The World Cup is a showcase for footballers to make a name for themselves on the biggest possible stage for international football. However, it tends to be limited as far as age groups of participating players are concerned. That said, there is always a young player or two at each tournament who ends up showing the world what they’re made of, and becomes a household name in both their home country and across the world as a result. In this list, we’ll be counting down the 10 men who made their first big impression on an international stage at the World Cup at an age when most of them wouldn’t have been able to drink a beer in the United States.
A few of the players on this list made themselves World Cup stars in their teens, while others had just entered their 20s. Some of them are from the last two World Cups in 2006 and 2010, and all three of those players happen to be German. One player on this list was just 17 when he made his first big splash in a World Cup tournament – and he’s arguably the greatest player to ever do it. All in all, this proves that the World Cup is the chance of a lifetime if such young guns are lucky enough to be selected for their national team’s 23-man squad, and they have certainly seized that opportunity with both hands.
Many of these young players didn’t end up winning the trophy by the time all was said and done, but it’s not so much about their team’s end result as it is about the individual’s impact at the tournament at such a young age. In the case of all 10 of these players, their impact was nothing short of major when their opportunity came. Let’s take a look.
10 Robert Prosinecki, Yugoslavia (1990, 21 years old)
Known for his technical ability and dribbling prowess throughout his career, Robert Prosinecki first made a name for himself at the 1990 World Cup in Italy as a member of Yugoslavia while he was still playing his club football for Red Star Belgrade. In this tournament, he would score a goal in Croatia’s 4-1 victory over the United Arab Emirates, as well as converting a penalty in the shootout of Yugoslavia’s losing effort in the quarterfinals against Argentina. His performances opened the door to a move to Real Madrid the following year, and he would be a member of the Croatian team that would finish third at France ’98.
9 Landon Donovan, United States (2002, 20 years old)
Arguably the best player the U.S. has ever produced, Landon Donovan first made a massive splash onto the footballing scene at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. Playing for an American team that made the quarterfinals following an awful showing at the 1998 tournament in France, the then-20-year-old Donovan scored two goals against Poland and Mexico respectively on his way toward winning the Best Young Player Award for the tournament. Donovan has remained a major fixture with the American team ever since, and is expected to play in his final World Cup tournament this summer in Brazil.
8 Enzo Scifo, Belgium (1986, 20 years old)
A member of Belgian giants Anderlecht at the time, Enzo Scifo represented his home country in a big way as a 20-year-old at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, scoring two goals against Iraq and the Soviet Union respectively to help Belgium make it all the way to the semifinals, eventually losing the third place match to France. His performances preceded a move to Inter Milan the following year, and would appear at the World Cup for Belgium the next three tournaments for a total of 16 games at the finals, eventually gaining 84 caps for his country.
7 Bastian Schweinsteiger, Germany (2006, 21 years old)
Bastian Schweinsteiger has achieved plenty for a player who hasn’t even reached his 30s yet, but his performances at the 2006 World Cup in his home country of Germany were arguably what helped establish him on the world stage. His brace against Portugal in the third-place match giving him the Man of the Match Award for that game was a major highlight of his glittering showing at the tournament. Ever since, Schweinsteiger has been a mainstay of Die Mannschaft, and is expected to do so again when Germany takes to the pitch in Brazil at this year’s tournament in June.
6 Lukas Podolski, Germany (2006, 21 years old)
Following the 2006 World Cup in his home country, German forward Lukas Podolski won the Best Young Player Award for the entire tournament over Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Although Podolski’s career hasn’t panned out to be nearly what Messi’s or Ronaldo’s have been, his performance at the 2006 tournament was nothing to shake a stick at: as Miroslav Klose’s attacking partner, Podolski scored three goals (one against Ecuador and two against Sweden) to propel the Germans to third place. After having made Joachim Löw’s provisional 30-man squad for this year’s tournament in Brazil, it’s unknown whether or not he’ll be able to add to his five-goal tally from his history at the World Cup.
5 Michael Owen, England (1998, 18 years old)
After establishing himself as a promising young teenager at Liverpool, Glenn Hoddle selected Michael Owen as part of his 23-man England squad for the 1998 World Cup in France despite Owen only getting his first cap that same year. The then-18-year-old Owen wasted little time making a name for himself in France: he scored as a substitute against Romania in the group stage, and again in the Round of 16 in a losing effort against Argentina. Owen would stay in the national set-up in the next two tournaments in 2002 and 2006, but his only two goals after France ’98 would come in the 2002 tournament against Denmark and Brazil.
4 Giuseppe Bergomi, Italy (1982, 18 years old)
Before ending his career with 81 caps for the Italian national side, Giuseppe Bergomi burst onto the scene at 18 years of age at the 1982 World Cup in Spain in a campaign that saw the Azzurri capture the sport’s most coveted trophy. The mustache-sporting Bergomi had only played 30 times for Inter before the tournament, but managed to get onto the team and put up impressive performances against Poland and West Germany in the knockout stages. Bergomi would end up becoming one of the greatest defenders Italy’s ever seen, and played for the Azzurri in the 1986 and 1990 World Cups.
3 Thomas Müller, Germany (2010, 20 years old)
Coming off his rookie season with Bayern Munich as the 2010 World Cup in South Africa approached, it was unknown how much of an impact the then-20-year-old Thomas Müller would have at the tournament. He answered that question emphatically: he scored five goals in six matches as Germany went to third place for the second straight World Cup finals tournament, and won the Golden Boot and Best Young Player Awards. Later that year, he would be shortlisted for FIFA’s Ballon d’Or. Müller is expected to add more goals to his tally at this year’s tournament in Brazil.
2 Franz Beckenbauer, West Germany (1966, 20 years old)
One of the greatest defenders in the history of the game first made his big impression on the international stage at the 1966 World Cup in England. 20 years old at the time, Franz Beckenbauer scored twice against the Swiss in West Germany’s first match of the tournament, and would score two more goals to finish as the third-highest scorer of the finals. West Germany would lose in the final to the hosts, but it was the beginning of a very bright career for Der Kaiser, as he would play at the tournaments in 1970 and 1974, where he would help West Gemany lift the trophy.
1 Pele, Brazil (1958, 17 years old)
The man widely regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time put up possibly his most unforgettable performance as a precocious 17-year-old at the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden. Coming on for Brazil a bit later on in their campaign, he assisted Vava’s goal against the Soviet Union in the first round, and eventually scored one goal against Wales and a hat trick against France in the semifinal to bring Brazil to the final, where he would score two more goals against the hosts to give Brazil their first ever World Cup trophy. No young player has had such a massive impact on a team’s fortunes ever since, and no young player may ever do so again.