The FIFA Under-20 World Cup kicks off on Thursday in Poland, and for young, developing players climbing the professional ladder, the tournament represents the perfect opportunity to showcase their talents on an international stage.
Players like Mexico’s Diego Lainez (who made the move from Club America to Real Betis this past January) and USA's Tim Weah (who just finished a loan to Celtic from PSG) are familiar names to North American soccer fans, given their potential-filled starts for their respective senior national teams. Equally recognizable is Atlanta United’s big-money signing Ezequiel Barco, who will look to take advantage of five-time U-20 World Cup winner Brazil’s absence and help Argentina win a record seventh title–much like a young rising star by the name of Lionel Messi was able to do in 2005.
The pool of developing talent throughout the world is perhaps bigger than ever before. Given the fact that many U-20-level players go out on loan and take on bigger responsibilities at the club level, teenagers are maturing much faster on the field. The talent at this U-20 World Cup, therefore, is plentiful.
Take a look at five stars on the rise to watch in Poland in the coming weeks:
Leonardo Campana, Ecuador
After winning the U-20 South American Championship with Ecuador and becoming the tournament’s top scorer, Campana earned his first senior call up under Hernan Dario Gomez when the South American nation faced the U.S and Honduras this past March. Campana is a lethal striker with tremendous mobility and an eye for goal. Currently playing for Ecuador’s Barcelona Sporting Club, reports suggest he will move to Europe this summer, with Atletico Madrid, AC Milan and Inter all said to be showing interest in the 18-year-old star.
Ibrahima Niane, Senegal
After a one-year absence in the top flight, French club Metz will return to Ligue 1 next season, and Niane has been a major contributor toward the club’s success, helping his team with 10 goals this past season. It was his goal in the French Cup back in January against Monaco that sealed the 3-1 win and eventually confirmed Thierry Henry’s exit. At 20, Niane is very experienced, having now played for Metz for two seasons.
Juan “Cucho” Hernandez, Colombia
Not many young players can say they have scored both at Camp Nou and Santiago Bernabeu. Fewer can say they did in the same season. And an even smaller number can say they did it in the third minute of a game. Well, the 20-year-old Hernandez managed just that with Huesca. On loan from Watford, the Colombian attacker was not able to save the Spanish club from relegation, so he will most likely return to England, hoping to impress Javi Gracia and claim a place in the first team. Regardless, Hernandez is a star in the making. Watford did not allow him to participate in the South American championship, so the versatile forward will look to make some noise on the world stage, instead.
Gedson Fernandes, Portugal
The 20-year-old Benfica product impressed this year after helping his club win the Portuguese league for the fifth time in six seasons. His teammate, Joao Felix, currently grabs much of the attention, but thanks to his performances in the midfield at the start of the campaign, Fernandes earned call-ups to the senior team last September. He didn’t feature in the Nations League or Euro qualifiers, but he continued to develop in 2019, and other teams began to pay attention. Tottenham's Mauricio Pochettino, for example, is said to be a fan of Fernandes’s playmaking and defensive abilities as a central midfielder.
Erling Braut Haland, Norway
At 6-foot-3, the son of former Leeds and Man City defender Alf-Inge Haland is a tenacious striker with an aggressive appetite for goal. Before securing a move to Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg back in January, the 18-year-old Haland was delivering for Molde, securing 20 goals in 50 appearances in all competitions for the Norwegian side. His manager at the time was none other than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who compares him to a younger version of Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku. The Red Devils will be scouting him once again during the tournament, so we shouldn’t be surprised if Haland finds himself in the Premier League in the future.