We’ve expected to see some familiar faces when we’ve watched the World Cup over the years. Landon Donovan for the United States, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, and Argentina’s Lionel Messi are practically household names because of their World Cup performances. The tournament is also a chance for younger players to shine on the big stage, and they’ve been doing that for years. Harry Kane is leading England’s stellar run in 2018, but he isn’t alone. These are the best young players in World Cup history.
Along the way to meeting Harry Kane and two other young stars in 2018, we’ll meet a player who shined in 2010 but also was part of his team’s embarrassing exit (No. 11).
The world’s most famous soccer player wasn’t always the world’s most famous soccer player. He was just a young player making his World Cup debut in 1958, and what a debut it was. The 17-year old Pelé wasn’t the Golden Ball winner for the champs, but he was named the best young player. He scored six goals in four matches, including two in a 5-2 route of Sweden in the championship.
Next: A man with the talent to play all over the field.
2. Franz Beckenbauer
Country: West Germany
Listed as a midfielder, Franz Beckenbauer played all over the field for the West German team that reached the World Cup final in 1966. He netted two goals in the first game, scored another in a big win against Uruguay, and tallied what turned out to be the game-winner in a 2-1 semifinal victory against the Soviet Union. He was merely 20 years old at the time.
Next: Defensive skill like no one else.
3. Antonio Cabrini
Italian defender Antonio Cabrini was still just 20 years old when he debuted in the World Cup in 1978. The Azzurri settled for fourth place, but thanks in part to Cabrini’s defensive skill, the team yielded just six goals in seven games and posted three shutouts.
Next: A player who rivals Pele for worldwide fame.
4. Diego Maradona
If you don’t know the name Diego Maradona, here’s a quick rundown: Argentina’s star player scored one of the most infamous goals in history, dubbed “The Hand of God” since he tipped the ball into the net with his hand. He also scored one of the best goals in tournament history with a long breakaway run in a quarterfinal win against England in 1986.
He was the Golden Boot winner that year as Argentina won the title, and Maradona was just 25 years old at the time. We’d say that qualifies as one of the best young players in World Cup history.
Next: A player who made a huge impact.
5. Robert Prosinecki
Croatian by heritage, Prosinecki played for Yugoslavia during the 1990 World Cup, and he made a huge impact. Though the 21-year old scored just one goal, he played well enough overall to be named the best young player in the tournament. The players we’ve met so far were all on teams that made deep tournament runs, but Yugoslavia exited in the quarterfinals.
Next: Two big assists made him one of the tournament’s best players regardless of age.
6. Marc Overmars
The Netherlands didn’t have its deepest tournament run in the 1994 World Cup, but Marc Overmars shined brightly that year. He set up the team’s first goal in a Round of 16 win against Ireland. He also assisted on the tying goal in a 3-2 quarterfinal loss against eventual champion Brazil and earned Best Young Player honors after the tourney at age 21.
Next: This player was the lone bright spot in a forgettable World Cup.
7. Michael Owen
Unlike in 2018, England’s 1998 World Cup was utterly forgettable. It only escaped group play because of a weak group; then it lost against Argentina in the round of 16. The 18-year old Michael Owen made his mark in a short time, though. He scored the equalizer in a loss against Romania in group play, and briefly gave England the lead in the game against Argentina.
Next: Another standout in 1998.
8. Thierry Henry
As it turns out, 1998 was a pretty good year for finding some of the best young players in World Cup history. We just discussed England’s Michael Owen, and Thierry Henry stood out for France as it won the title. Les Bleus scored 15 goals in the tourney, and the 20-year old Henry netted three of them to be the team’s leading scorer and one of the best young players the tournament has ever seen.
Next: An American legend.
9. Landon Donovan
Country: United States
He’s regarded as one of the best players to ever suit up for the United States, and the 2002 World Cup is where it all started for Landon Donovan. He scored twice in five games, including a tally that secured a 2-0 win against Mexico in the round of 16, to be named the best young player. He’s retired now, but he scored five goals in three World Cup tournaments for the U.S.
Next: Quite the debut.
10. Lukas Podolski
Lukas Podolski helped fuel Germany’s run to third place in 2006. Just 21 years old at the time, he was the team’s second-leading scorer with three goals, including both tallies in a 2-0 win against Sweden in the round of 16. He was the best newcomer at that edition of the tournament, and he’s one of the best young players in World Cup history.
Next: An awards double-dip in his first World Cup.
11. Thomas Mueller
Thomas Mueller turned out to be one of the worst players in the 2018 World Cup, which contributed to Germany’s embarrassing exit. But he’ll always have 2010. That’s the year he earned the Golden Boot as the best offensive player with five goals and three assists. And because he was just 20 years old, he won the Best Young Player award. So, yeah, he’s definitely one of the best young players in World Cup history.
Next: A standout youngster came up big at a crucial time.
12. Paul Pogba
Paul Pogba was just 21 years old and making his World Cup debut in 2014. He scored one goal, but it came at a crucial time. He found the net late in the second half of a scoreless game against Nigeria in the round of 16. He finished with a goal and an assist in the tournament and earned Best Young Player honors.
Next: A young trio shining in 2018.
13. Harry Kane
The 2018 World Cup is one of the best in ages for the Three Lions of England, and Harry Kane is a big part of it. At age 24 during the 2018 tourney, the forward and team captain netted six goals through the quarterfinals to be the frontrunner to win the Golden Boot award and one of the players to watch in the tourney. He scored the lone goal in the course of play and converted a penalty kick in the shootout to lift England against Colombia in a round of 16 win.
Next: He’s already a player for the ages for his country.
14. Romelu Lukaku
Belgian forward Romelu Lukaku turned 25 years old just before the 2018 World Cup, and he has a long career ahead of him, but he’s already a player for the ages. He scored four goals in three group stage wins to become Belgium’s all-time leading scorer in international play, but his best play was when he didn’t even touch the ball.
He drew a defender out of place with a genius run and then acted as a decoy in front of the net on the game-winning goal against Japan in the round of 16. Lukaku is one of the most exciting players in 2018 and one of the best young players in World Cup history.
Next: World Cup stars don’t get much younger than this.
15. Kylian Mbappe
Aside from Pele and Michael Owen, whom we discussed earlier, you won’t find anyone younger than Kylian Mbappe having this big of an impact on the World Cup. At 19 years old in 2018, he scored the team’s lone goal in a win again Peru in Group play, then scored twice (including the tally that proved to be the game-winner) as France outlasted Argentina 4-3 in the round of 16. Given his age and production, it’s not a stretch to call Mbappe one of the best young players in World Cup history.