2022 World Cup: Bellingham, Musiala, Kuol and the teen prodigies to watch in Qatar

Spain could field Pedri, 19, and Gavi, 18, in their midfield while Garang Kuol will look to be Australia's supersub

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The goal that all but settled the 2018 World Cup final, the fifth of the night, came from the boot of a teenager. Kylian Mbappe had already stamped his precocious authority on the tournament and in Moscow he emulated a legend. Before Mbappe, nobody under the age of 20 had scored in a World Cup final since 17-year-old Pele in 1958.

Sixty years is a long gap. It would be surprising if it takes six more decades for another teen prodigy to join Mbappe and Pele on their select list. Talent in the professional game is scouted and developed ever younger, the gifted promoted earlier and earlier. And World Cups are no longer deemed too daunting a stage for kids young enough to still be at school, as the 1978 World Cup was for a 17-year-old Argentine, one Diego Maradona; or the 1998 World Cup for Nicolas Anelka, left out of France’s squad to some disquiet, at the same age as Mbappe was in 2018.

Both countries went on to win those World Cups in front of home crowds. Maradona went on to play in four other tournaments, dominating in 1986, sent home in disgrace in 1994. Anelka, as it happens, would be sent home from a World Cup, too - in 2010, after falling out with France’s head coach. The grown-up versions of ex-prodigies are not always wiser versions.

At Qatar 2022 will be a number of outstanding teenagers. There are few more coveted midfielders in Europe right now than Jude Bellingham, galvaniser of Borussia Dortmund’s midfield. The arguments that England manager Gareth Southgate should give Bellingham, 19, senior responsibilities from early on at this World Cup are powerful.

Much is expected of Bellingham’s contemporary and friend, Jamal Musiala, formerly an England youth player, having spent his early years there, but now benefiting his native Germany with his confidence and thrilling close control. Like Bellingham, Musiala has a major tournament - last year’s European Championship - already on his resumé. He is Bayern Munich’s leading scorer so far this season, and a favourite of Hansi Flick, who became Germany’s head coach the summer after giving Musiala his debut as Bayern’s manager.

Bayern Munich's Jamal Musiala made the cut for Germany's World Cup squad. Getty Images

Flick has selected Youssoufa Moukoko, who turns 18 on Sunday, in his squad, a striker bettered on Dortmund’s list of goalscorers this term only by Bellingham. Moukoko was breaking records throughout his early teens, picked for Germany’s Under 16s when he was 13; the youngest ever Bundesliga debutant, and youngest goalscorer in Germany’s top division. There have been pauses in his sharp rise, but he has been far from overwhelmed, over the past three months, by the task of filling the vacancy left at his club by the departed Erling Haaland. Moukoko will be used from the substitutes’ bench - if at all - in Qatar, and has probably benefited from the increase in allowed squad rosters, up from 23 players to 26, and the fact Germany suffered pre-tournament injuries to strikers Timo Werner and Marco Reus.

Spain could field both Pedri, 19, and Gavi, 18, in their midfield, the Barcelona pair now well-established internationals. Fitness permitting, their club colleague Ansu Fati, who made a startling impact as a 16-year-old three autumns ago, might be lining up in front of them.

Xavi Simons, 19 and once a colleague of Ansu’s at Barcelona’s La Masia academy, is in the Netherlands squad. The midfielder is yet to win a senior cap but has been earmarked for stardom since his early teens. He left Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain, and, in search of regular playing time, departed Paris for PSV Eindhoven in June.

Xavi Simons has impressed for clubs side PSV Eindhoven, pushing him into Netherlands contention. EPA

It was a good move. Simons has benefited from this being a winter World Cup, his club performances since August pushing him into national team contention. So, too, Antonio Silva, 19 and only introduced to Benfica’s first team this season. He has looked so assured in central defence he is now in Portugal’s squad. The 19-year-old Belgium centre-back, Zeno Debast, has progressed just as fast.

But the real "bolter", a player picked suddenly on the basis of a flash of fine form, is Australia’s Garang Kuol. His career in the A-League so far consists only of substitute appearances. But so many of them have been match-changing that he will join Premier League Newcastle United in January.

Kuol has one cap - off the bench - so far. He only turned 18 in September. His first go at being the Socceroos’ World Cup supersub may well be on Tuesday, and he'd do it in distinguished company. Australia begin their tournament against France and Mbappe, who's now a lordly 23 years old.

Garang Kuol could become Australia's World Cup supersub. Getty Images
Updated: November 16, 2022, 6:49 AM
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