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Breakout stars: seven FIFA U-20 World Cup players to watch
The showpiece youth international tournament makes its long-awaited return. With it comes a new generation of talent
Erling Braut Haaland, Rafael Leão, Darwin Núñez, Julián Álvarez, Moussa Diaby – four years ago, at the last FIFA U-20 World Cup, talent was abundant.
On May 20, in a brand-new stadium in the heart of Argentina, the showpiece tournament will make its long-awaited return. The world has changed much since Ukraine triumphed in Poland, but one thing will remain true: the tournament will again be a hotbed of talent who will, over the coming months, skyrocket into mainstream consciousness.
Four years ago, Erling Braut Haaland did just that. His nine goals against Honduras in 2019 – a single-game record at any FIFA international tournament at any level – went viral, and they were quickly followed up by 29 for Red Bull Salzburg later that year, then 86 in 89 for Borussia Dortmund, then 51 in 47 for Manchester City. Yet people still remember the goals against Panama.
Everyone knows the name Rafael Leão today, but his U-20 World Cup adventure in 2019 was one of his last in relative obscurity. Portugal underwhelmed that year - they crashed out in the group stages - but Leão produced flashes in his short campaign that made scouts sit up and take notice. Among them were those who, a few months later, helped bring him to San Siro - a move that turned Leão into a global superstar and won AC Milan the Scudetto.
If you’re ever bored, scouring through squad lists from previous youth international tournaments in this way is always enlightening. Just have a look at the names that went to the 2017 edition. There’s Champion’s League winner Fede Valverde, there’s Premier League Player of the Season Rúben Dias…Argentina’s squad included several players who would go on to conquer the world in Qatar, including Gonzalo Montiel, who you may know as the scorer of a rather famous penalty kick.
One day we’ll look back on this tournament in the same way. More exciting than hindsight, however, is knowing who to look for before the tournament finally returns on May 20. We’re going to cover the action in-depth here on SCOUTED Notebook, and to kick things off we’ve compiled a list of the prospects we’re most excited about.
Fresh from leaving the Aomori Yamada High School in 2021, Kuryu Matsuki stepped straight into the FC Tokyo first team for the following J1 League season. He played over 2,400 minutes in all as one of the youngest regular starters in a high-quality division.
At club level, Matsuki is an all-action midfielder that develops play through the thirds and, more specifically, the left-sided channels. His compactness and combativity is supplemented by neat technical control, a mix which allows him to play at quicker tempos and tighter angles, hustling to break up play.
At the recent AFC U-20 Asia Cup, Matsuki captained a Japan side that reached the semi-finals, playing in a more off-ball role that was focussed on the final third. He was an animator, a driver, the link that turned build-up sequences into dangerous attacks in and around the box. He will likely reprise that role at this tournament, but don’t be surprised if you see him propping up play from deeper areas too.
Neither should you be if Matsuki makes the leap to European football within the coming year, if not the next few months. Clubs will undoubtedly be watching him closely, and this U-20 World Cup will be a good opportunity to gauge his talents in a different environment.
Robert Renan comes into this tournament as one of the more established talents on show. Having broken into Corinthians’ first team last June, things have moved very quickly for the Brasília-born defender in the subsequent eleven months.
After just 10 starts in Brazil’s top flight, Renan was flipped on to Russian giants Zenit. He then played a key role in his country’s U-20 Sudamericano championship triumph, and even earned a call-up to Brazil’s senior squad in March’s international break.
The 20-year-old is a centre-back that has high-level traits on both sides of the ball. As a defender, Renan’s mobility – supple sharpness in speed and agility – enables him to be proactive, nipping in ahead of opponents to intercept play or shutting down attackers in isolated situations. Not the biggest, he lacks presence in aerial duels and is prone to drifting out of position at times, but a locked-in Renan is capable of holding down his half of the pitch with apparent ease.
In possession, Renan is a left-footer that is comfortable and confident in fulfilling a significant role in build-up play. He quickly creates angles to receive the ball, manipulates it using the sole of his foot, punches passes through the first line of pressure with crisp technique and steps into midfield assertively.
Mobile, adaptable, composed, left-footed – Renan possesses a centre-back profile that not only stands out on the pitch, but features heavily on the wish-lists of many top clubs. It’s no surprise that clubs like Real Madrid already hold him in high regard. A strong showing at this tournament could be a launchpad to that level.
You will be hearing a lot about Kendry Páez. Born in 2007, he has been on a fast-track to the highest levels for a while, playing multiple years up on the domestic and international stage, doing so by four years at this tournament.
Páez is a graduate of the excellent youth system that Independiente del Valle have cultivated on the edge of Quito, Ecuador’s capital city. A relatively obscure club, they’ve risen to prominence in domestic and continental competition in South America over the past decade by implementing and adhering to a sophisticated philosophy that revolves around home-grown talent. They integrate, develop and sell international-level players at a prolific rate, with the likes of Moisés Caicedo and Piero Hincapié among their biggest academy successes.
Having starred at the recent U-17 Sudamericano Championship and made his Copa Libertadores debut, Páez comes into this tournament with a great sense of intrigue and extremely obvious potential. His leggy frame catches the eye much as his skilful ball control, particularly when the two come together to skip away from a defender.
His skillset comes alive when he shifts inside the right wing, angling toward the box on his versatile left foot. Páez has that knack of keeping control of the ball even when tackled, then he has the pure creative and ball-striking talent to threaten the goal with clever passes and incisive shooting.
Chelsea have stolen in to secure Páez ahead of what may be an explosive breakthrough into the mainstream. They’ve reportedly agreed a fee that could top out at €20 million, a huge sum for a 16-year-old but one that could look like a snip with hindsight.
South Korea reached the final of the 2019 edition, and will undoubtedly have similar ambitions this year. The prospect that could capture most attention is their youngest, a 2004-born centre-back currently playing in the second division.
Kim Ji-soo’s introduction to senior football at Seongnam City was difficult. He won just four of his first 19 appearances across a four-month stint that ultimately ended in relegation from K League 1. But those testing circumstances didn’t stop him from impressing.
Despite his age, he’s built like a tried-and-tested top-level defender already with towering height and a sturdy frame. He moves well for his size too – his movements are relaxed but controlled, another factor which adds to the intrigue.
That relaxed style is even more noticeable when Kim is in possession, contributing to build-up play from the defensive line. His composure is impressive, and so too is his comfort when playing off either foot. The latter is linked to the former, with Kim’s proficiency off both sides meaning he has multiple options to play out of pressure.
As a defender, Kim’s level-headed approach shines through again – he rarely seems flustered or rushed. The 18-year-old can run with an attacker and lever them off the ball using his solid physique just as easily as he can step in to pinch possession and get on the front foot. He isn’t liable to prefer either style, he adapts to what the specific situation requires.
Kim comes into this tournament a couple of months after starting for South Korea at the AFC U-20 Asia Cup, and you can expect him to start at this World Cup. Like Brazil’s Robert Renan, Kim’s profile as a centre-back is one that big clubs will be tracking very closely.
After his exploits at last summer’s Under-19 Euros, Chelsea didn’t waste time swooping on Cesare Casadei. One of Italy’s finest emerging talents, The Blues spent around €20 million on the former Inter midfielder, signalling his enormous potential.
He is starting to make good on it. After six months in Chelsea’s development set-up, Casadei spent the back-end of his season on a successful loan in the Championship at Reading, making 15 appearances and scoring his first senior goal.
The Italian is an imposing midfield presence. He is enormous, strong, and mobile, with a physical profile that we have likened to Sergej Milinkovic-Savic in the past. He possesses some of the qualities ahead of the ball that also liken him to the Serbian, with his prowess in the penalty area making him stand out massively in Italy’s Under-19 Primavera competition.
He is equally diligent in midfield. He is a brilliant ball retainer, making great use of his frame to protect possession. He is impactful with the ball too - his role is generally as the most attacking-minded of a midfield three, tasked with carrying possession between lines and looking for short, incisive passes.
He is not your stereotypically large, defensive stopper, but is still an excellent recovery defender with surprising speed as well as the physical attributes to thrive defending man-to-man.
Leading an Italy team that has been deprived of its star power of Fabio Miretti, Giorgio Scalvini and Willy Gnonto due to club commitments, much will rest on the shoulders of Casadei to drive the Azzurrini to World Cup triumph.
Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri hinted at Matias Soulé’s eagerness to play in this home World Cup, and after Argentina were drafted in as hosts to replace Indonesia, he got his wish.
While opportunities to play at senior level have been sparse for Soulé this season, he has dazzled at youth level for Juventus since he moved as a teenager from Velez Sarsfield in Argentina. This form pushed him all the way to the fringes of the senior team, making him one of the first products of Juventus’ Next Gen project to do so.
As we’ve done in the past, it’s hard not to compare him at least superficially to a former Argentinian Juventus star in Paulo Dybala. Soulé’s left foot might not yet be quite as precise as Dybala’s, but it’s nonetheless one of his greatest assets, with his preferred technique matching the curling style that Dybala has become synonymous with.
Outside of that, Soulé is a highly skilled technician that can function either off the right cutting inside, or behind a striker - as he did with aplomb in Juventus’ semi-final run in the 2021/22 edition of the UEFA Youth League.
Soulé’s game is reliant on his smarts and technique, not any extraordinary physical attributes. He is very lightweight and not overly quick, but he plays with nice tempo and flow and excels in transition moves where he can float between lines with or without possession.
Given his lack of consistent senior minutes, it will be great to see him get a proper run at some competitive football after being largely deprived of it this season. At this level he has the qualities to properly control games as an attacking force, bringing creativity, off the ball movement, and finishing ability. He can be a real difference maker…and potentially bring home another World Cup for Argentina.
Jarrell Quansah, one of the leaders of England’s Under-19 European Championship-winning team from last year, is back as England try to turn continental triumph into an international one. He enters this tournament a vastly more experienced player after a solid half-season loan spell at Joey Barton’s Bristol Rovers in League One.
At last year’s Under-19 Euros, Quansah formed part of a formidable defensive trio alongside Peterborough’s Ronnie Edwards and Manchester City’s Callum Doyle. The trio conceded just two goals in five matches on their way to the title and all three have gone on to play significant senior minutes in the Football League this season.
Quansah, of Liverpool, looks to have all the qualities of a high-potential centre-back. He is extremely big (especially at this level), even if a little gangly. He’s a front-footed, proactive defender that likes to step up and impose himself in games with his size and long limbs. Again, his height allows him to compete aggressively in the air and he attacks high balls with intent. With the ball he is extremely comfortable as both a passer and as a ball-carrier that can quickly attack open space into midfield.
He still has some defensive fundamentals to work on in terms of his ability to react quickly and instinctively to the movement of attackers around him, but these issues are counter-balanced by his upside which, with his physical attributes and quality in possession, is huge.
With one final chance to impose himself on youth football before embarking on a senior career, look for Quansah to have a dominant Under-20 World Cup.
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