Group F of the World Cup has some of the most interesting teams in the whole tournament. Croatia reached the final in 2018, losing to France after an impressive run. That same year, Belgium finished third, narrowly losing to France in the semi-finals. Both nations will depend on a young core this tournament, with several of the stars from 2018 now out of the picture.
Morocco has reached the tournament two consecutive times after a gap of 20 years, and the Atlas Lions have convinced several top prospects to swap nationalities and play for them in Qatar. Then, of course, there’s Canada — playing in only their second tournament ever and their first since 1986.
With all these nations depending on youth so much, it will be interesting to see which young players can star. Here are the best U21 players on every Group F team:
(Note: You can find the U21 standouts in Group A here, Group B here, Group C here, Group D here, and Group E here.)
Belgium: CB Zeno Debast, 19
Belgium has brought four U21 players to Qatar, including some of the best-known prospects in the world. In attack, Jérémy Doku impresses for Rennais, and Charles de Ketelaere recently earned a move to AC Milan. In midfield, Amadou Onana has been a rare bright spot for Everton. But it’s a defender I think will have the biggest impact in Qatar: Zeno Debast.
Debast is a product of the famous Anderlecht youth academy, which has seen some of Belgium’s finest players emerge. He made his debut in 2021 at the age of 17 under manager Vincent Kompany, himself a graduate of the Anderlecht academy. Last season Debast played five times, but this year he has cemented himself as a starter for the club, with 26 appearances. He even captained the side this month.
Debast may not be (currently) a better player than Doku, de Ketelaere, or Onana, but he will likely be the most important in Qatar. Belgium usually opts for three center-backs, and Debast is going to get a big chance to prove himself.
Croatia: CB Joško Gvardiol, 20
Gvardiol is one of two U21 players on Croatia, with RB Salzburg’s Luka Sučić making the cut. However, despite Sučić’s talent, there’s little doubt as to who the best Croatian prospect is.
Gvardiol came through the famous Dinamo Zagreb academy, quickly progressing to the first team. In 2021, he moved to Germany, joining RB Leipzig for nearly 20 million euros. Since joining the club, he has made over 60 appearances, even winning the DFB Pokal. This season, Gvardiol has made 19 appearances, including two clean sheets in the Champions League.
Gvardiol is going to be a big player for Croatia, with their best defenders in the last tournament now unable to play at the same level. Gvardiol, however, is a different breed: he’s one of the best defenders in Qatar.
Canada: CM Ismaël Koné, 20
Koné is the only U21 player on the Canadian roster, with Alphonso Davies recently turning 22.
Koné was born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, but moved to Canada at a young age. He didn’t even play for a professional club until 2021, previously featuring for CS Saint-Laurent. Last year, MLS side CF Montréal scooped him up, and he made an immediate impact. Last season, he assisted five strikes and scored twice.
Koné isn’t guaranteed a starting spot, as he’s only played more than 45 minutes once with Canada. He will likely be an option off the bench with the potential to start some games.
Morocco: LW Ez Abde, 20
Abde is one of two U21 players called up for Morocco, alongside Bilal El Khannouss of Genk. El Khannouss goes into the tournament without a senior appearance for Morocco, but the midfielder has been strong in the Jupiler Pro League.
Barcelona signed Abde in 2021 from Hércules CF in the fourth tier of Spain. Last season, he played for Barcelona’s reserves in Spain’s third tier, scoring three goals and assisting seven strikes. In addition, he made ten La Liga appearances, including scoring an equalizer against Osasuna. Osasuna was convinced by the Moroccan, bringing him in on loan this season. Abde has struggled with injuries but impressed when given the chance.
With Abde recovering from injury, he will likely come off the bench in all the group-stage matches. If Morocco made the knockouts, it’s possible he could start later in the tournament.
Image courtesy of Steffen Prößdorf, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
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