professional goal in a 2-1 victory over Defensa y Justicia in the Copa Libertadores. Jesualdo Ferreira, Sampaoli’s replacement, was given his marching orders on August 5 after Santos’ elimination from the Campeonato Paulista, and Cuca, the man who gave Kaio his debut nearly two years prior, took charge of the club. Under the tutelage of Cuca, Kaio has become a full-fledged starter at Santos, scoring 5 goals in the Copa Libertadores — just one goal behind joint top-scorers Eduardo Salvio and Rafael Santos Borré — and leading Santos within 90 minutes of their first Libertadores Final since 2011.

Mohamed Simakan – Marseille

“Football is a simple game. 22 men chase a ball around the pitch for 90 minutes, and at the end, the best centre back–” wait, didn’t I already use this line?

If you’re feeling Déjà vu, you’re not alone. I could have just as easily written an entire list of 10 French centre backs who are ready to take the step up and establish themselves as world-class players in 2021. Such is the quantity and quality of their production rate, France’s U-21 side could field a stronger centre back duo than most European nations’ senior teams.

Born in Marseille to Guinean parents, Mohamed Simakan began his career as a striker, scoring 130 goals for the U-11 team of FC Rouguière. His performances caught the attention of Olympique de Marseille, who brought him to the academy in 2010 before immediately repositioning him in central defence. Simakan played alongside Boubacar Kamara in the youth team, but whilst Kamara has since gone on to become a starter under André Villas-Boas in Marseille’s first team, Simakan left the Vélodrome in 2015 and bounced around several clubs before joining Strasbourg’s academy in 2017. He worked his way up the ranks, signed a professional contract and found himself on the edge of the first team, but his wings were clipped after rupturing his ACL in a friendly match against Gent on July 23, 2018.

After a year of waiting for his chance, Simakan made his competitive debut in a 3-1 UEFA Europa League win over Maccabi Haifa on July 25, 2019. With Pablo Martinez joining Ligue 1 side Nîmes on a free transfer, Simakan quickly established a starting spot under Thierry Laurey, impressing at right-back, centre back, defensive midfielder, and as a right-sided centre back. His performances have called the attention of Milan and RB Leipzig, who are looking to take advantage of the collapsed TV rights deal in France and acquire the services of the 20-year-old. Strasbourg, currently six points above the relegation zone, will be doing everything they can to keep hold of their star defender for another year.

Marcos Antônio – Shaktar Donetsk

In 1967, the Romania national team headed to Brazil to dispute a series of friendly matches. They were led by a 22-year-old winger by the name of Mirceau Lucescu, who was plying his trade at Dinamo București. Over that month, Lucescu would fall in love with Brazil. “For a young player like me, coming from Romania to a country like that, you can imagine my excitement and how I felt. There I discovered the essence of every Brazilian: football, samba, beach and sex. And I understood why that was more than enough for them to live well,” said Lucescu in an interview with ESPN.

Lucescu would return to Brazil in 1970, captaining Romania as the Tricolorii finished behind Brazil and England in their World Cup group. He even came close to joining Fluminense on a seven-month loan deal, but the move was blocked by Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Communist regime, who refused to let him play abroad.

34 years later, Lucescu was hired as manager of Shakhtar Donetsk, and with the help of French-Brazilian agent Franck Henouda, he began to replenish Shakhtar’s squad with Brazilian footballers. From Fernandinho to Fred, from Mário Jardel to Willian, Shakhtar became synonymous with Brazilians under Lucescu’s regime, and even after the Romanian’s departure in 2016, the club have continued their heavy focus on the nation’s footballers.

The next Brazilian to leave his mark in Ukraine could be Marcos Antônio. Born in Poções, Bahia, Marcos began his career in Athletico Paranaense’s academy before heading to Estoril in 2018 but would last just seven months in Lisbon before joining Shakhtar on February 19, 2019, for a reported fee of €3.5 million after a strong showing in the 2019 South American U-20 Championship. Despite struggling for playing time in Portugal, Marcos became a key player under manager Luís Castro, playing a vital role as Shakhtar eliminated Benfica, Wolfsburg and Basel before losing to Inter in the 2020 UEFA Europa League semi-finals.

Playing either as a #10 or a box-to-box midfielder in Castro’s 4-2-3-1, Marcos is a technically gifted midfielder who can dribble with the ball glued to his feet, break the lines with his passing, and test the goalkeeper from long range. At 20 years of age, Marcos has everything it takes to become the next Brazilian to emerge from Shakhtar’s ranks.

Florian Wirtz – Bayer Leverkusen

On June 27, 2020, Borussia Mönchengladbach defeated Hertha Berlin by a scoreline of 2-1 courtesy of goals from Jonas Hoffman and Breel Embolo. In doing so, they sealed a return to the UEFA Champions League and relegated Bayer Leverkusen — who had finished two points behind them — to Thursday night football in the 2020/21 campaign. The worst was yet to come for Leverkusen, though: Peter Bosz’s side lost to Bayern Munich in the DFB-Pokal Final and were eliminated in the UEFA Europa League quarter-finals by Inter Milan. To cap it all off, they were forced to sell their star attacking talent to Kai Havertz to Chelsea for an initial fee of £62 million rising to £71 million in add-ons.

Rather than fall and crumble, Leverkusen have thrived and come to life under Bosz. Die Werkself sit third in the Bundesliga — just four points behind league leaders Bayern Munich — and will face off against Young Boys in continental action next month after topping their Europa League group. They are proving to be the latest example of The Ewing Theory, a theory stemming from the 1999 NBA Playoffs when the New York Knicks advanced to the NBA Finals after losing star player Patrick Ewing to injury. In Havertz’s absence, several attacking players have come to life under the spotlight at BayArena, such as Moussa Diaby, Nadiem Amiri, Leon Bailey, and Florian Wirtz.

Born and raised in the Brauweiler district of Pulheim, North Rhine-Westphalia, Wirtz began his footballing development at Köln in 2010, where he would rapidly rise through the academy before gaining attention from Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and Liverpool, but it was Leverkusen who won the race for the then 16-year-old, paying a reported fee of €200,000 on January 31, 2020. Wirtz bided his time in the reserves for the first few months in Leverkusen, but when the Bundesliga season resumed on May 18, he was given his professional debut by the Dutch manager, who started him on the right wing in a 4-1 victory away at Werder Bremen. In doing so, Wirtz became Leverkusen’s youngest ever debutant, breaking Havertz’s record by 110 days, and three weeks later, he became the youngest goalscorer in Bundesliga history.

At 17 years of age, Wirtz is proving to be a vital performer for Leverkusen in a central attacking midfield role in Bosz’s system, and his recent form has been rewarded with a contract extension to 2023. Leverkusen will be eager to keep a hold of him and eventually get top dollar for Havertz’s short-term and long-term successor.

Adrien Truffert – Rennes

After defeating Nîmes in their opening match of the 2020/21 Ligue 1 campaign, Rennes hosted Niko Kovač’s Monaco side on September 19. The away side took an early lead when Wissam Ben Yedder pounced on a miscommunication and failed clearance from Steven N’Zonzi and Damien Da Silva and smashed the ball into the top left corner. Rennes’ fortunes worsened even more as starting left-back Faitout Maouassa was forced to come off after picking up an injury before halftime. In his place, manager Julien Stéphan was forced to turn to 18-year-old Adrien Truffert, who, up until that moment, had not played a single minute of senior football in his career.

Rennes pounded away at Monaco’s resolute defensive shape for the second half, and they found an answer in the 81st minute as Truffert raced up the left flank and fired a cross towards N’Zonzi, who headed the ball past Benjamin Lecomte in goal. 10 minutes later, Hamari Traoré found Serhou Guirassy with a throw-in into the box and the French target man muscled off Benoît Badiashile and flicked the ball past a sea of players and into the path of Martin Terrier, who lightly dished it off to Truffert at the edge of the box. The teenage left-back stepped up to the plate and fired the ball past the hapless Lecomte, leading Rennes to a come-from-behind victory in Brittany.

Maouassa would miss the next two months with a right ankle injury, prompting Rennes to bring in Dalbert on a season-long loan from Inter. Nevertheless, it has been Truffert who has established himself as Stéphan’s first-choice left-back for Les Rouge et Noir, who sit 5th in Ligue 1, seven points behind league leaders Lyon. The Liège, Belgium native could even find himself in line to start for France in next summer’s U-21 Euros, although he’ll have to beat out competition from the likes of Maouassa and Rayan Aït-Nouri to do so. Only time will tell if Truffert will follow in the footsteps of Ousmane Dembélé and Eduardo Camavinga, and become the next Rennes academy product to emerge onto Europe’s footballing elite.

Noni Madueke – PSV Eindhoven

“Since moving to Borussia Dortmund in 2017, Jadon Sancho has not only emerged into one of the most sought after footballers on the continent but a trailblazer for the rest of England’s young generation. Several of Sancho’s agemates have followed in his footsteps, ditching higher wages in England for more playing time abroad. Jonathan Panzo left Chelsea for Monaco in 2018, before being sent on loan to Monaco’s satellite club Cercle Brugge this summer. Reo Griffiths, on the other hand, left Tottenham for Lyon after scoring 27 goals in 20 matches for their U-18 side, although his opportunities in France have been even more scarce than Panzo’s.”

I wrote those words for Bet Central on March 26, 2019, but it’s fair to say that the pattern of young English footballers testing their skills abroad has only furthered in the nearly two years that have followed. One of those players is Noni Madueke, who, at 18 years of age, is proving to be a fundamental player for PSV Eindhoven.

Born in London to Nigerian parents, Madueke began his footballing education at Tottenham Hotspur’s academy, where he would end up captaining their U-16 side and making his U-18 debut at the age of 15. His performances at the youth level for Spurs and England drew the attention of Chelsea and Manchester United, but Madueke decided to head abroad and join PSV in June 2018. “ has opened the eyes to other talents,” said Madueke in an interview with Voetbal International. “A year after him, I went from Spurs to PSV. The plan that I had in mind then is now working out the way I intended it.”

After biding his time in the reserves, Madueke made his Eredivisie debut on January 19, 2020, in a 1-1 draw with VVV-Venlo, and would go on to start on the right wing for PSV on March 8 in a 1-0 victory vs. Groningen, the final match before the stoppage and eventual cancellation of the Eredivisie campaign. Upon the resumption of football, Madueke has emerged as a key player for Roger Schmidt’s side despite not quite cementing a starting spot yet, providing 6 goals and 7 assists in 21 appearances for PSV, who sit third in the league. The teenager has blossomed in a variety of positions across the front four, impressing with his combination of powerful, direct running, close control, and change of direction. He will be looking to refine his end product and take the next step to the elite level under the management of Ruud van Nistelrooy, the PSV U-19 coach and the former striker of Manchester United — the same English club that Madueke rejected to join PSV in 2018.

SIGN UP TO OUR BET CENTRAL PLAYBOOK
Get weekly emails packed with the best tips and sports content.
Get ahead of the game now - fill in the contact form below.