One potential breakout star for every nation at the 2022 World Cup originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
Thomas Müller. James Rodríguez. Benjamin Pavard. Three names that entered the 2010, 2014 and 2018 World Cups, respectively, with little attention before breaking out on the global stage.
Müller did so with Germany in 2010 after taking home the Golden Boot award with five goals and three assists at the ripe age of 20. Rodríguez followed suit with Colombia in 2014 with six goals and two assists that also culminated with the Golden Boot at age 23.
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Pavard, despite not winning a Golden Boot as a right back, started six of France’s seven games in its 2018 title run, with his absurd curling strike from outside the box against Argentina winning the goal of the tournament at 22 years old.
Though Müller graduated from Bayern Munich’s youth academy and continued his growth there, Rodríguez went from AS Monaco to Real Madrid and Pavard from Stuttgart to Bayern Munich after breaking out in the World Cup.
As the 2022 FIFA World Cup kicks off in Qatar, which young players could break out and establish themselves further at the club level? Let’s take a look at one player from each nation:
Qatar: Akram Afif
Starting from Group A teams, Qatar is the toughest team to gauge. It has never appeared in a World Cup tournament before, so the players have little experience in competing in global competitions against the world’s best. If there was a player on the roster who could break out, left-winger Akram Afif stands out. He’s just about to turn 26 so he’s technically not young by the sport’s standards, but he’s coming off his best-ever club campaign with Al Sadd in 2021-22, scoring 14 goals and logging 17 assists in 18 games. The 2019 Asian Footballer of the Year could be a standout goal contributor for Qatar.
Ecuador: Moisés Caicedo
Thanks to Brighton & Hove Albion’s best-ever start to an English Premier League season so far, Moisés Caicedo is already trending upwards coming into Qatar. The 20-year-old center midfielder already has 25 caps to his name, and there’s reason to believe he can continue to make waves in the World Cup, especially if Ecuador can advance past the group stage. Caicedo is one of those rare hybrid profiles who can operate as a single-pivot holding midfielder and can also cause havoc as a box-to-box option, though his play in the attacking third still needs polishing. If not Caicedo, look for Piero Hincapié (Bayern Leverkusen) or José Cifuentes (LAFC) to stand out.
Senegal: Ismail Jakobs
Sadio Mané (Bayern Munich) and the Chelsea duo of Eduoard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly are the big names on Senegal’s team, but they’ll need contributions from the more inexperienced players on the squad to try to beat out Ecuador and Qatar for second in Group A. Young forwards are plentiful in the Senegalese attack, but we’ll turn to 23-year-old left-back Ismail Jakobs. Jakobs recently switched his national allegiance from Germany to Senegal after not getting a cap there, and he should be Senegal’s first-choice option at his position.
He’s an attacking-minded profile that has created 3.18 shot actions per game with Monaco this season, good for the 92nd percentile among Europe’s top-five leagues, the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, according to Football Reference. Get him the ball on the left flank and good things can happen. Other names here include Ismaïla Sarr (Watford, 24) and Kreppin Diatta (Monaco, 23).
Netherlands: Cody Gakpo
The Oranje are one of the few teams that have the luxury of a young but quality-filled squad, which also ranks as one of the best going into Qatar. The center-back options at Louis Van Gaal’s disposal are world-class, but it’ll be up to the forwards to find the back of the net and advance. Memphis Depay (FC Barcelona) is the headliner in attack, and Cody Gakpo (PSV) could join him on that list. Why? The 23-year-old left-winger, center-forward combo ranks in the 99th percentile in the following categories: non-penalty goals, non-penalty expected goals, assists, expected assists and non-penalty expected goals plus assisted goals. He’s in the 96th in shot-creating actions and shots total.
Gakpo has nine goals and 12 assists so far in the Eredivisie, and two other candidates also in that league could fit here: Xavi Simons (PSV, 19) and Jurriën Timber (Ajax, 21).
Iran: Sardar Azmoun
Iran makes this both easy and difficult in the sense that its youngest players on the squad are 25, but 27-year-old striker Sardar Azmoun comes in the fold instead. The Bayern Leverkusen striker has struggled to find his footing in the Bundesliga since arriving in 2021-22, but he had 17-goal and 19-goal seasons with Zenit in the Russian Premier League in the two seasons prior to his move to Germany. Azmoun has 65 caps to his name with Iran and will need to lead the line well if the nation wants an upset advancement in Group B.
Wales: Neco Williams
Most of the choices have been pretty straightforward so far, but Wales’ options are iffy. Going back and forth between some of their youngsters led to 21-year-old right-back Neco Williams. The former Liverpool academy prospect transferred to newly promoted Nottingham Forest this past summer and plays for a Steve Cooper side that isn’t afraid to get in your face but has dealt with a lack of chemistry. Statistically, Williams ranks in the 99th percentile in tackles, 97th in interceptions and 91st in blocks compared to all fullbacks. While much of that is due to Forest’s tendencies to sit back in a low block more often than press, his familiarity with players on the England and U.S. sides could be beneficial if Wales wants to advance after a 64-year drought.
England: Jude Bellingham
The youngest player on the England squad makes the cut. Nineteen-year-old Jude Bellingham has been a highly rated prospect since coming out of Birmingham City, and he went to Borussia Dortmund in 2020-21 to develop further in a system that is infamous for producing future world-class stars. Despite his age and being the only non-EPL player in Gareth Southgate’s squad, Bellingham has captained the Dortmund side and is a rare complete box-to-box midfielder at his age. Arsenal right-winger Bukayo Saka, 21, was the other option here, but he already broke out during the 2020 UEFA Euros tournament that was held in 2021.
USA: Yunus Musah
A healthy Yunus Musah will be a game changer for the USMNT in Qatar. The soon-to-be 20-year-old midfielder came out of the Arsenal youth academy and has played for Valencia in La Liga the last three years, where he’s gone from a right-footed right-winger to a box-to-box center midfielder who operates on the right-hand side. That has turned out to be a stellar move for his development thanks to his speed, dribbling and work rate on both sides of the ball. The next step for him will be to improve his goal contribution output, but expect Musah to play a big role if the U.S. makes it out of the group stage.
Argentina: Enzo Fernández
Twenty-two-year-old Julián Álvarez was the initial player here, but his move from River Plate to Manchester City this past summer ruled him out. Instead, it’s Enzo Fernández, who also left River Plate this past summer but went to Benfica in Portugal instead. Benfica has yet to lose a league game this season and it also advanced to the round of 16 in the Champions League, with the 21-year-old Fernández playing a crucial role. As a box-to-box midfielder, he ranks in the 90th percentile or above in progressive passes, passes completed, shot-creating actions, non-penalty expected goals, assists, expected assists and shots total, among others. It’ll be interesting to see if he gets good minutes, but he deserves to be on the pitch.
Mexico: Edson Álvarez
All-around defensive midfielders are extremely hard to come by, and it’s not surprising that some of the best teams in the world have one: Rodri (Manchester City, Spain), Aurelien Tchouameni (Real Madrid, France). Mexico possesses one in Edson Álvarez, who plays for AFC Ajax in the Netherlands. The 6-foot-2 24-year-old has 58 caps under his belt and ranks in at least the 90th percentile in passes completed, clearances and aerials won, along with completing 4.81 progressive passes per game (83rd percentile). Mexico is known for performing well in World Cups despite not always having the best squads, but Álvarez could be part of a solid 2022 spell and seems destined for a big move at the club level.
Poland: Nicola Zalewski
There’s not too many options in the Polish squad that jump off the page, but 20-year-old Nicola Zalewski could be one depending on his playing time. He plays for Roma in Serie A and hasn’t registered many minutes in any of his last three years with the club, but he has seven caps with Poland. He primarily plays as a left midfielder with pace down the flank being his best attribute thus far. Perhaps that could be useful for Poland against tired legs if it needs a spark offensively, with the same applying to 20-year-old Wolfsburg left-winger Jakub Kamiński.
Saudi Arabia: Firas Al-Buraikan
Saudi Arabia is similar to Qatar in the sense that its players aren’t too experienced in these types of tournaments, which has shown in the Green Falcons’ previous results. Looking at the squad, 22-year-old striker Firas Al-Buraikan could be worth monitoring. He has 20 caps with the nation and has four goals and one assist in eight league games with Al-Fateh this season. Saudi Arabia will need all the goals to advance in Group C, so let’s see if anyone can deliver.
Australia: Riley McGree
Moving to Group D, Riley McGree is the choice for Australia. The 23-year-old center midfielder has 10 caps with the Socceroos and is best when operating higher up the pitch. He plays for Middlesbrough in the EFL Championship, the second-tier league in England, and has three goals to his name this season along with being in at least the 90th percentile in touches in the attacking penalty box, non-penalty expected goals and progressive passes received. He wants to get in attacking areas, which Australia will need in this group. Eighteen-year-old Garang Kuol (joining Newcastle in 2023) is another candidate.
Tunisia: Hannibal Mejbri
The youngest player on Tunisia’s squad is the candidate here. Nineteen-year-old Hannibal Mejbri is a Manchester United youth academy prospect currently on loan at Birmingham City in the Championship. He’s still an extremely raw product, but he’s aggressive off the ball in duels and has two assists to his name in 15 games (eight starts) in his first season of real league action. He might not produce much for Tunisia in 2022, but he could be called upon off the bench to create havoc for the opposition, which he’s done for the Red Devils in England.
Denmark: Jesper Lindstrøm
Entering Qatar as one of the biggest darkhorses, Denmark has a deep squad with quality options all around. Chief among them is Jesper Lindstrøm, an attacking midfielder for Eintracht Frankfurt who can also play on the left wing. The 22-year-old only has six caps with Denmark, which makes him all the better to break out this tournament. He has six goals to his name in 12 starts in the Bundesliga, already surpassing his output in 26 league starts last season. He has underrated speed and is comfortable with his left foot, too. Mikkel Damsgaard (Brentford, 22), Andreas Skov Olsen (Club Brugge, 22) and Alexander Bah (Benfica, 24) are other candidates.
France: William Saliba
Les Bleus are entering Qatar with a squad plagued with injuries. Players like N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea) and Paul Pogba (Juventus) from their 2018 title run are not in the fold, along with potential key players Mike Maignan (AC Milan) and Christopher Nkunku (RB Leipzig). That means younger players will get a chance to step up all over the field. Eduardo Camavinga is an option, but he just recently moved to Real Madrid. That puts Arsenal’s 21-year-old center-back William Saliba in the spotlight, as he’s been one of the team’s best players in their ascension up the EPL table in his first season in the league.
He might not be an immediate starter, but he’s exceptional on the ball, aerially, and rarely loses duels, even against the fastest attackers. Based on form, there’s not many center backs better than him in the game, which feels implausible to say for someone of his age. But it also highlights just how good he’s been.
Costa Rica: Jewison Bennette
Can Costa Rica repeat its 2014 triumph in 2022? It certainly won’t be easy in Group E with Germany, Spain and Japan, but never say never in this sport. Luis Fernando Suárez called up a bevy of young players to the squad who are looking to prove themselves, and the youngest is 18-year-old Jewison Bennette. Bennette, a left winger, moved to Sunderland in the Championship this past season and has only logged 186 minutes across nine games off the bench. But he’s managed one goal, seven shot-creating actions and 0.2 expected assists in such a small time frame. There’s definitely more to come with the 5-foot-9 winger.
Japan: Takefusa Kubo
Don’t sleep on this Japan side. It’s one of its best squads to enter a World Cup, despite getting a tough draw in Spain and Germany. The name to watch here is 21-year-old right-winger Takefusa Kubo. The former Real Madrid youngster moved to Real Sociedad this past summer for more minutes and has two goals and two assists to his name in 10 starts. At 15 years, 10 months and 11 days, he was the youngest goalscorer in Japanese League history and could show the world why Madrid coveted him at such a young age. Ritsu Doan (SC Freiburg, 24) is another candidate here.
Spain: Yéremy Pino
Most of Spain’s youngsters are already well-known in the football world thanks to playing for Barcelona: Pedri, Gavi, Ansu Fati, Eric García. Instead, let’s go with 20-year-old Villareal right-winger Yéremy Pino, who had a mini-breakout year in La Liga last season after posting six goals and four assists in 31 games (21 starts). He’s a right-footed right winger who is sound technically with great footwork despite not playing inverted, and even though he lacks top-end pace on the flanks, he’s still a threat to win 1-v-1’s against fullbacks. Nico Williams (Athletic Club, 20) and Pau Torres (Villareal, 25) are other options.
Germany: Youssoufa Moukoko
Nineteen-year-old Bayern Munich sensation Jamal Musiala is bound to make headline after headline if Germany goes far, but he’s already broken out at such a young age. But even younger is Borussia Dortmund’s 17-year-old striker Youssoufa Moukoko, who has had to step into a big role with Sébastien Haller’s cancer diagnosis and Anthony Modeste’s ineffectiveness. He’s stepped up to lead the line in such an impressive manner, logging six goals and three assists in 14 games (eight starts). He’s the youngest player in the 2022 World Cup and is definitely a talent for the future – and one who could solve Germany’s recent No. 9 issues.
Morocco: Azzedine Ounahi
Morocco has been gifted two of the best young right backs in the game in Achraf Hakimi (PSG) and Noussair Mazraoui (Bayern Munich). But both have already made their big moves, which brings this to Angers SCO 22-year-old midfielder Azzedine Ounahi. He has nine caps to his name and might not be a go-to starter in Qatar, but he’s in the 99th percentile in dribbles completed, 90th in touches in the attacking penalty box, 82nd in shots total and 77th in interceptions. There’s an intriguing talent here for Morocco if it optimizes him.
Canada: Jonathan David
Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich) is the face of the Canadian squad, but not far behind him is striker Jonathan David. He’s regarded as the nation’s second-best player and has been a rising youngster in Europe, but the 22-year-old is still looking for his breakout moment. Perhaps Qatar could be the one, as the 5-foot-11 No. 9 already has nine goals and three assists to his name in 15 league games with Lille in France’s Ligue 1. If Canada is to top Belgium and/or Croatia to advance in Group F, David and Davies will need to be on fire in attack.
Croatia: Joško Gvardiol
Croatia might not make a surprise World Cup Final run in 2022, but it still has some intriguing talent worth keeping an eye on. One of them is center-back Joško Gvardiol, who is 20 years old and plays for RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga. At 6-foot-1 and 176 pounds, Gvardiol is insanely fast and great with his feet at his position, and he can also play as a left back if needed. Among center backs, he’s in the 99th percentile in dribbles completed and 96th in progressive passes. It’s hard to find quality left-footed center backs, but Gvardiol has future star written all over him.
Belgium: Loïs Openda
Belgium’s best chances to win a major tournament might have faded, but its nostalgia-filled squad also has some propitious young talent who could keep up the momentum in Qatar. The one to watch here is 22-year-old Loïs Openda, a striker who has been a revelation with RC Lens’ shock rise up the Ligue 1 table this season. Openda is freakishly fast and has a knack for goal, netting seven times in 15 league games (11 starts) this season. He might be more effective than the struggling Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard if given the chance.
Cameroon: Bryan Mbeumo
The Indomitable Lions are competing in a tough Group G alongside Brazil, Serbia and Switzerland, but their squad received a boost when Brentford winger Bryan Mbeumo switched his allegiance from France to Cameroon. The 23-year-old winger has one cap to his name and has been a vital part of Brentford’s strong EPL campaign, with three goals and one assist in 15 games and starts. With Eric Choupo-Moting (Bayern Munich) in tremendous form, Mbeumo will be relied upon to help create chances in the attack.
Switzerland: Gregor Kobel
The Swiss are entering Qatar with two great options between the sticks: Yann Sommer (Borussia Monchengladbach) and Gregor Kobel (Borussia Dortmund). Sommer, 33, is the usual starter when healthy, but he’s facing some injury doubts that forced Switzerland to bring up four goalies in case he can’t play. If he can’t, that pushes the 24-year-old Kobel to the starting role, where he’s been excellent for a Dortmund team that hasn’t made it easy for him when conceding shots. Goalkeepers tend to hit their peaks in their 30s, but you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference with Kobel’s maturity.
Serbia: Sergej Milinković-Savić
As another strong darkhorse contender, the Serbians have plenty of top options in the starting XI, most notably Sergej Milinković-Savić. Though not necessarily young by the sport’s standards, the 27-year-old Milinković-Savić is one of the most underrated midfielders in the world because he plays for a Lazio side in Serie A that doesn’t draw too much attention. But Milinković-Savić is an exceptional athlete who can play all midfield positions and logged 11 goals and 10 assists in the league last year, and already has three goals and seven assists this season. Maybe this tournament could lead to Milinković-Savić’s big move in Europe. Dušan Vlahović is also young at 22, but he made his big move to Juventus in January.
Brazil: Gabriel Martinelli
Almost all of Brazil’s players have broken out in football in some form or fashion, which is not at all common among the teams at the World Cup. Perhaps the one to go with here is 21-year-old left-winger Gabriel Martinelli, who is in the midst of his best season with top-of-the-EPL-table Arsenal. He has five goals and two assists in 14 league starts and is a workhorse on and off the ball. As a forward, he’s in the 84th percentile in blocks, 82nd in clearances and 77th in interceptions. His speed and finishing touch inside the box could be vital off the bench for a stacked Brazilian side.
South Korea: Lee Kang-in
Son Heung-min (Tottenham) is the main star for South Korea, and he’ll certainly need more help in a tough Group H. Lee Kang-in, 21, has five caps for South Korea and could assist in the goal contribution department. The Mallorca midfielder can play in a central attacking role or on either flank, and he’s in the 99th percentile in dribbles completed, 93rd in shots total and 92nd in shot-creating actions. The left-footed winger could be in for a promising tournament.
Ghana: Mohammed Kudus
Mohammed Kudus has an insane profile. The 22-year-old has struggled with injuries the last few seasons, but a healthy run so far in 2022-23 has seen him breakout with Ajax at the club level, and Ghana will need his versatility in Qatar. He can play as a CAM, false 9, RW or in center midfield, and he has five league goals in 14 games (five starts) in the Eredivisie this season. He’s in the 99th percentile in non-penalty expected goals, passes completed, pass completion percentage and dribbles completed, with much more 90th percentiles in other categories. Kamaldeen Sulemana (Stade Rennais) is the other option here.
Uruguay: Facundo Torres
Facundo Torres broke out with Orlando City in his first season in Major League Soccer the last few months. The 22-year-old left-winger logged nine goals and eight assists in 33 league games (29 starts) and could be a strong option to create chances off the bench with a striking core that includes Luis Suárez, Edinson Cavani and Darwin Núñez. Núñez would’ve been the name here after a strong campaign with Benfica last season, but he made a big-money move to Liverpool this summer and is a rising talent in England.
Portugal: Rafael Leão
Cristiano Ronaldo, 37, is the outlier in a revamped young Portuguese attack. João Felix (22), Gonçalo Ramos (21) and Andre Silva (26) are the key options up top, along with 23-year-old AC Milan left-winger Rafael Leão. Leão is one of the best up-and-coming stars in Europe, and his pace and power on the left flank causes a multitude of problems for right backs. He has six goals and four assists in 14 league games (12 starts) after having 11 goals and 10 assists in 34 league games (31 starts) last season. His contract is also expiring in the summer of 2024, so a strong tournament now could have clubs swarming for his signature sooner rather than later.