As his first-half header against Iran opened England’s account at the 2022 World Cup, there was no doubt that 19-year-old Jude Bellingham deserved his place in Gareth Southgate’s opening line-up.
Qatar was also a place for other teenagers to announce their arrival in the world game. Spain’s Gavi became the youngest scorer at the FIFA World Cup finals since Pelé in 1958, while Germany’s Jamal Musiala was a bright spark in an otherwise disappointing campaign.
It’s always especially exciting when a teenager makes their mark on the football stage. There’s something special about seeing a future talent show exactly what they are capable of, so here are five of the greatest moments when future stars burst onto the scene as teenagers.
1. Wayne Rooney
Rooney had already made headlines when he became the then-Premiership’s youngest scorer with a dipping effort over David Seaman against Arsenal for his boyhood club, Everton. The last-minute winner ended Arsenal’s 30-match unbeaten run – five days before Rooney’s 17th birthday.
Having joined Manchester United for an initial £20 million – then a record fee for a teenager – his debut against Fenerbahce in the group stages of the Champions League confirmed the England man would become a fearsome name in world football.
Aged just 18, Rooney lashed home a hat-trick against the Turkish side in a 6-2 win. Of course, he went on to be a fixture in the United and England sides for nearly 15 years, scoring 183 goals for the Red Devils and becoming England’s all-time record goalscorer (a feat likely to be bettered by Harry Kane in 2023).
2. Cesc Fabregas
By the time he reached age 20, Fabregas had already made over 150 appearances for Arsenal, an incredible showing for a player so young.
The Spaniard – a product of Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy – made his debut for the Gunners in October 2003 in a League Cup tie at home to Rotherham United. In doing so, he became Arsenal’s youngest-ever first team player, aged just 16 years and 177 days. Later that season he became the club’s youngest-ever goalscorer.
Throughout an impressive career, Fabregas has made more than 500 first team appearances for Arsenal, Barcelona, Chelsea, and Monaco, joining Italian club Como in 2022. Of course, he also set up Andres Iniesta’s goal that won the 2010 FIFA World Cup for Spain.
Having hit the big time so early, it’s easy to forget that Fabregas is still only 35! Indeed, you’d have seen him come off the bench for Como in their 2-0 win over AS Cittadella in Serie B just after Christmas.
“The king of football has left us but his legacy will never be forgotten.”
Those were the words of Kylian Mbappe after the passing of Brazilian football genius Pele, aged 82, last December.
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pele began playing for Santos at the age of just 15, making his debut for the Brazilian national team a year later. His goal in a 2-1 defeat to Argentina in 1957 made him the country’s youngest-ever goalscorer – a record he still holds today.
Pele came to the world’s attention as a 17-year-old in the 1958 World Cup, scoring a hat-trick in a 5-2 semi-final win over France, and then twice in the final as Brazil beat Sweden by the same score. He was then part of the Brazil team that won the World Cup in 1962 and 1970, and he remains the only player to ever win the tournament three times.
His glittering 20-year career from 1957 to 1977 saw him score 757 goals in 831 games, although Santos claim his tally was closer to 1,000.
4. Karim Benzema
Karim Benzema is by far and away one of the most prolific strikers of his era, having bagged vital goals for club and country throughout his illustrious career.
But all players must start somewhere, and Benzema made his professional debut as a 17-year-old in January 2005, assisting the second goal in a 2-0 win over Metz in a Lyon team featuring Michael Essien, Juninho Pernambucano, and Eric Abidal.
After impressing for Lyon, including Champions League braces against Steaua Bucharest and Dynamo Kyiv, the striker made his international debut in March 2007 – aged just 19 – scoring the only goal of the match.
In the season Benzema turned 20 he scored 31 goals in 51 games, with a goal against Manchester United in the Champions League raising speculation he was set to join the English giants. Instead, he opted for Real Madrid, where he has won four La Liga titles, five Champions Leagues, and two Copa del Reys. He also won the Ballon d’Or in 2022.
5. Michael Owen
While local favourite Robbie Fowler scored 35 league goals before his 20th birthday, his teenage exploits were overshadowed by one of his own teammates.
Having scored on his Liverpool debut as a 17-year-old in 1997, Michael Owen enjoyed a fairy-tale first full season in the Premier League. He won the Golden Boot as an 18-year-old and was named as the PFA Young Player of the Year and the Premier League Player of the Season. He was even runner-up to Zinedine Zidane in the World Player of the Year award.
Owen then took his talents onto the international stage, scoring a wonderful solo goal in the 1998 World Cup 2-2 draw with Argentina – a moment that helped Owen win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.
Injuries eventually took their toll on the striker as he moved to Real Madrid, Newcastle United, Manchester United and Stoke City – but imagine how many England goals he might have scored if he had remained fully fit for 15 years?