Revisiting Bleacher Report’s 2012 list of the best young players in the world
Making predictions about the future of football is a notoriously thankless task, and identifying young talents with staying power is that bit harder.
There are so many obstacles for even the most naturally talented youngsters, with injuries, managerial changes and the form of more established players all potentially getting in their way.
This is why it’s often so easy to look back at some of the bolder predictions and laugh – even the seemingly surest of sure things can find their path blocked.
With that in mind, we should give some credit to Bleacher Report for their 2012 rundown of the best players in the world aged 21 and younger.
There are a few duds, as with any 50-man list, but there are many more good calls than bad, demonstrating that plenty of those who show ability at a young age aren’t just flashes in the pan. And, in fairness, it was firmly presented as a ‘best at that time’ list rather than a long-term prediction.
Still, we’ve picked out some of those who definitely aren’t among the world’s best players now…as well as few of their most inspired picks, for the sake of balance.
When Piazon made this list, he was just a few weeks shy of his Chelsea first-team debut at the age of 18.
He’s still at Chelsea, and that might sound like a sign of a player who has lived up to potential. However, he has played just three times for the club, and none since 2012.
The Brazilian is currently on loan at Chievo, where he… is not a regular.
Lucas Piazon in Chelsea’s squad today. Last time he played for them, Paulo Ferreira was on the bench
— Tom Victor (@tomvictor) January 24, 2019
We probably ought to have known from watching his older brother Collins that Ola John’s early promise might not lead to world domination.
The Dutch winger was fantastic for Twente, bringing about his inclusion on this list in 45th place, but failed to kick on with any consistency after joining Benfica.
He’s still in Portugal, having finally left Lisbon in 2018 to join Vitória de Guimarães
A classic example of a player suffering from factors beyond his control, with illness preventing him from breaking through at Manchester City off the back of a devastating goalscoring season with Feyenoord.
The Swede has carved out a solid enough career for himself in Spain, first with Celta Vigo and more recently with Alavés, but even he wouldn’t claim to be among the world’s best strikers.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t a lovely guy, though, and we’re still a little upset that he hasn’t become one of the greats.
Ocampos made it onto the list in 40th, shortly after joining Monaco, and he hasn’t done terribly in France.
The Argentine winger was part of the Marseille side which made the 2018 Europa League final and at 24 he still has potential to step things up, but his career doesn’t exactly scream “elite”.
For starters, he’s still yet to make his senior debut for Argentina, despite his River contemporary Manuel Lanzini making the step up.
Undoubtedly the victim of the wrong move at the wrong time, Narsingh was beginning to establish himself with the Dutch first team when he moved to Swansea in January 2017 and took a huge step back.
The winger has suffered through multiple managerial changes and a relegation, falling out of favour under Graham Potter to the point that he has played just 43 minutes of Championship football for the Swans.
Things haven’t got much better at international level, either – he hasn’t scored for the Netherlands since netting against England in 2016 and hasn’t even played for his country since.
In fairness, there have probably been times in the last six and a half years when Jack Wilshere has shown his quality.
Now, though, as he struggles for fitness at West Ham, it’s fair to say he is not the player most thought he would become back in 2012.
More than half a decade on from being ranked as the 38th best youngster in the world, Herrmann would have hoped for more than two senior Germany caps.
There are caveats, of course – not least the form of players like fellow top 50 member Julian Draxler ensuring there has been one less wide berth to fight for.
Herrmann has hardly been bad in the interim, playing more than 200 games for Borussia Mönchengladbach and appearing in the Champions League, he just hasn’t hit the ‘one of the greats’ level.
A fair few Liverpool players past and present are on this list, with Gini Wijnaldum, Xherdan Shaqiri and Joël Matip all involved, but Coates hasn’t really achieved at the same level.
The Uruguayan has been rebuilding his career with Sporting Lisbon, having left Liverpool for a poorly-timed stint at Sunderland, and the man who, as Bleacher Report noted, “has looked impressive when deputising for Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger” never got the chance to get a run of games as an Anfield first choice.
At least he has one very special goal for the Anfield faithful to remember him by.
You might have spotted Niang in action recently when he took to the field for Rennes against Arsenal in the Europa League.
The French-born forward was perhaps unfortunate to see AC Milan – in the Champions League when he joined – go from being too good to give him minutes to too ordinary for it to be worth his while sticking around.
He has reinvented himself as an adequate forward for a European mid-table club, with Watford and Torino among the others on his CV, and played for Senegal at the 2018 World Cup after Under-21 caps for France were never followed by a senior call-up for Les Bleus.
Papadopoulos is another who has been largely fine but not the best. He made Greece’s Euro 2012 squad, but his club form has been hit by a series of injuries.
The centre-back has only had one 20-game Bundesliga season since the 2011-12 campaign for Schalke which earned him a place on this list, and that ended in relegation for Hamburg in 2018.
Destro is another hampered by injury, with a number of setbacks preventing him from building on the promise he showed in a breakthrough season at Siena.
The striker’s goal-getting abilities have never been in question – he hit double figures in his second Roma season despite only being fit enough to play 20 league games – but he has settled into a more comfortable role with Bologna.
Now 28, and without an international cap in five years, Destro might point to what could have been.
File this one under ‘wrong move at the wrong time’. Rodwell was a star in the making at Everton, but a £12million move to Manchester City in 2012 was the beginning of the end.
After an injury-hit first season, Roberto Mancini – the manager who signed him – was dismissed. Mancini’s replacement Manuel Pellegrini then signed Javi García so Rodwell’s chances were even more limited.
The move to Sunderland in 2014 was also arguably the wrong one, and he’s now stuck trying to rebuild his career in the second tier with Blackburn Rovers.
Victor Moses played a vital role in a title victory, so it’s not all bad, but he’s also been loaned out four times since joining Chelsea in 2012.
A title winner, yes, but worthy of being considered one of the best around? The jury’s out.
A man who made not just one wrong move but two, Holtby got less than 12 months of André Villas-Boas’ management at Tottenham after joining the club in 2013 and just two weeks of René Meulensteen during a loan spell at Fulham.
After presumably being scarred for life by Felix Magath, he returned to his native Germany with Hamburg and has stayed there after relegation to Bundesliga 2.
When Gastón Ramirez signed for Southampton in 2012, he reportedly seemed more interested in the money than anything else, telling Corriere Dello Sport after turning down Tottenham: “It is an offer that you cannot refuse. They will give me so much money.” Perhaps that should have been the first sign.
The Uruguayan might have scored one of the all-time great Premier League goals, but he’s also 28 years old and yet to play a minute of Champions League or even Europa League football.
His inclusion in 16th place on the list, ahead of Philippe Coutinho and Isco, hasn’t aged well.
Look, we all make mistakes. Especially Phil Jones.
France striker Griezmann, at the time yet to win his first senior international cap, made it onto the list at number 30.
He was already becoming part of the furniture at Real Sociedad but wasn’t quite the dependable goalscorer he would become at Atlético Madrid, and you certainly couldn’t have predicted back then – with Olivier Giroud having just led Montpellier to an unlikely Ligue 1 title – that Griezmann would end up being the main man in a 2018 World Cup triumph.
“Having just signed a new four-year contract with Real Sociedad, it appears that Antoine Griezmann is happy to ignore any speculation regarding a move away from the Basque club for now,” they said of the then-21-year-old.
Based on the will-he-won’t-he transfer saga with Barcelona, his own brand of loyalty is… let’s say fluid.
Making it into the top half of the list with a 22nd-place ranking, Courtois made the cut shortly after completing the first of what would end up being three seasons on loan at Atlético Madrid.
The Belgian had become his country’s youngest ever goalkeeper in 2011, and seven years later he would be number one in a run to the semi-finals of the World Cup in Russia.
“Chelsea won’t be eager to let this starlet go, lest it come back to bite them in the future,” Bleacher Report wrote, in what feels like a pretty astute prediction in retrospect, given the two league titles which arrived with Courtois in goal.
Marc-André ter Stegen
Including one of the two Clásico goalkeepers in the top 25 would have been impressive, but they got both in there.
Ter Stegen takes 14th spot on the list, despite having only completed one full season as Borussia Mönchengladbach’s first choice at the time, but his talent was already plain to see,
That’s no guarantee of longevity, of course, but the German has already delivered on his promise: now 26 years of age, he is pushing for a second Champions League title with Barcelona and will hope to have cemented his place as Germany’s first choice stopper by the time Euro 2020 rolls around.
It was arguably bold to put Hazard at number one when he was just settling into life at Chelsea, especially with Neymar occupying a podium place, but it’s hard to argue the Belgian hasn’t established himself as a complete player since arriving from Lille.
Multiple trophies, an enduring presence at Stamford Bridge, and a run to the World Cup semi-finals speak for themselves, while he remains one of those players who opposition defenders fear the most.
“The 21-year-old is a marvel, that’s for sure, but do you want to know the scary thing? He has three younger brothers, all of whom are pretty darn good,” Bleacher Report’s summary reads.
We’re still waiting for Thorgan, Kylian and Ethan to knock him off his perch.
You can see what Bleacher Report said about each player here: Marco Verratti, Lucas Piazon, Raheem Sterling, Mateo Kovacic, Lorenzo Insigne, Ola John, John Guidetti, Bernd Leno, Aaron Ramsey, David Alaba, Lucas Ocampos, Raphael Varane, Luciano Narsingh, Jack Wilshere, Patrick Herrmann, Sebastian Coates, Giorgino Wijnaldum, Joel Matip, M’Baye Niang, Romelu Lukaku, Antoine Griezmann, Kyriakos Papadopouos, Douglas Costa, James Rodriguez, Mattia Destro, Rodrigo, David de Gea, Jack Rodwell, Thibaut Courtois, Victor Moses, Iker Muniain, Isco, Philippe Coutinho, Lewis Holtby, Gaston Ramirez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, Julian Draxler, Phil Jones, Xherdan Shaqiri, Thiago Alcantra, Stephan El Shaarawy, Danny Welbeck, Oscar, Andre Schurrle, Christian Eriksen, Lucas Moura, Mario Gotze, Neymar, Eden Hazard.