The World Cup has long been a proving ground for football’s most exciting talents. In 2006, FIFA created an award acknowledging this: the FIFA Young Player Award (YPA). In each tournament, the best player under the age of 21 would be given the award. So far, there have been some notable winners.
In 2006, the first-ever YPA was given to Germany’s Lukas Podolski, who helped take the Germans to the tournament’s semi-finals with his three strikes. In 2010, the award went to another German, Thomas Müller, after Germany again reached the semis. Müller found the back of the net five times and assisted three goals.
After German players won the first two awards, French players took the two most recent ones. In 2014, Paul Pogba beat Memphis Depay and Raphael Varane after France reached the Quarter-finals. In 2018, the winner was Kylian Mbappe, whose four goals and one assist helped France win the tournament.
However, every team has its own young players who can shine. Here is one U21 player from every team in Group A with a chance to impress:
Qatar: CB Jassem Gaber, 20
The hosts Qatar have opted to play a very experienced side, with more than 25% of the squad being over the age of 30. Jassem Gaber is the youngest player selected to the team, heading into the tournament without a senior cap to his name.
Gaber signed for elite Qatari club Al-Arabi in 2019, having played in the same Aspire Academy that many of Qatar’s starters developed in. Since then, Gaber has made over 50 appearances for the club, although he has failed to cement a starting spot.
He’s unlikely to play much at this tournament, but Gaber has the potential to become an important player for Qatar in the future.
Netherlands: CB Jurrien Timber, 21
The Netherlands has multiple young talents in the squad, including Xavi Simons and Kenneth Taylor. The most exciting player, though, is Ajax center-back Jurrien Timber.
Timber joined Ajax’s academy at the age of 13, having previously featured for their rivals, Feyenoord. With Ajax, Timber has made nearly 100 appearances, becoming a Dutch international and featuring in the Champions League. Timber reportedly turned down Manchester United this summer to stay with the club.
The Dutch have a lot of depth at center-back, but it’s possible that Timber features alongside Virgil van Dijk and Matthijs de Ligt in the Netherlands’ three-man defense.
Senegal: CM Pape Matar Sarr, 20
The defending AFCON Champions have only a few young players, with many of their star players like Sadio Mané, Kalidou Koulibaly, and Edouard Mendy being above the age of 30. Matar Sarr is the youngest player on the team.
Pape Matar Sarr joined Metz from the club’s African academy in 2020 and instantly became a star. In his first season, he played 25 games for the club and scored four times. A move to Tottenham (at 18!) followed, returning to loan on Metz for one more season where he featured 33 times in Ligue 1. Somewhat puzzlingly, Matar Sarr was not loaned out again and has been left on Spurs’ reserves, and has not played with the club all season.
With the depth Senegal has in midfield combined with his lack of minutes, Matar Sarr is more likely to feature as a super-sub for Senegal. By the end of the tournament, Matar Sarr could well attract some interest from other clubs if he impresses.
Ecuador: CM Moisés Caicedo, 21
Ecuador has not (as of writing) released their World Cup squad, but it’s likely they’ll take a relatively young squad to Qatar. I’m a big fan of many of Ecuador’s players including Piero Hincapié, but Moisés Caicedo is one of the best talents in the whole tournament.
Caicedo joined Brighton in 2021 from Independiente del Valle, one of the best talent producers in all of South America. A loan to Belgian club Beerschot followed, but both Caicedo and the club struggled and he returned from his loan early. Caicedo then started to feature for Brighton, and this season has become one of the club’s best players with impressive performances against the likes of Manchester United and Newcastle.
Ecuador has an exciting team and could potentially reach the knockouts — and a large part of that will be down to Caicedo. The midfielder is one of the stars of the team and played a big role in qualification, and will again play a big role in how they perform.
Stay tuned for the other groups! You can also find a review of multiple groups (including Group A) here.
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