Some of the best football talent grows up fast, catching the eye for both club and country, and becoming a valuable asset worth millions in the transfer market. It is not always a guarantee of future success. There have been plenty of players whose star burned brightly early in their career only for their potential never to be fully realised, for one reason or another.
Given that caveat, however, these are some of the best young players in the world right now, using the cut-off point of 21 years old and younger.
The best young players in the world 2023
Enzo Fernández (Benfica)
Fernández’s performances for Argentina at the Qatar World Cup saw him named Best Young Player of the Tournament, and he has since been the subject of a bid in excess of €100 million by Chelsea.
An academy graduate of River Plate in Buenos Aires, he won the Argentine Primera División with them, before making the move to Europe.
Although primarily a defensive midfielder, responsible for breaking up play and recycling the ball, he can also play in a more advanced position, where his quick, short passing ability can be deployed to great effect. He is excellent in receiving the ball in tight spaces, and is press resistant.
Barcelona midfielder Gavi won the 2022 Golden Boy, an award voted on by sports journalists for the young footballer playing in Europe who they judge to have been the most impressive in a calendar year.
Still just 18, Gavi has already racked up 50 appearances for the Spanish side, and has 17 senior caps for Spain, representing them at the Qatar World Cup.
Already he is drawing comparisons with great Barcelona midfielders of the past like Xavi (his current manager) and Andrés Iniesta, because of his passing, first touch, change of pace, and vision.
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Pedri is a colleague of Gavi for both club and country, and plays alongside him in midfield, although he is a comparative veteran at the age of 20.
Although sometimes nominally regarded as a winger, he is more often deployed in a free role, which allows him to roam across the pitch and find space between the lines. He can also drop back to pick the ball out of defence. He is highly regarded for his dribbling ability, and he too has invited comparisons with Xavi and Iniesta.
Ansu Fati (Barcelona)
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The third of a triumvirate of talented young Barcelona players, injury has perhaps prevented Fati from fulfilling all his initial promise, but he is now fit again and ready to push on for both club and adopted country (he was born in Guinea-Bissau, but chose to represent Spain after gaining citizenship.
The second youngest player to make his debut for Barcelona, he became the youngest player in the history of La Liga to score and assist in the same match when he was still just 16.
He also became the youngest goalscorer in Champions League history and scored his first goal for Spain in his first start in a Nations League match.
Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund)
Midfielder Bellingham became the youngest ever player to appear for Birmingham City aged just 16 years and 38 days old.
After just one season with them they retired his shirt number, as he became one of the most coveted young players in Europe, with Sir Alex Ferguson giving him and his family a personal tour of the Manchester United training ground. Instead he opted to join Borussia Dortmund because of their policy of blooding young players from an early age, and he has gone on to be voted the best young player in the Bundesliga and has already captained the side several times.
Having represented England at every age group, he already has 22 senior caps, despite being just 19 years old, and scored his first goal for his country in the Qatar World Cup against Iran.
He is likely to be the subject of a big bidding war next summer, with Manchester City, Liverpool, and Real Madrid among the clubs reported to be interested in signing him. That could well see the record transfer fee for an English player broken.
Jamal Musiala (Bayern Munich)
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Germany may have had a disappointing World Cup campaign but one of the few shining lights for them was the performance of Bayern Munich forward Musiala.
Born in Germany, but raised in England (for whom he was eligible to play also having represented them at youth level), he spent eight years in the Chelsea academy, and had a brief spell with Southampton before the move to Munich.
The youngest player ever to represent Germany at a World Cup,, he was a constant threat in Qatar with his movement, and technical ability both on and off the ball. He looks to have a bright future ahead of him for both club and country.
Gonçalo Ramos (Benfica)
Although many people may not have known the name before the World Cup, they certainly know it after he was brought into the Portugal side following the dropping of Cristiano Ronaldo for disciplinary reasons.
And he responded by scoring a hat-trick against Switzerland, the first of the tournament.
Prior to that he had scored nine goals for Benfica and provided one assist, and he is already being spoken of as a summer transfer target for some of the biggest clubs in Europe.
Bukayo Saka (Arsenal)
Although England were knocked out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage, highly respected publication L’Équippe still named him in their team of the tournament. He scored three goals for Gareth Southgate’s men in Qatar, and was Man of the Match in their defeat to France, outshining the likes of Kylian Mbappé.
The Arsenal academy graduate has been their Player of the Season for the past two years, and his form in the current campaign has helped propel them to the top of the Premier League.
No wonder that the club and their fans are desperate to tie him to a new long-term deal at the Emirates.