In 2017, England won the World Cup. It was the U20 edition, of course, but a World Cup is still a World Cup.
There was much excitement. The media drooled over Paul Simpson’s young Lions, tipping the starlets for big futures.
Unfortunately, England have not qualified for this year’s tournament in Poland, having been defeated by Norway in a play-off. Interestingly, they are the sixth consecutive champions to have failed to qualify for the subsequent U20 World Cup (Argentine were the last to do so, in 2007).
However, even without England, the tournament – which kicks off on May 23 – is certainly worth watching for the glittering array of young talent on display.
Here, we look at eight who may follow suit. And just as a note; these are not necessarily the eight best players at the tournament, rather the ones we at Football Whispers are most looking forward to seeing.
Diego Lainez (Mexico)
Over the years, we’ve read about countless players bearing the moniker ‘the insert nationality Messi’. Our personal favourite, although it’s not a nationality, is Xherdan Shaqiri being called ‘The Alpine Messi’.
Lainez has dubiously been given the ‘Mexican Messi’ treatment.
It’s all rubbish, of course. The likelihood is that we’ll never see a player quite like the Barcelona maestro again in our lifetime.
Lainez is seriously good, though. Comfortable on both feet, he is a shrewd operator in tight spaces, playing one-twos and creating chances in the blink of an eye.
His stock has risen significantly over the last 18 months, during which he has shone to help Mexico finish runners-up at the 2018 CONCACAF U-20 Championship, earned his first senior cap and bagged a dream move to Europe with Real Betis having helped boyhood club América to the Liga MX Apertura.
The 18-year-old attacking midfielder is itching for minutes, too, having found starts hard to come by in Seville under Quique Sétien. He is undoubtedly El Tri’s biggest hope.
Lee Kang-in (South Korea)
Highly thought of at Valencia, whom he joined in 2011, the 18-year-old is tipped to be South Korea’s next superstar.
And 2019 has already been a big year for Lee. He made his Valencia debut in January and earned his first senior international cap in March.
Having impressed for Valencia’s various underage teams, the Incheon-born starlet is ready to headline the young Taegeuk Warriors roster in Poland.
A natural winger, Lee is a hard-working attacker with an exciting future. No wonder Valencia inserted an €80million release clause into his contract.
Timothy Weah (United States)
It didn’t quite work out for Weah at Celtic. The 19-year-old scored on his debut for the Bhoys but struggled to nail down a place in the line-up before cutting short his loan spell to link up with his country ahead of the U20 World Cup.
The Paris Saint-Germain youngster scored regularly for his country’s U17 side and is in the rather unusual scenario of having represented the USMNT without having earned an U20 cap.
Having shone at the 2017 U17 World Cup, the striker will be keen to showcase his finishing skills as he eyes a path into the first-team at PSG alongside superstars Kylian Mbappé and Neymar.
However, ‘Timo’ decided not to participate in Celtic’s Scottish Cup final against Hearts. That will only add to the pressure in Poland as the United States take on Qatar, Nigeria and Ukraine in Group D.
Cucho Hernández (Colombia)
In 2013, Juan Quintero lit up the 2013 U20 World Cup group stages with his spectacular goal and silky skills.
Six years later, Cucho Hernández hopes to follow in the River Plate star’s footsteps.
The 20-year-old has established himself as a regular at Huesca, scoring 16 times last season to help Los Oscenses achieve promotion to La Liga for the first time in their history.
And while he was unable to save them from the drop this year, his performances attracted positive reviews. During 2018/19, he created 0.37 big chances per 90 and was regularly a potent threat on the counter-attack.
Colombia have been drawn in a tough group featuring hosts Poland and Senegal. They’ll need the Watford loanee to be at his brilliant best if they’re to progress.
Dan-Axel Zagadou (France)
Tournament favourites France boast an enviable array of talent and, while it would have been easy to plump for one of their fleet-footed attackers, we’ve decided to shine the light on Zagadou, who was given plenty of game time by Lucien Favre at Borussia Dortmund this season.
The 19-year-old defender endured a humbling experience at the hands of Bayern Munich recently but will be key to Les Bleuets’ chances of living up to their billing.
The totemic 6ft 5in centre-half is prone to mistakes, yes, but Poland represents a golden opportunity for him to put an up-and-down campaign with Dortmund behind him advance his international career.
An accurate passer who unsurprisingly dominates aerial battles, Zagadou will most likely partner Marseille’s Boubacar Kamara at the heart of Bernard Diomède’s back-line.
Salvatore Esposito (Italy)
Italy may not have attracted the same level of excitement as France, but underestimate Gli Azzurrini at your peril.
Paolo Nicolato’s squad includes several of the players who helped Italy to a runners-up finish at last summer’s European Under-19 Championship in Finland, including Christian Capone and Davide Frattesi.
Luca Pellegrini and Andrea Pinamonti will doubtless attract media attention, but we have our eyes on Esposito, the former Inter midfielder now at Ravenna.
Useless fact: he shares his name with Italian actor Salvatore Esposito, best known for playing Gennaro “Genny” Savastano in the acclaimed drama series Gomorrah.
Erling Håland (Norway)
The son of former Leeds United and Manchester City defender Alf-Inge Håland (of Roy Keane feud infamy), the lanky 18-year-old striker has an impressive record for Norway’s underage sides.
He also caught the eye at Molde, where he played under current Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær, before sealing a move to Red Bull Salzburg.
A powerful but mobile forward, Håland is an aggressive presser and adept at finding space. His movement and finishing will be crucial to Norway’s chances as they look to emerge from Group C, which also contains Honduras, New Zealand and Uruguay.
Not to be confused with Wolves striker Diogo Jota, the Benfica starlet is widely considered to be the future of Portuguese football alongside the much-hyped João Félix (who isn’t part of the squad due to his expected involvement for the seniors at the Nations League finals in June).
Linked with a move to Bayern Munich and Tottenham Hotspur, the 19-year-old’s performances will be closely scrutinised in Poland.
But with good reason. Jota has been a phenomenon at underage level, winning the U17 and U19 Euros in 2016 and 2018 respectively (finishing joint top scorer in the latter and being named in the team of the tournament in both).
A scintillating winger, Jota is part of an incredibly talented squad. Other potential show-stealers include Lille striker Rafael Leão, Wolves’ Rúben Vinagre and Jota’s Benfica teammate Florentino Luís.