After 12 long years of build-up, controversy and debate, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is now just days away as 32 nations take centre stage in a rather unexpected territory with the global showpiece taking place right in the middle of the 2022/23 campaign.
Nonetheless, it’s football all the same. Questions around some of the competition’s best teams are already emerging. Can Brazil finally win the gong for the first time in 20 years? Will Lionel Messi finally lead Argentina to global glory? What about Cristiano Ronaldo and his own expected last hurrah with Portugal? Can Gareth Southgate’s England build on their progress at the Euros?
All the answers to these various questions will begin to take shape in the coming weeks, but as the competition kicks off, it’s important and rather intriguing to find out which burgeoning young footballing stars can emerge on the grandest stage. Playing well at a World Cup can seriously launch a young footballer’s career into the stratosphere. And amongst the 32 participants, there are some flawless wonderkids who possess the abilities and personality to become future world stars.
Here are 11 exciting under-the-radar footballing talents to watch over the coming weeks:
Enzo Fernandez – Argentina
Club: SL Benfica.
Position: Central Midfielder
One player currently turning a whole lot of heads across the continent right now after his recent move from the southern half of South America at River Plate is Benfica’s Enzo Fernández. The 21-year-old midfield dynamo has only been in Europe for three months, and he’s already making a real splash both in the Portuguese Primeira Liga and the UEFA Champions League.
Fernandez is certainly on the right path to becoming one of the most complete midfield weapons of his generation.
The Argentinian is a jack-of-all-trades midfielder, capable of playing either at no.8 (as he was deployed regularly for River Plate), no.6, no.4 and even as a creative and influential no.10, the 21-year-old mixes excellent technical proficiency with tremendous levels of effort, endeavour and application + a highly intelligent tactical understanding to boot.
The £18m-rated midfield dynamo is your perfect archetypal Argentinian midfield player. Combative in his midfield duels, protects his backline well, influential in possession and holds a tremendous eye for a pass. For all his good work in deep-lying roles, 2022 has seen Fernández develop into a truly all-round midfielder, adding goals and assists to the less-heralded elements of his game.
So far this season for Benfica, he’s registered three goals and three assists from 22 outings and is already a fully-fledged member of the Argentina senior contingent, so far rewarded with two international caps.
Expect the number of caps to rise over the course of the tournament as the 21-year-old is highly rated by Argentinian coach Lionel Scaloni. Fernandez is already on the radar of several elite clubs across Europe, and the World Cup will provide him with the perfect platform to truly showcase his unique and flawless abilities.
Moises Caicedo – Ecuador
Club: Brighton & Hove Albion.
Position: Centre Midfield.
All was not lost for Brighton & Hove Albion when they lost Yves Bissouma to Tottenham Hotspur in the summer transfer window. Due to their excellent and sustainable club model, they’d already possessed a young starlet perfectly capable of filling the Malian’s position and much more. Step forward the Ecuadorian midfield maestro Moises Caicedo.
So far this campaign, the 21-year-old has become one of the success stories of the Barclays Premier League season. His most notable performance came in the 2-1 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford in the opening weekend of the Premier League season.
A few months on, and we already looking at one of the potential midfield stars of the future. A player blessed with technical quality and excellence, vision, passing acumen, youthful exuberance and dynamism and a consistency level that well belies his tender age.
Caicedo is an integral component to the Brighton midfield, first under the departed Graham Potter who joined Chelsea and is continuing to excel under the fresh stewardship of talented manager Roberto De Zerbi.
If you’re looking for a complete young midfielder to feast your eye on, the 21-year-old maestro is your man. He’s started in all of Brighton’s 14 Premier League games this season, scoring once, averaging 67.8 touches per game, 1.1 key passes, 1.4 interceptions, an astonishing 3.1 tackles and also winning 57% of his ground duels. In fact, in the English top-flight, he ranks ninth in the whole division for progressive passes (65), eighth for through balls (8), and 6th for tackles (43), forming an incredible and well-rounded partnership with Alexis Mac Allister in the Seagulls midfield.
Caicedo is also a crucial midfield outlet for Ecuador too, establishing himself as an essential and pivotal cog over his 25 appearances so far.
Both Manchester United and Liverpool have been linked with his gifted services recently, and his stock and price tag will almost certainly double by the time Ecuador’s World Cup campaign comes to a close.
Iliman Ndiaye – Senegal
Club: Sheffield United.
Position: Attacking Midfield/Forward.
Senegal will be entering the World Cup this month fresh from their historic African Cup of Nations triumph back in February and arguably one of the most likely African teams to make it to the latter stages. However, those ambitions have taken an unexpected hit with the suspected absence of Sadio Mane who picked up an injury playing for Bayern Munich last week.
Although the former Liverpool man was still called up to be a part of Aliou Cisse’s talented squad, there’s no guarantee the 30-year-old will feature during the tournament which means the Lions of Teranga will be calling upon a new star to guide them in Mane absence and there’s arguably been no attacking player in Cisse’s squad in as good a form as Sheffield United’s unsung hero Ilman Ndiaye who has undergone a remarkable upward trajectory this campaign.
The 22-year-old enjoyed a productive 2021/22 campaign, breaking through into the first team during a 6-2 victory against Peterborough where he grabbed two goals and an assist to ensure everyone at Bramall Lane was paying attention.
He ended the season with seven goals and two assists as Sheffield United fell to Nottingham Forest in the play-off semi-finals. However, this season he’s reached remarkable new heights emerging as a pivotal figure in Paul Heckingbottom’s Blades side. So far this season, Ndiaye registered nine goals and two assists in 21 Championship games.
Becoming a crucial and influential component in Heckingbottom’s 3-5-2 system at Bramall Lane offering great flexibility, attacking variation and dynamism stemming from his versatility in fulfilling a number of positions in attack and his unique tactical understanding that has immediately made him a cult hero in Sheffield.
Ndiaye has formed a devastating attacking partnership with Bramall Lane regular Olie McBurnie in which the duo have already notched 18 Championship goals between them. If Aliou Cisse can provide Ndiaye with similar conditions to thrive, there’s no reason why the one-capped international can become an instant hero on the biggest international stage for Senegal.
Kaoru Mitoma – Japan
Club: Brighton & Hove Albion.
Yet another Brighton & Hove Albion employee on this list, and that says a lot about the work going on behind the scenes in the southeast of England. Mitoma is the oldest on this list, but he’s a talent who simply cannot go through this football carnival unnoticed.
Japan possess some exciting footballing products in their weaponry right now and Mitoma is arguably the most exciting to watch. He’s picked up a form for De Zerbi’s Seagulls at just the right too which means he enters this tournament with some renewed momentum and confidence and that can only do Japan – arguably one of the competition’s most picked dark horses – the world of good.
It’s also vital to mention that Japan are in arguably the most exciting group at the World Cup – Group E – where they will be mixing it with the likes of Spain, Germany and Costa Rica, and that can only provide Mitoma with ample opportunity and platform to announce himself on the world stage. The 25-year-old scored his first Seagulls goal in a 3-2 win over Wolves last weekend, before netting again four days later as his side dumped Arsenal out of the Carabao Cup.
Signed in August 2021, the winger has had to bide his time at the Amex, following an impressive spell scoring 30 goals and 20 assists in 62 appearances for Japanese outfit side Kawasaki Frontale.
After bursting onto the scene for Brighton, he’s now adding goals and assists to his game, contributing to three goals (2 goals, 1 assist) since the Chelsea win. Only Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne (3.8) has created more chances per 90 minutes in the Premier League than the Japan international (2.9), while only Allan Saint-Maximin (4.06) has completed more take-ons than his 2.61, highlighting his swift impact on De Zerbi’s men.
Incredibly fast, agile, technically gifted and tricky on the ball, Mitoma is an unpredictable outlet for both Brighton and Japan, it’s amazing to think that the 25-year-old was still fighting for a place in his university team during the 2018 World Cup tournament in Russia. Four years on, he could well emerge as one of Japan’s key protagonists in their exciting journey in Qatar.
Yunus Musah – USMNT
You can’t form a list of highly coveted young stars to watch out for at a major international tournament without giving the United States of America recognition for their work in moulding some of football’s most hottest young properties.
Coach Gregg Berhalter certainly has a whole host of them in his squad to choose from, but one young man who will be central to his plans in Yunus Musah – a player who could well have been representing England despite being born in New York. The 19-year-old has already made a number bold decisions that has shaped his footballing career till now.
Leaving the Arsenal youth setup to join La Liga outfit Valencia at the age of 16 was one, opting to represent the USA after playing his youth football with England was another one, and looking at his progress right now, those decisions have proven smart and mature choices for a player still developing and plotting his trade at the top level.
Musah used to line up alongside the likes of Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, and Folarin Balogun before opting to leave for Spain and at the La Liga outfit, they believe they have on their books one of the most complete and well-rounded young midfielders on the continent. Ever since he broke into the first team at 17, Musah has gone on to make 82 appearances for Valencia, registering five goals and also more crucially become an important figure for the country of his birth.
Indeed, Musah is a technically gifted footballer, but that’s not all, he combines that with stunning tactical understanding, flexible versatility and levels of application that so many of his peers lack, even at the top level.
Blossoming at Valencia, he’s emerged as an effective and energetic midfielder disrupter averaging 1.9 tackles per game, and winning 57% of his ground duels whilst also establishing himself as an influential ball-carrier and a calming presence when the ball is at his feet, owing to his capabilities in also playing out wide.
Amongst midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues over the past 365 days, Musah ranks in the 92nd percentile for dribbles completed per 90and in the 99th percentile for shot-creating actions from dribbles per 90. If Musah can add goals and assists to his gifted arsenal, there’s no reason why he can’t become one of the best midfielders of his generation. His country will need him at his influential best during the tournament.
Jesper Lindstrom – Denmark
Club: Eintracht Frankfurt.
Position: Attacking Midfielder.
Denmark will gracefully be another of the World Cup’s dark horses akin to their tremendous form over the past year, especially at Euro 2020 last June where they shocked the whole continent reaching the semi-finals especially after the near-fatal incident involving Christian Eriksen during the competition’s group stages. Their performances then transformed perceptions around the whole nation, also turning head coach Kasper Hjulmand into a cult hero and national celebrity.
Now, expectations have risen, especially with Eriksen continuing to be at the forefront of their aspirations after his health scare, excelling tremendously at Manchester United. However, Danish eyes thankfully won’t just be pinned on him during the World Cup. Hjulmand now possesses a whole batch of game changers, none quite as exciting as the swiftly emerging, incredibly and uniquely gifted Eintracht Frankfurt magician Jesper Lindstrøm.
The 22-year-old has been a revelation since his move to the Europa League winners back in July 2021 from Danish side Brøndby IF. He registered five goals and four assists during the 2021/22 campaign, emerging as a burgeoning young talent in German football. So far this campaign, he’s elevated himself to a whole new ceiling so far contributing seven goals in all competitions.
What has stood Lindstrøm out from his peers is his incredible versatility. He predominantly operates as a right-winger, but can also play at centre-forward, as a no.10 or even as a “free-8” in a 4-3-3 system. He isn’t your typical winger, getting to the byline and crossing, he’s a player well-versed in locating dangerous pockets between the lines and consistently hurting the opposition through stunning movement and intricate passing techniques.
He’s also a true goal threat, as shown by his six goals in the Bundesliga so far, but also him ranking in the 78th percentile amongst attacking midfielders/wingers in Europe’s top five leagues for xG (expected goals) per 90 (0.39) and 86th percentile for non-penalty goals xG per 90 (0.39) highlighting how effective and potent he’s become in front of goal. Goals win you games, especially in international tournaments, and Lindstrøm should ultimately prove an effective and decisive presence when Denmark need him most.
Youssoufa Moukoko – Germany
Club: Borussia Dortmund.
Timo Werner’s injury at RB Leipzig has proven a cruel and crucial blow for Hansi Flick, especially as the Germany head coach has always been a big fan of the former Chelsea forward, even despite his numerous detractors.
However, noises around Werner’s injury haven’t lasted for long, the Germans possess a devastating blend of attacking weaponry in their arsenal including a 17-year-old forward who is simply getting better with every passing week.
Without a senior international cap to his name, Youssoufa Moukoko has proven too hot and too good for Flick to ignore, rewarding him with his first senior call-up, not for a meager friendly, no, for an international footballing carnival, the World Cup – the grandest stage in football. A platform Moukoko, despite his tender age simply deserves grace.
Six goals and four assists in all competitions for the 17-year-old makes for incredible reading, especially considering Borussia Dortmund have been struggling for an accomplished presence up front, since Sebastian Haller’s cancer diagnosis. Moukoko has swiftly come into the fold, and set the whole of the Bundesliga alight.
Youssoufa Moukoko 2022/23 so far— . (@Moukoko_v18i) November 10, 2022
World Cup bound🇩🇪 pic.twitter.com/ntbnXQAul3
No other player has reached 10 league goals at such a young age. More importantly for both Germany and Dortmund, Moukoko has proven to be a consistent and maturing forward capable of creating chances out of nothing. The forward’s movement of the ball, work rate, ability to play between the lines, decision-making and devastating finishing levels are unlike many we’ve seen especially amongst players as young as he is.
Moukoko may just prove the difference maker for Hansi Flick’s side at the World Cup, who knows, maybe the footballing gods have a script especially tailored for the flawless 17-year-old.
Diogo Costa – Portugal
Club: FC Porto.
Another one of the dark horses at this World Cup, even though they can be considered as one of the competition’s favourites. Portugal do in fact enter this winter showpiece possessing one of the most complete and talented squads. And an area which has undergone a stark change in Fernando Santos’ talented group is in between the sticks.
When you’re imminently chosen to replace Rui Patricio as Portugal’s number one goalkeeper, you know you’re a special talent capable of keeping the whole nation’s destiny in your hands, and that man is FC Porto’s tremendous and decorated young goalkeeper Diogo Costa who is enjoying a sensational campaign and is now being considered one of Europe’s best in between the sticks.
Costa’s kicking, building from the back and ability to be active against crosses are standard qualities but it is his penalty record that has elevated the 23-year-old a stand-out goalkeeper on the continent. It is why Manchester United reportedly want to make Costa their number-one goalkeeper to replace David De Gea for the long term.
Last month Costa became the first goalkeeper since Opta began in the 2002/3 campaign, to save three penalties in a single Champions League season.
3 – Porto’s Diogo Costa is the first goalkeeper on record to save three penalties in a single UEFA Champions League campaign (2003-04 onwards). Obstruction. pic.twitter.com/aV2GsEOimu— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 26, 2022
Also, opponents have only scored 15 out of 26 penalties he has faced in his senior career, an astonishing record.
In his seven caps for Portugal, the Porto shot-stopper has conceded just three goals. At the age of just 23, Portugal possesses a goalkeeper they can rely on for the next 10-15 years, who knows, he may be the one that finally hands them a World Cup gong.
Mohammed Kudus – Ghana
Position: Attacking Midfielder.
After a dreadful African Cup of Nations campaign where Ghana were knocked out in the group stages after losing two of their three games and drawing the other, the Black Stars will be hoping they can provide their nation with some pride at the World Cup.
In all fairness head coach Otto Addo has been dealt a tough hand, where they will meet Portugal, South Korea and Uruguay in Group H – one of the more exciting groups in the whole competition. Ghana heads into the tournament the least likely to make it out an incredibly difficult group, but this is tournament football. Anything can happen.
In order for the Black Stars to both impress, and possibly cause a World Cup fairytale upset as they did in South Africa 2010, they will certainly need their most talented stars out on the pitch. Something they failed to do back in February at AFCON. One man missing from the squad at AFCON and is arguably their most in-form player in the lead-up to the tournament is Ajax’ Mohammed Kudus.
The 22-year-old attacker has enjoyed a sensational start to the 2022/23 campaign, registering 10 goals and 2 assists in all competitions for the Dutch giants, and has excelled in this season’s Champions League, with four goals and 2 assists, especially a strike at Anfield against Liverpool.
⚽️🅰️ vs Rangers— Yaw Ampofo Jr (@Yaw_Ampofo_) November 1, 2022
⚽️ vs Napoli
⚽️ vs Liverpool
⚽️🅰️ vs Rangers
Mohammed Kudus has now contributed to six goals in the Champions League for Ajax this season, all as a false 9.🇬🇭🌟 pic.twitter.com/uoIx9aEmCa
The midfielder ace has five goals and three assists in his 18 appearances for his country.
While Kudus is predominantly an attacking midfielder, he’s featured as a very influential and tactically masterful false-nine in Alfred Schreuder’s Ajax side, taking an average of 1.8 shots, making 0.5 key passes and completing 1.6 successful dribbles per game.
His ability to drop into dangerous pockets of space, link play but also be a threat in behind opposition defences makes him a unique commodity in the Black Stars setup, and there is an argument to be made that Addo surely has to build his team around the qualities of the 22-year-old maestro. He is their most in-form player heading into the tournament and is certainly the one to watch alongside Kamaldeen Sulemana.
Nico Williams – Spain
Club: Athletico Bilbao.
While his older brother has chosen to represent Ghana in Qatar, Nico Williams could argue that he could be the one spending the longest time on the World’s most prestigious stage and is the more likely to create history.
The two Williams brothers will both represent their countries at the World Cup in Qatar:— KYSTAR (@KYSTAR) November 15, 2022
🇪🇸 Nico Williams with Spain
🇬🇭 Iñaki Williams with Ghana pic.twitter.com/5X9oIqSLHc
And that is not only down to the qualities Luis Enrique possesses in his Spanish armada but also down to the wonderful and exciting footballing gifts that the 20-year-old harnesses. Williams has enjoyed a stunning season so far at Athletico Bilbao in the Spanish top-flight, registering three goals and three assists in what is his breakthrough campaign as a senior player. And amongst Enrique’s quality arsenal, Williams possesses a talent that is unlike the rest.
The 20-year-old is certainly one to watch because of his amazing trickery, speed, acceleration, his ability to weave past defenders most especially in 1v1 duels. Williams so far this season is averaging 1.4 key passes per game, and has created two big chances. He isn’t just a dribble merchant, but a player capable of beating his man and also providing the telling passes, qualities which may prove crucial for Spain as they attempt to breach and disrupt low blocks against their possession-based style.
Youssouf Fofana – France
Club: AS Monaco.
Position: Defensive Midfield.
World Cup holders France may well be without Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante for this winter’s tournament, but Didier Deschamps and his side are very much in safe hands in midfield.
Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga are both catching the eye at Real Madrid this season, but it’s another midfield player that could prove crucial to France’s chances and is arguably the younger version of the legend that is Kante, and that man is AS Monaco’s Youssouf Fofana.
The swash-buckling 23-year-old formed a sensational partnership with Tchouameni at Monaco during the 2021/22 campaign and has shown promising signs in his two cap so far proving he could be the man to fill the huge gaping void left by Kante.
Born in Paris, Fofana like so many of his peers broke free from the struggles to make an impression at Paris Saint-Germain, in order to hone his craft and trade elsewhere.
After being released by the national academy at Clairefontaine aged 13, he bounced around clubs both at Red Star FC and JA Drancy before being picked up by RC Strasbourg Alsace in 2017. Le Racing handed him his Ligue 1 Uber Eats debut a year later, in a 1-0 win over FC Metz.
After an impressive spell in the RC Strasbourg first team, Monaco secured his services in January 2020, signing both Fofana and Tchouaméni from Strasbourg and Girondins de Bordeaux respectively for a combined fee of around €35m, forming one of the most highly coveted and complete midfield partnerships in France.
Fofana made his international bow against Austria in September and did not look out of place, expertly breaking up play with such sublime aggression, and assuredness whilst also providing a valuable and influential source in France’s build-up play. The 23-year-old is a midfield freight train, powerfully built and capable of fulfilling a number of roles in midfield; as a dynamic box-to-box presence as well as a destructive defensive midfielder.
On his France debut, he impressively won 12 out of his 14 duels, showcasing his tremendous qualities to break up opposition attacks, something Kante has forged his reputation on. He’s averaged 0.9 interceptions, and 2.6 tackles per game for Monaco so far this season, but also holds the qualities to provide for his teammates in possession averaging 0.7 key passes and creating two big chances. During the 2021/22 campaign, he provided the fourth most through balls (19) of any player in Ligue 1.
Kante’s absence is a cruel blow for the French, but they needn’t worry as they possess a ready-made replacement in Youssouf Fofana.