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The Kids of the World Cup

The young players you will see in Brazil will most likely be the stars of tomorrow

Here’s a pretty small number for you: 736.

Out of all of the professional soccer players on the planet, only 736 will compete for the World Cup in Brazil. You don’t need me to tell you how talented these individuals are.1 What I can say about them is that merely being selected for the World Cup is more impressive than you actually think. Those players (and their Wikipedia pages) will forever be able to say they were chosen for the most elite international soccer competition — and that might even be a more important thing than it seems.

Due to the UEFA Financial Fair Play statutes, identifying and acquiring young talent is at the root of success in soccer. No longer can an outfit simply win the oligarch/sheikh lottery and spend its way to a world-beating side — although Manchester City and Paris St. Germain seem hell-bent on proving otherwise. Clubs have been forced to try to identify young talent earlier and earlier to keep transfer fees down. In the past, a typical career path might have been like that of Luis Suarez: excel in your home country (Uruguay) as a teenager, make a move to a small club in Europe (Groningen, in the Netherlands), and then get picked up by a larger club in one of the continent’s less notable competitions (Ajax, also in the Netherlands) before graduating in your mid-twenties to one of the biggest clubs in the world (Liverpool). Suarez’s price rose with each of those transfers; Groningen paid €800,000 to bring him to Europe, Ajax bumped the price up to €7.5 million, and when Liverpool bought him in 2011, they shelled out €26.5 million.

The big clubs don’t want to spend €26.5 million on players; they’d much rather spend the €7.5 million and loan a player out until he’s ready to play at their level.2 You can afford to miss more frequently when you’re spending less, but to succeed while trying to remain frugal, clubs need to do the best job possible of scouting talent. Every team has its own solution — usually some mix of grizzled ex-players with their ears to the streets, gobs of video, and rapidly advancing analytics — but there’s a built-in mechanism that can help identify talent without a single foot on the ground: internationals.

International recognition is a strong indicator that a player actually has talent. It’s even more of an indicator when a player is particularly young. As American sports fans long ago learned, if a youngster can hang with his or her more talented elders, it’s usually a good indicator of success as they age. Thus, the importance of international squads. Liverpool might not have three dedicated scouts who watch the Tippeligaen in Norway each week, but the Norwegian under-21 coach who has to pick the majority of his side from that local league has eyes in the streets and enough of a network within Norway to get a strong idea of whom he should choose for the team. And if there’s an 18-year-old suiting up for Valerenga who is good enough to make that under-21 team, it should be a heads-up to Liverpool that a special talent might be coming through the ranks.

It would stand that a player who makes it to the World Cup when he’s very young is probably pretty precocious.3 And indeed, if you take any list of World Cup squads and look at the youngest players from each tournament, you’ll find some pretty useful parts. The only problem with that: “Young” doesn’t mean that same thing for every side. Different countries can have wildly different pools of elite talent. Small countries with little history of success at the top level of soccer are often more aggressive in picking atypically young or notably old players because their talent is more likely to stand out. Take Cameroon as an example; they famously brought a 42-year-old Roger Milla to the 1994 World Cup after his stunning run of form at Italia 90, but four years later, their side included six teenagers, including an unknown 17-year-old by the name of Samuel Eto’o.4 Well-established countries like Brazil and France don’t have to do that; with a huge pool of talent, they can — and often do — focus on players in their primes. Just as it’s easier for a freshman to start at quarterback for Colorado than for Alabama, it’s more impressive for an 18-year-old striker to break into the Germany side than it is for one to break into, say, the Canadian national team.

So, when I wanted to figure out who the youngest players were at each World Cup, I had to account for the age of the team they were breaking into. There’s a very convenient way to pull that off: standard score, a tool I’ve employed in writing about golf scores and the Denver Broncos offense. Standard score (also known as z-score) does a great job of placing a statistic in context with the others around it. The 23-man squads of the World Cup are a small sample size, so this sort of analysis is a little shaky, but it’s still going to do a better job of putting ages into context than merely listing the ages of each player without any adjustments.

After that preamble, let’s see if this is of any use. I went through the past five World Cups (1990 through 2010) and standardized each player’s age, given the rest of the national squad around him. Here are the 20 youngest players from those five World Cups, their age at the time, and the club they were with:

That’s a pretty good list of players, huh? Any set of rankings that starts off with Ronaldo isn’t too shabby. He qualifies as one of the more obvious examples of a player whose presence at the World Cup was a mark of what was to come. He didn’t play in the 1994 World Cup, but shortly after it ended, he signed with PSV Eindhoven for €5.5 million; he would excel there before signing with Barcelona and becoming the biggest player on the planet.

While a few of these players were already established stars at the highest level by the time they made it to the World Cup (notably Michael Owen and Cristiano Ronaldo), many were either still playing in their own domestic league or yet to arrive on the world stage. The likes of Dejan Stankovic, Ariel Ortega, Kaká, Luka Modric, and Xherdan Shaqiri were still regulars in their local leagues with only limited experience in competitive internationals and/or the Champions League. Most suited up only for substitute appearances during the World Cup in question. Kaká played 25 minutes in 2002. Modric was in for 28 minutes in 2006. Within four years, each would become an international superstar and pillar of his national team.

Of course, a few players — especially those from less-heralded nations — didn’t turn out to be world-beaters. Hugo Viana never lived up to his £8 million transfer fee at Newcastle and eventually returned to Portugal. Assimiou Touré has bounced around the lower levels in Germany. Émile Mpenza went to Qatar at the peak of his career. The most interesting case might be that of Espen Baardsen, an American-born goalkeeper who was Norway’s third choice at the 1998 World Cup. Baardsen, who played for the United States under-18 team before switching his international allegiance to Norway, bounced around the Premier League before retiring at 25 and becoming a fund manager.

Who Are the 20 Youngest Players at This World Cup?

Hey, wouldn’t you know there just happens to be a World Cup right around the corner? And now that the 23-man squads for each team have been named, we can run through each squad, adjust each player’s age for the guys around them, and then figure out who the youngest players will be in Brazil. Even if some of these players never make it onto the field, consider this a little bit of free scouting intelligence for the years to come. Here, in reverse chronological order, are profiles of the 20 youngest players in this year’s tournament. All ages are relative to the opening date of the tournament, June 12.

20. Marcos Rojo (Argentina, Sporting CP, defender, 24.084 years old, -1.67 z-score)

How can a 24-year-old be considered one of the youngest players in the World Cup? Because Argentina is fielding the oldest team in Brazil; the average Argentine player at this year’s World Cup is a couple of weeks short of 29 years old, with eight players 30 or older. Rojo, a relatively unheralded center back with 20 caps for Argentina, is one of just two players under 26 on the team. He’s spent his career in Europe playing for Spartak Moscow and Sporting CP, two classic finishing schools for South American players before they make their way to bigger clubs. Sure enough, Rojo is expected to leave Sporting this summer for a bigger club, with Arsenal, Liverpool, and Monaco the supposed leaders.

19. Yeltsin Tejeda (Costa Rica, Saprissa, midfielder, 22.087 years old, -1.68 z-score)

Costa Rica isn’t exactly a soccer world power, but it has qualified for three of the past four World Cups, only missing out in 2010 by losing a playoff to Uruguay. It’s a surprise, then, that there hasn’t been more interest in Tejeda from clubs outside of his home country. At just 22, the defensive midfielder has long been a regular for Saprissa, and he has become a mainstay for Los Ticos. Tejeda started five of Costa Rica’s final six matches in the last round of CONCACAF qualifiers, including both of the matches against Mexico and the 3-1 win over the United States.

18. Sead Kolasinac (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Schalke 04, defender, 20.357 years old, -1.69 z-score)

After suiting up for several German international teams at the youth level, Kolasinac decided to switch his senior international affiliation to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he has received a pair of caps over the past two years. He’s not a lock to start at left back for the team in Brazil, but Kolasinac has enjoyed success at the club level, where he’s entrenched as the starting left back for Schalke 04. The Karlsruher product has suggested that Manchester United has already made an offer to sign him this summer; he could be their fallback plan if 18-year-old Southampton defender Luke Shaw5 goes elsewhere. There, he could play with …

17. Adnan Januzaj (Belgium, Manchester United, midfielder, 19.127 years old, -1.69 z-score)

Januzaj needs little introduction after emerging as one of the few (only?) success stories of the abbreviated David Moyes era at ManU. After deciding to pursue his international career with Belgium over the handful of other countries for which he was eligible, Januzaj made his debut with the national team in May. He might struggle to get into a deep, talented, well-established starting 11 this tournament, but he should be a key contributor for years to come.

16. Divock Origi (Belgium, Lille, forward, 19.055 years old, -1.74 z-score)

The Belgians aren’t lacking for young talent; they are the second-youngest squad in this World Cup, full of emerging stars making their respective names around Europe. Origi, though, is one for the future. He probably owes his spot on the team to the ruptured Achilles suffered by Aston Villa striker Christian Benteke in April. Capable of playing as a left winger or as a striker, Origi had more substitute appearances (18) than starting nods (12) for Lille this season.

15. Neymar (Brazil, Barcelona, forward, 22.364 years old, -1.76 z-score)

Perhaps you’ve heard of him.

14. Joel Campbell (Costa Rica, Arsenal, forward, 21.975 years old, -1.77 z-score)

Signed for £1 million from Saprissa in 2011, Campbell appears to be on the Carlos Vela track at Arsenal, which is to say that he’s a reasonably promising CONCACAF striker who probably won’t end up being good enough to play for the first team. He’s spent virtually his entire European career on loan, including the 2013-14 season at Olympiakos in Greece, where he scored eight goals. Stateside, he’s probably more famous for this embarrassing dive in a World Cup qualifying match against the United States.

13. Koke (Spain, Atlético Madrid, midfielder, 22.155 years old, -1.83 z-score)

A regular in the Atlético side that won La Liga and came within minutes of claiming the Champions League, Koke’s versatility and ability to contribute on set pieces should make him a useful utility player for the defending champions. Like many from Diego Simeone’s side, Koke has been linked with a summer transfer to a larger club, with Barcelona and Chelsea reportedly duking it out for his services.

12. Andy Najar (Honduras, Anderlecht, midfielder, 21.088 years old, -1.84 z-score)

Many U.S. fans are undoubtedly already familiar with Najar, who grew up in Virginia and came up through the youth academy of D.C. United, where he played for three seasons. Najar was sold to Belgian powerhouse Anderlecht in January 2013, but he has yet to make a notable impact there.

11. Bernard (Brazil, Shakhtar Donetsk, winger, 21.277 years old, -1.93 z-score)

One of the most promising young players to come out of Brazil in recent memory, the fleet-footed Bernard is probably in line for a second big-money move in as many summers, regardless of what happens in this World Cup. He was purchased for €25 million by Shakhtar Donetsk last summer and exhibited flashes of brilliance during his first year with the club, but Bernard wasn’t able to become a regular and the political unrest in Ukraine might jeopardize his future in the country. He’ll likely figure as a substitute late in matches for the host nation.

10. Julian Green (United States, Bayern Munich, midfielder, 19.006 years old, -1.94 z-score)

The Great American Hope. It’s certainly rare for a player with this little experience to get to the World Cup with a side as established as the United States; I won’t pretend that the USMNT is a world-class team, but you don’t comfortably make it to six World Cups in a row6 with a bunch of second-division players. Green’s highest professional experience to this point of his career as a starter is in the fourth tier of German soccer. His two appearances in a U.S. uniform so far have been uneventful. It’s difficult to imagine him playing a meaningful role in this World Cup, even though his selection augurs hope for his talent. Of course, that’s unless you believe that Jurgen Klinsmann promised him a spot on the U.S. roster to get Green to switch his international allegiance from Germany, a bit of wild speculation that Green has publicly denied. Oh, and the last time the U.S. had a player this young in terms of z-score in a World Cup squad? DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan in 2002. Let’s hope Green’s career goes just as well.

9. William Carvalho (Portugal, Sporting CP, midfielder, 22.066 years old, -1.95 z-score)

A relative newcomer to the Portuguese side, Carvalho impressed as a destroyer for Sporting this season while making his debut for Portugal during that infamous second leg of the qualifying playoff against Sweden. Liverpool and Manchester United are reportedly tabling £30 million bids for Carvalho right now.

8. Stefanos Kapino (Greece, Panathinaikos, goalkeeper, 20.086 years old, -1.95 z-score)

Having debuted for both his club and country at just 17 years old, the 6-foot-5 Kapino took over the Panathinaikos keeper spot this past season. He’s likely to serve as the deputy to Orestis Karnezis in Brazil, but he’s almost surely Greece’s goalie for the decade to come.

7. Luis Lopez (Honduras, Real España, goalkeeper, 20.272 years old, -1.96 z-score)

No, not the longtime MLB utility infielder or the GTA character. Lopez is a promising keeper in the Honduran domestic league. He hasn’t yet been capped for Honduras and is extremely unlikely to see active duty in Brazil. Lopez and Kapino are the only two keepers in this extremely offensively minded top 20; the list includes those two keepers and just two defenders. It’s not unsurprising: It’s easier for a creative player to make an impact at a younger age as a striker or winger than it is for a young player to develop the sort of spatial understanding and positional experience needed to excel as a defender.

6. Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Iran, NEC, winger, 20.305 years old, -2.13 z-score)

Jahanbakhsh is a great example of a relatively unheralded player whose presence at the World Cup will likely seem preordained eight years from now. The Iranian winger made the move out of his country to Europe only this past year, signing with lowly NEC Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Jahanbakhsh’s work wasn’t enough to save the club from relegation into the second division, but his performances caught the attention of bigger clubs and earned him his spot in Carlos Queiroz’s Iranian side. This YouTube highlight clip7 refers to him as “The Flying Persian,” which is a pretty cool nickname. He’s going to be the player you’re going to want to look for when you watch Iran in Brazil.

5. Fabrice Olinga (Cameroon, Málaga, striker, 18.031 years old, -2.14 z-score)

We’ve found someone who almost has as little top-level experience as Julian Green! Olinga, who originally came to Spain through Mallorca before signing with Málaga during the Manuel Pellegrini days, has suited up just 10 times for Málaga in La Liga. He spent last year on loan in the Belgian first division at Zulte Waregem. As the 23rd man in Cameroon’s squad — literally, he was assigned no. 23 — Olinga’s likely going to spend this World Cup watching from the sideline. He’s also the youngest player in terms of raw age at this World Cup; look away if you don’t want to feel old now, as Olinga was born on May 12, 1996. He’s as old as the movie Twister. Jesus.

4. Nabil Bentaleb (Algeria, Tottenham Hotspur, midfielder, 19.200 years old, -2.20 z-score)

Bentaleb had bounced around several youth academies in France and Belgium before ending up with Tottenham. Despite little fanfare, Bentaleb was placed in the squad by Tim Sherwood and became a regular in the Spurs side for a time during Sherwood’s ill-fated run as gaffer. It’s not clear whether new manager Mauricio Pochettino rates him quite as highly, so an effective World Cup in the midfield for Algeria could serve to establish Bentaleb’s value on the market ahead of a summer move to fund other Pochettino targets.

3. Carlos Gruezo (Ecuador, VfB Stuttgart, defensive midfielder, 19.054 years old, -2.27 z-score)

A defensive midfielder who made his name in his home country for Barcelona SC, Gruezo signed with Stuttgart this past winter for €1.9 million and impressed in his seven Bundesliga starts. It seems unlikely that the former Ecuadorian U-20 captain will move again so quickly, but Chelsea have already been linked with him as cover for Nemanja Matic.

2. Rafa Silva (Portugal, Braga, midfielder, 21.026 years old, -2.29 z-score)

One of the more surprising additions to an upper-echelon World Cup side, Silva managed to make the Portuguese 23-man squad despite having arrived in the Portuguese top flight only this past season, when he suited up for midtable Braga. Having beat out the likes of more well-known talents like Ricardo Quaresma for a spot on the team, Silva’s versatility should allow Portugal to keep Cristiano Ronaldo in whichever role he prefers late in matches. His YouTube highlight video is also the first soccer highlight video ever on YouTube to not have terrible background music, so there’s that, too. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Silva move to a more prominent side in Portugal as soon as this summer.

1. Jose Maria Gimenez (Uruguay, Atlético Madrid, center back, 19.143 years old, -2.43 z-score)

And then, finally, there was a defender at no. 1. At 19, Gimenez is younger than anybody else in the Uruguayan side by more than four years. As a result, Gimenez’s z-score pegs him as the third-youngest player in a World Cup over the past quarter-century, behind the aforementioned Ronaldo and Viana. Signed from Danubio of Uruguay last year, Gimenez struggled to claw out a regular spot in the Atleti defense this past season, but given how successful the team was, it’s fair to say that the competition was fierce. With four caps already for his national team, Gimenez could see time in this World Cup alongside part of that competition, as Atlético center back Diego Godin will likely occupy the other central defense slot for Uruguay. In either case, Gimenez is certainly a talent with plenty of potential for the future, both as a Madrid defender and in Uruguay’s starting 11. 

Illustration by Gluekit.

Filed Under: 2014 World Cup, Bill Barnwell, Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Coutrois, Roger Milla, Samuel Eto'o, Jose Mourinho, Michael Owen, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Luka Modric, Xhedan Shaqiri, Adnan Januzaj, Neymar, Koke, Bernard, Julian Green, Nabil Bentaleb

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell