10) Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (Denmark, U21 European Championships)
When a player is reported to be leaving Bayern Munich, it’s easy to assume that he has failed to make the grade. The reality is that competition for places in Bayern’s midfield makes it almost impossible for Højbjerg to hold down a regular place. Tottenham are one of a number of clubs reportedly keen on the 19-year-old.
Højbjerg was loaned out to Augsburg in January, and made 16 Bundesliga appearances as they managed to finish fifth and qualify for Europe for the first time. “I think the time has come for me to go,” he told Kicker last November. “I have learnt everything here, Bayern are the best school around, but I feel ready now to take the leap. I want to learn, to get better – I need to play matches to do that.”
Given that his Denmark side face Germany in Group A of the U21 European Championships, there may be no better stage to impress the watching scouts. He is the second youngest member of Denmark’s squad after Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen.
9) Jose Maria Gimenez (Uruguay, Copa America)
It’s difficult to believe that Gimenez only turned 20 earlier this year. He already has 14 senior caps for Uruguay, made 18 league appearances as a central defender for Atletico Madrid last season, was reportedly subject to a £17.5m bid from Manchester City last December and is a La Liga winner. He’s packed quite a lot in since moving from Uruguayan Primera División Danubio in summer 2013.
Forcing aside one of Diego Godin and Miranda has proved difficult at club level, but for his country Gimenez will partner his club teammate Godin. The absence of Diego Lugano and Martin Caceres affords him a chance to impress, and it’s difficult to see him letting anyone down.
Gimenez is physical, he’s tough and he’s already scored two goals for his country. He could also be the next big thing in South American central defenders.
8) Marta (Brazil, Women’s World Cup)
Probably the greatest female footballer of all time, Marta was named FIFA World Player of the Year five consecutive times between 2006 and 2010. She can add second place in 2005, 2011, 2012 and 2014 to that list, and third place in 2004 and 2013. Those 11 years of podium places see Marta predictably dubbed ‘the female Pele’. No word yet on whether she’ll flog any old tat for money.
Marta is not just a footballer, but a campaigner and a symbol for women’s football. Now 29, she has scored 79 international goals but places greater importance on her work fighting for equality.
“I think it has changed a bit but that mentality still exists,” she says. “There’s still prejudice and that resistance regarding women not only on female football but in various activities. Men think that women are a bit fragile to perform some types of activities or don’t have the ability and aren’t strong enough. That doesn’t exist anymore. Women have shown they have capabilities, but it’s that whole macho thing.”
With 14 goals in as many games at World Cup tournaments, all eyes should be on Marta to see if she can cement her reputation as one of the best of all time.
7) Max Meyer (Germany, U21 European Championships)
It shows the rapidity of Meyer’s rise that he was named in Germany’s 30-man provisional squad for the 2014 World Cup and has 54 Bundesliga games to his name, yet is still the youngest member of Germany’s U21 squad for this summer’s European Championships. He’s still 18 months younger than the eligible age for the 2017 edition of the tournament.
Schalke’s academy is among the best in Europe (Ozil, Draxler, Howedes, Neuer), and Meyer is the next on the production line. He was top scorer and named best player at the U17 Euros in 2012, and has since impressed each step up. He made his senior Germany debut in May 2014.
Meyer is small, he’s skilful and he’s quick, putting his abilities down to hours of futsal played alongside his regular training. Just look forward to him joining Bayern Munich in 2017.
6) Jesus ‘Tecatito’ Corona (Mexico, Copa America and Gold Cup)
The wide forward nicknamed ‘Tecatito’ is possibly the only Mexican player likely to appear at both the Copa America and Gold Cup this summer, as he aims to increase his reputation as El Tri’s next big thing.
Corona is already receiving admiring glances after a wonderful Eredivisie season for FC Twente. He scored nine goals and was the subject of interest from Ronald Koeman’s Southampton in January. The reported £2.5m asking price will at least have doubled by now.
After registering an assist within one minute of making his international debut against the Dutch, Tecatito has quickly become a firm fixture in a squad lacking in freshness. His speed and dribbling will be seen on a loftier stage than the Dutch league before long.
5) Asisat Oshoala (Nigeria, Women’s World Cup)
Oshoala is the new kid on the block in the women’s game. Having been named best player and top scorer at the U20 World Cup in 2014, she was signed by Liverpool Ladies in January, the first African in the WSL. She has since been named BBC women’s footballer of the year.
Having decided to become a player after watching Liverpool as a child, Oshoala was originally a midfielder before converting to a forward. “I supported Liverpool when I was younger, especially when Luis Suarez was still here,” she says. That’s how young she is.
Oshoala will be hoping to add to her African Women’s Championship winners’ medal from last year. With a record of seven goals in her last four internationals, the striker is critical to Nigeria’s hopes of success.
4) Nicolas Otamendi (Argentina, Copa America)
I have long been cynical of the claim that Manchester United would pay £36.4m to sign central defender Nicolas Otamendi. This summer’s Copa America is a chance to prove me (and many others) wrong.
The usual tactic is to sign players from Porto two years after Porto recruit them from South America, but in this case United are going third hand – Valencia paid Porto €12m in February 2014. Put simply, I haven’t seen enough improvement to justify a £25m hike in asking price.
There is no doubt that Otamendi fancies the move. “Nico wants to leave Valencia and is going to do everything possible to achieve it,” said his agent Eugenio Lopez last month. “Nicolas told [executive president] Amadeo Salvo to his face two months ago. In these cases the will of the player is very important.” Modern football, natch.
3) Alex Morgan (USA, Women’s World Cup)
David Beckham’s metatarsal, Neymar’s spine, Cristiano Ronaldo’s thigh and now Alex Morgan’s bruised knee. Morgan hasn’t played for the US Women’s team or Portland Thorns since early April. She is crucial to the US’s hopes of glory in Canada.
It would not be hyperbole to describe Morgan as women’s football’s biggest superstar. She has had a book in the New York Times Best Seller list, and has sponsorship deals with Nike, Nationwide, Panasonic and Coca Cola, amongst others. When you’ve been animated for The Simpsons (even during the recent dirge years) stardom is assured.
With 51 goals and 32 assists in 84 international appearances and still aged just 25, Morgan is more than simply a commercial entity, however. She also earned our love for suitably burning Sepp Blatter, after Blatter described himself as the “godfather of women’s soccer”.
“At the FIFA World Player of the Year event [in 2012], FIFA executives and FIFA president Sepp Blatter didn’t know who I was,” Morgan said. “And I was being honoured as top three in the world. That was pretty shocking.” Oh Sepp, you big daft, offensive and allegedly corrupt moron.
2) Domenico Berardi (Italy, U21 European Championships)
I make no apologies for including Berardi so high up this list. His performances for Sassuolo over the last two seasons wrote his name across my heart. He doesn’t turn 21 until August, and yet he’s only 15 Serie A goals behind George Weah.
Berardi’s story is phenomenal. “It all started almost by accident three years ago,” Berardi told Gazzetta dello Sport last year. In 2010, then aged 15, he drove 400 miles to visit his brother Francesco at university in Modena. He played a game of five-a-side with his brother’s friends and impressed. One of them knew Sassuolo’s assistant youth coach Luciano Carlino and recommended Berardi. After a trial they signed him up.
Last season, Berardi scored more league goals than any other U21 player in Europe’s top five leagues, six clear of his nearest competitor. Also, have this statistic courtesy of Opta: No player grabbed more hat-tricks in the top five European leagues in 2013/14 than Berardi (3), as many as Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. He was 19. He’s going to do unspeakable things to England’s U21 on June 24.
Now back at Juventus, it’s unclear whether Berardi will again be loaned out, but one would presume a team higher up Serie A fits the bill. Udinese have been mentioned as an option. Let me state this now: If he plays up front with Antonio di Natale, my heart is going to bloody burst.
1) Roberto Firmino (Brazil, Copa America)
It’s hard to see why Roberto Firmino isn’t attracting more admirers from Europe’s elite clubs. Still at Hoffenheim, who finished eighth in the Bundesliga last season, Firmino has scored 32 goals in 73 games over the last two seasons and he’s not even a sodding striker. Given that he’s 23 and Brazilian, we’d expect half of Europe to be knocking on the door.
All that could change this summer, however, with Brazil coach Dunga potentially using Firmino has the answer to his central striker issues. “We have been watching him a very long time and he has been slowly introduced into the team which has helped his performances,” Dunga says.
Perform well alongside Neymar (who will be given something of a free role to roam and cause damage where he pleases) and Firmino will surely be subject to overdue interest. Hoffenheim will at least be able to double their expected fee.