The World Cup has now begun, and for the next month we’ll be watching the best players and teams in world football vying for the ultimate prize. As is always the case, a lot of the early focus has been on the established stars that can lead their teams on deep runs. In the opening days Cristiano Ronaldo put on a show for the ages and Lionel Messi missed a penalty kick en route to Argentina’s draw with Iceland, making for perhaps the two biggest stories of the opening week (aside from Mexico’s shocking upset of Germany).
But even as we focus on the stars we’ve come to know over the years, the World Cup is also an opportunity for younger players – even known up-and-comers – to establish themselves on football’s biggest stage. These are some of the best youngsters to keep your eye on.
Gabriel Jesus – Brazil
Club football fans are well aware of Gabriel Jesus by now after his stellar season at Manchester City. But to the casual football fan, he may still be a new name. This next month the whole world will get to know him as Brazil’s best offensive player not named Neymar. Gabriel Jesus has a wonderful story, a seemingly limitless supply of natural talent, and a chance to help anchor a World Cup champion at barely 21 years of age.
Kylian Mbappé – France
Antoine Griezmann figures to be the leading scorer for France at this Cup. But much has been made about the youth movement for the French, which means some of their younger starters will have to play will for the team to reach its potential. Mbappé is the best of them, and young enough to become a sensation if he has a good tournament here.
Hirving Lozano – Mexico
Lozano isn’t quite as recognizable as Jesus or Mbappé given that he plays at PSV Eindhoven during the club season. But the 22-year-old Mexican has a lot of ability, and has now contributed to one of the biggest upsets we’re going to see in this tournament, when El Tri knocked off Germany. Right about now the betting markets have all kinds of pieces up about this tournament, and one specifically mentioned Lozano as one of the young players who could earn a major club move through his play in this tournament.
Youri Tielemans – Belgium
Said to be the future of Belgian football, Youri Tielemans is the player to watch beyond the likes of Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku on a Belgium team a lot of people believe could go all the way. He’ll help to make the midfield work for this team, which prides itself on a fluid and deadly attacking game. Right now Tielemans plays for AS Monaco, but at just 21 he’s another guy who could earn himself some significant new attention with a strong showing in the World Cup.
Marcus Rashford – England
The English attack will move primarily through the likes of Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy, and should look pretty good just like that. However, 20-year-old Marcus Rashford will work his way into the action for the English, and is perfectly capable of making some noise in the World Cup. Whether he ultimately makes it into the starting XI or comes in as an offensive substitution late in games, Rashford will be heard from.