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  • Some are next. Some are already now. We rank the top 20 Under-20 players in the world ahead of the 2017 U-20 World Cup in South Korea.
By Ben Lyttleton
May 16, 2017

The FIFA Under-20 World Cup kicks off this weekend, and not so long ago, it was a tournament that had scouts flocking to check out or discover the next big thing. How times have changed.

In today’s game, many players in that age group are already making waves in some of Europe’s top leagues or even in the latter stages of the Champions League, with development and production continuing to accelerate.

With some of the finest in that age group set to take center stage in South Korea, it's a perfect opportunity to rate the 20 best players in the world who are under 20. Our rankings took into account a range of factors: these include talent–however you define that nebulous term–potential, attitude and long-term upside.

We might have overlooked some seemingly obvious players, or even ranked some players in an order with which you disagree, but we believe these players will all be household names in a few years. Some, as you'll see, already are.

(Our cut-off for turning 20 was as of last week, when rosters for the U-20 World Cup were released. As a result, the likes of Anderlecht's Youri Tielemans and Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus are not eligible to make the cut, but Ousmane Dembele, who turned 20 on Monday, does.)

TOP 20 UNDER 20: 20-16 | 15-11 | 10-6 | 5-1

Position: Midfielder

Nationality: Dutch

Age: 19

The Ajax side that beat Lyon in the Europa League semifinal contained eight players aged under 21. What’s scary for Ajax’s rivals in the Netherlands is that there are many more talents just waiting to come through. Eiting is one such talent, a ball-playing defensive midfielder who has been with the club since he was 9. He was an ever-present force in Ajax’s run to the quarterfinals in the UEFA Youth League, and scored in the impressive 2-0 win over Juventus.

Eiting signed a three-year contract back in 2018 and next season will be looking to break into the first team.

What they're saying:

“Eiting is a controlling midfielder who has great vision. He is a player with a lot of potential.”

- Wim Jonk, former head of Ajax youth academy

NEXT: 19. Ryan Sessegnon, Fulham

Position: Left back

Nationality: English

Age: 16

One of two players on this list born in the 2000s, Sessegnon has been the breakout star in his first season in English football’s second tier, the Championship, where peers selected him in the end-of-season Team of the Year. An attacking left back, he became the youngest Championship player when he made his debut, and four days later he scored against Cardiff, setting another record.

He is fast, a solid defender, an excellent crosser and capable of getting up and down the flank. He can also play in midfield or as a winger. He is eligible to sign a pro contract when he turns 17 in May, but has been linked to Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United in England, as well as Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga. It will be interesting to see what decisions he makes in the summer, though all connected to Fulham will urge him to stay at Craven Cottage, where he is guaranteed game time. He played for England Under-17s in the European Championships last summer; he has already graduated to the Under-19s and cannot be far off the Under-21s now.

What they're saying:

“Ryan Sessegnon is one of the most talented young players in the country and he impressed many, many people in the games he played this season.”

Slavisa Jokanovic, Fulham coach

PREVIOUS: 20. Carel Eiting, Ajax | NEXT: 18. Vinicius Junior, Flamengo

Position: Forward

Nationality: Brazilian

Age: 16

The Under-17 South American Championship took place in March, and it had one star. Brazil lifted the trophy, winning seven of its nine games, and walking away as top scorer and best player was Vinicius Junior, a 16-year-old on Flamengo’s books who just made his first-team debut this past weekend. Vinicius scored seven goals from his starting position on the left side of a front three, and his dribbling at speed, strength on the ball, creativity when moving centrally and range of finishes, from lobs to instinctive toe-pokes, won over European scouts.

Three clubs have already reportedly met his €30 million release clause, but Spanish media have reported that Real Madrid might double that in a bid to secure the Brazilian as soon as he turns 18 in the summer of 2018. Real Madrid has missed out on Neymar and Gabriel Jesus in recent years and does not want to miss out again. While undoubtedly talented, plenty of others have starred in that tournament and not gone onto greatness. Vinicius has the talent to go all the way, but one wonders if dropping into Real Madrid at such an early age is the best route to the top.

What they're saying:

“Vinicius has everything to become a top-quality player, to move up to the senior Brazil squad and play for the biggest clubs around the world. He has a lot of technical qualities. He has remained balanced, and if he stays like that, he can reach the top.”

- Carlos Amadeu, Brazil Under-17 coach 

PREVIOUS: 19. Ryan Sessegnon, Fulham | NEXT: 17. Kai Havertz, Bayer Leverkusen

Position: Midfielder

Nationality: German

Age: 17

Havertz models his game on Mesut Ozil, but even Germany’s World Cup winner was not a Bundesliga regular at 17, which is when this youngster made his debut in October, and in April became the youngest scorer in Leverkusen history. He has been with the club since he was 11, and played for Germany U-16s at 15. Havertz helped Germany reach the Under-17 European Championship semifinals last summer. He skipped Leverkusen’s Under-19 side, as then-coach Roger Schmidt was impressed with him.

A central midfielder for the youth sides, Havertz has played wide on the right for Leverkusen, and his box-to-box style has earned some comparisons with Michael Ballack. He missed Leverkusen’s Champions League last-16 second leg against Atletico Madrid not because wasn't ready for the stage–but because he was sitting through a four-hour geography exam. He will have plenty of practical experience of traveling Europe if his current form continues. The next stop could be Poland, where the Under-21 European Championship will be held this summer.

What they're saying:

“He's another outstanding great talent we have developed. His ability to stroke the ball, to do the simple things in full serenity is outstanding. If his development continues at this pace, then he will a brilliant addition to our squad.”

Rudi Völler, Leverkusen sporting director 

PREVIOUS: 18. Vinicius Junior, Flamengo | NEXT: 16. Vitão, Palmeiras

Position: Center back

Nationality: Brazilian

Age: 17

Things have been moving very quickly this year for the center back, who captained Brazil Under-17s to success in the South American Championship in March. That was followed by his first call-up to the Palmeiras squad for the Copa Libertadores. A few years earlier, Coritiba and Atletico Paranaense rejected Vitão, who at the time was playing for training club PTSC, which is where Jadson, Dagoberto and Fernandinho began their careers.

Palmeiras signed him in the summer of 2015, and he quickly starred for the Under-15 team. International recognition followed, and it’s no wonder he has the armband: he is a natural leader, says his father, Claudinei Matos, and keeps his feet on the ground. He is also a big-game player, as he showed in Brazil’s South American Championship success. The team had the best defense in the tournament. He is reportedly on the radar of Manchester City but first needs to some game time for the Palmeiras first team. Given that Thiago Martins is out with a long-term injury, his moment could come sooner than later.

What they're saying:

“Today’s defenders must be brave, fast and be able to pass. Vitão has all those qualities, and as he matures, he will improve.”

- Eduardo Baptista, Palmeiras coach

PREVIOUS: 17. Kai Havertz, Bayer Leverkusen | NEXT: 15. Javier Ontiveros, Malaga

Position: Midfielder

Nationality: Spanish

Age: 19

Malaga has waited nine years for a local boy from Marbella to make it into the first team (the last was fullback Jose Mari). And it needed to show patience with Ontiveros, who left the Betis youth academy under a cloud but was quickly snapped up by Malaga academy head Manel Casanova as one of his first singings. Ontiveros’s aunt took him to training every day, and the club was impressed with his attitude.

Ontiveros is right-footed but prefers to play on the left side. He made quite an impact in his third appearance of the season, scoring a 90th-minute winner to seal a comeback from 3-1 down in a 4-3 victory over Deportivo. Ontiveros has already played under three different coaches at Malaga: Javi Gracia, Juande Ramos and Michel. All have mainly used him as a substitute, though in recent weeks he has started for the mid-table La Liga side. Although he lacks a little pace, Ontiveros has an excellent cross and superb shot from distance. He’s happy to cut inside, and has a sharp eye for a pass. Sources at Malaga say he has not put a foot wrong since signing his professional contract. He is also a regular for Spain’s Under-19s, and his commitment is such that on days off, he goes to watch Malaga’s youth team play.

What they're saying:

“He is taking big steps to becoming a top professional. He is giving us what we’re looking for.”

– Michel, Malaga coach

PREVIOUS: 16. Vitão, Palmeiras | NEXT: 14. Rodrigo Bentancur, Boca Juniors

Position: Midfielder

Nationality: Uruguayan

Age: 19

Bentancur was 18 when he had his breakthrough season in 2015, winning Clarin newspaper’s Rookie of the Year on his way to helping Boca Juniors to the Primera title and the Copa Argentina. The Uruguayan flunked a trial with Penarol at 13 but was taken on by Boca. He played at the base or tip of a midfield diamond, and said his role models were Fernando Gago and Juan Roman Riquelme. He has played more as a holding player, with a smart football brain and ability to make quick passes to transition into attack with either foot. But at Boca, his coach, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, has also used him as the No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1.

“He is a midfielder with excellent technique, good runs and someone who is very intelligent. He is physically strong and good in the air,” Schelotto said.

When Juventus sold Carlos Tevez back to Boca in 2016, it demanded first-refusal on Bentancur as well. At the time, Real Madrid and Arsenal was linked with the elegant midfielder, but Juventus made its move this spring. The Italian giant paid an initial €9.5 million for the teenager, who will move this summer.

What they're saying:

“Bentancur is like the Uruguayan Pogba.”

– Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Boca Juniors coach

PREVIOUS: 15. Javier Ontiveros, Malaga | NEXT: 13. Christian Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund

Position: Midfielder

Nationality: American

Age: 18

Pulisic was 15 when Dortmund scouts went to Turkey to check out USA Under-17 talent Haji Wright. The scouts raved about Pulisic and a few months later, the player signed and moved to Germany with his father Mark. The move was not always smooth, he admitted to SI, but within two years, Pulisic was in the Dortmund first team. Twelve months ago he became the youngest player to score two goals in the Bundesliga (aged 17 and 218 days). Last fall he starred for the USA senior team in its 4-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago, and he came off the bench to set up an equalizer for his Dortmund in its 2-2 Champions League draw at Real Madrid.

Speed of thought marks out Pulisic on the pitch; he makes the right decisions and is tactically versatile, with Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel sometimes using him as a winger or wingback this season. He signed a new deal with Dortmund in the spring, shutting down suggestions of big bids from Liverpool or RB Leipzig. U.S. fans have hailed him as the most exciting prospect since Landon Donovan. His shooting from distance and dribbling past opponents could improve, but his game intelligence is exceptional, and, at the moment, Dortmund is the best place for his development.

What they're saying:

“Obviously Christian is a very talented player. He will have a great future.”

– Bruce Arena, USA coach

PREVIOUS: 14. Rodrigo Bentancur, Boca Juniors | NEXT: 12. Nikola Moro, Dinamo Zagreb

Position: Midfielder

Nationality: Croatian

Age: 19

It takes a certain character to admit to supporting Hajduk Split and still turn out for Dinamo Zagreb. But Moro, born in Split but with Dinamo since he was 11, is a bit different. He has captained Croatia Under-19s and showed remarkable composure in his second-ever start for the first team, which came away at Juventus in a Champions League group match back in December. Dinamo Zagreb lost 2-0, but Moro was excellent.

He has the creativity and vision to play as an attacking midfielder but has the strength and work rate to play deeper in the middle as well. He wears his Croatian youth side captain’s armband with pride, and international boss Dario Basic has warned him to focus on his own game and not worry about his teammates. Croatian experts have compared him to Luka Modric.

What they're saying:

“Nikola has a great football future, he has vision, is courageous, is never scared to shoot and makes good decisions.”

– Jozo Bandic, Dinamo Zagreb youth coach

PREVIOUS: 13. Christian Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund | NEXT: 11. Christopher Nkunku, PSG

Position: Midfielder

Nationality: French

Age: 19

One of the knocks on former PSG coach Laurent Blanc was that he didn’t pick enough local talents from the French club’s academy. Although Nkunku made his PSG debut in a Champions League match against Shakhtar Donetsk in 2015, Blanc’s successor, Unai Emery, has showed more faith, picking the teenager for cup games, 12 league appearances and 20 minutes of the famous 4-0 win over Barcelona.

As a member of PSG’s youth side that reached the UEFA Youth League final last season (beating Real Madrid but losing to Chelsea in the final), Nkunku impressed as a left-footed central midfielder with pace and vision for a pass. He has been used as backup to Blaise Matuidi in the senior squad but could play further forward as an attacking midfielder. He has said that Marco Verratti inspires him and there are touches of the Italian in his approach play.

With Adrien Rabiot and Presnel Kimpembe, the PSG academy is finally bearing fruit. Nkunku could be one of its gems.

What they're saying:

“We are very pleased with him. He's a listener. It’s very important. He does and listens to everything we say, and he has the qualities to go with that. He deserves his chance in the team and can progress.”

– Unai Emery, PSG coach

PREVIOUS: 12. Nikola Moro, Dinamo Zagreb | NEXT: 10. Juan Camilo Hernandez, Granada

Position: Attacking midfielder

Nationality: Colombian

Age: 18

Nicknamed "Cucho" because his shaved head from an early age reminded friends of Esteban Cambiasso, who had the same nickname, the Colombian forward is aiming to reach similar heights.

Outstanding in helping Deportivo Pereira to top of Colombia's second division in 2016 at 17, he was the club's captain and division’s top scorer, despite playing more as a No. 10 than center forward. He was signed by Granada and immediately loaned out to America de Cali, where he is spending the first half of this year. He returns to Granada in June. The team has just been relegated to Spain’s Segunda league, but with the raw and rapid-rising Hernandez on its books, it could make a quick return to the top flight.

What they're saying:

“From what I have seen of 'Cucho' Hernandez, I consider him an excellent attacking midfielder.”

- Hernan Torres, America de Cali coach

PREVIOUS: 11. Christopher Nkunku, PSG | NEXT: 9. Dayot Upamecano, RB Leipzig

Position: Center back

Nationality: French

Age: 18

A former teammate of Ousmane Dembele when they played in a local Under-13 side, Upamecano made a brave call to join Red Bull Salzburg from Valenciennes despite the interest of Manchester United back in 2015. The center back was loaned out to Austrian second division side FC Liefering but soon earned his stripes in the top flight. After half a season, he was rewarded with a January transfer to Bundesliga upstart RB Leipzig.

He has been used as a squad player this season, but with Champions League guaranteed next term, he can expect more game time–and a higher profile. He was nominated for the Bundesliga Rookie of the Month award for March. For his country, Upamecano has worked his way through the French youth teams, from U-16s to U-19s. Now that his club level is higher, reaching the Under-21s should be achievable next season.

What they're saying:

“Dayot is one of the greatest talents in his age class. He brings so many strengths that we can have faith in him.”

- Ralf Rangnick, Leipzig sporting director

PREVIOUS: 10. Juan Camilo Hernandez, Granada | NEXT: 8. Renato Sanches, Bayern Munich

Position: Central midfielder

Nationality: Portuguese

Age: 19

The Portuguese midfielder represents the future for Bayern Munich, who lost a Champions League quarterfinal second leg at Real Madrid with the oldest side in the competition’s history. Sanches was born in Lisbon and joined Benfica at 9 years old. After one season with the B team, he trained with the seniors and forced his way into the first team by October 2016. He played so well, that a month later, Benfica handed him a new contract with a €45 million buy-out clause.

Sanches is an all-action, box-to-box midfielder with energy to burn and an eye for goal. He earned a late call to the Portugal squad and put in clutch performances on its way to the Euro 2016 title, scoring in the quarterfinal win over Poland and earning Young Player of the Tournament honors.

Bayern Munich beat Manchester United to his signature last summer, but opportunities under Carlo Ancelotti have been limited. With Xabi Alonso retiring, there will be chances for Sanches to stake his claim next season.

What they're saying:

“He’s got a lot of quality and personality, and a great future ahead of him. He's by far and away one of the best young players in Europe."

– Pep Guardiola, former Bayern Munich coach

PREVIOUS: 9. Dayot Upamecano, RB Leipzig | NEXT: 7. Marcus Rashford, Manchester United

Position: Forward

Nationality: English

Age: 18

Rashford had an astonishing breakout season last year, which began with him playing for U-18s and ended as a starter–and regular scorer–for the first team and an impact sub for the England team. Nothing seems to faze the forward, who has scored on his first match for four separate managers; Louis van Gaal, Roy Hodgson, Gareth Southgate, Jose Mourinho.

He is fast, skillful and brilliant in front of goal. He can play out wide or in the center, and he is dangerous playing off the shoulder of defenders, as Gary Cahill found out when Rashford scored a crucial opener in a win over Chelsea. He never gets discouraged when he doesn't score. He missed a few chances in a crucial Europa League match against Anderlecht but still popped up with the winner. He can score from free kicks, too, and though his opportunities have been somewhat limited under Mourinho this season, when called upon, he has delivered. Rashford is a ray of hope for United and English football.

What they're saying:

"Rashford will be a brilliant center forward. His pace is incredible. He's almost the club's most important player now at the age of 19. You look at Cristiano Ronaldo's record and players like Neymar, he has that kind of ability. It is a lot to live up to, but he has that in him. He can be a world star." 

– Paul Scholes, former Manchester United midfielder 

PREVIOUS: 8. Renato Sanches, Bayern Munich | NEXT: 6. Dan-Axel Zagadou, PSG

Position: Center back

Nationality: French

Age: 17

The captain of France Under-18s has so far refused to sign a professional contract with Paris Saint-Germain, who fears a repeat of seeing Kinglsey Coman and Moussa Dembélé leave on a free transfer. The same also happened with Mamadou Doucoure, who joined Borussia Monchengladbach last summer.

Zagadou could be the biggest loss of them all. An imposing center back who is strong in the air, touch in the tackle and composed on the ball, PSG has long-term dreams of partnering Zagadou with Presnel Kimpembe in a homegrown defensive partnership. Zagadou may have other plans, though. He visited Manchester City last winter and RB Leipzig is interested as well. Latest reports from Germany suggest that talks are advanced with Borussia Dortmund, where the trajectory of Ousmane Dembele can only have impressed this young, highly coveted defender, who looks to be a star of the future.

What they're saying:

“He's a good player. We will see what will happen. We are always looking for players of the future.”

– Hans-Joachim Watzke, Borussia Dortmund CEO

PREVIOUS: 7. Marcus Rashford, Manchester United | NEXT: 5. Justin Kluivert, Ajax

Position: Winger

Nationality: Dutch

Age: 18

Patrick Kluivert was 18 when he scored the winning goal for Ajax in the 1995 Champions League final against Juventus. His son, Justin, plays in a different position–a winger who can play on either flank–but is hoping to make an impact in a European final at the same age later this month, when Ajax takes on Manchester United in the Europa League final.

Kluivert is not put off by comparisons to his dad; he says he likes it because he’s proud of the career Patrick had. He’s also tough mentally, shrugging off coach Peter Bosz’s decision to sub him off 13 minutes after coming on in a European tie at Legia Warsaw. Kluivert is direct, can get past defenders one-on-one, and has a good end product. He began the season playing for the U-19 side but played so impressively that he was called up to the senior team, where he made an impact, scoring in his first full 90 minutes for the club at Excelsior in March.

A regular for the Netherlands' U-19 side, Kluivert has been used as an impact sub for Ajax this season, but more game time in the coming years could help him achieve his dream–to one day play for Barcelona, just like Patrick once did.

What they're saying:

“You can give the ball to him, and he's very difficult to stop. He has speed and courage, and knows how to pass. It's hard to believe that he's just 17."

- Sjaak Swart, former Ajax captain (said before May 5, when Kluivert turned 18)

PREVIOUS: 6. Dan-Axel Zagadou, PSG | NEXT: 4. Theo Hernandez, Atletico Madrid