Messi, Mbappe, Rooney… Anderson: Ranking the previous Golden Boy winners as Chelsea chase Gavi…

Ian Watson
Previous Golden Boy winners Anthony Martial, Lionel Messi and Raheem Sterling with their awards.

With Chelsea chasing 2022 recipient Gavi, we looked at the previous Golden Boys and, regretfully, decided to rank them.

We’ve omitted Gavi and the 2021 winner Pedri because they are still wee lads. A decent number of the previous Golden Boys have fulfilled their potential but certainly not all.

Entirely subjectively, here’s how we’ve ranked them…


18) Anderson
Anderson was tipped to be the heir to Paul Scholes but his first season at Manchester United, in which he won the Champions League and Premier League, proved to be his career high point. The subsequent seven years were a story of injuries, unfulfilled potential and takeaways. Not that he sees it that way. “I’d be more careful with injuries. But aside from that, I have no regrets,” Anderson told ESPN in 2018. “I loved to be at Manchester United, loved it. I can tell my kids that I won four Premier Leagues.” The eight-cap Brazilian can also explain to them what led him to retire at 31 after spells at Internacional, Coritiba and Adana Demirspor.


17) Alexandre Pato
The Brazilian was named Golden Boy in 2009 after a wonderful start to his AC Milan career, but injuries played a major role in his potential remaining unfulfilled. He headed back to Brazil in 2013 before briefly returning to Europe in a forgettable loan spell at Chelsea. Pato has also played for Villarreal, Tianjin Tianhai, Sao Paulo and Orlando City, where he moved while being linked with Birmingham City. So it could have been worse.


16) Mario Balotelli 
Balotelli was a Champions League winner with Inter Milan when he won the 2010 Golden Ball ahead of Jack Wilshere. He then moved to Man City, where he kept everyone entertained while simultaneously driving Roberto Mancini up the wall. Balotelli bobbed around after leaving City, returning to Italy with AC Milan before enduring a miserable spell at Liverpool. Since then, his CV reads: Nice, Marseille, Brescia, Monza, Adana Demirspor and Sion.


15) Renato Sanches
Sanches pipped Marcus Rashford to the award after helping Portugal to win Euro 2016 following his breakthrough at Benfica. All that earned him a big-money move to Bayern Munich but he failed to live up to the hype in Bavaria. Or even at Swansea when he was sent there on loan. Sanches was eventually sold to Lille in 2019 where he got back on the right track, helping them win their first Ligue 1 title in a decade ahead of PSG, where he moved to last year. But he’s stalled again, starting only seven games this season amid injuries.


14) Anthony Martial
Former Monaco youngster Martial was already a United player when he was named the Golden Boy winner late in 2015, beating Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman and Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin. The infuriating Frenchman – Joel Glazer’s favourite player, apparently – remains at Old Trafford, currently on his 427th chance to prove himself.


13) Joao Felix
The second winner to hail from Benfica even if he was already at Atletico when he was crowned in 2019 ahead of Jadon Sancho and Kai Havertz. He plays with Havertz at Chelsea now after falling out with Diego Simeone despite the £113million forward being named Atletico’s Player of the Season last term.


12) Mario Gotze 
Gotze, a winner in 2011, might not have fulfilled his potential as ‘one of the best talents Germany has ever had’, especially during a spell at Bayern Munich that was sandwiched by Borussia Dortmund, but he scored Germany’s winner in the 2014 World Cup final, and regained his international place for last year’s tournament. He didn’t add to his 66 caps in Qatar, though, and is currently playing for Eintracht Frankfurt after a period at PSV following his second departure form Dortmund.


11) Matthijs de Ligt
The only defender to win the award, De Ligt beat Trent Alexander-Arnold by 75 votes to win as an Ajax player in 2018. He came fourth, however, in a fan poll, with Justin Kluivert, Tom Davies and Vinicius Jr ahead of him. Six months after being crowned, he moved to Juventus for three seasons before Bayern came for him last summer.


10) Paul Pogba
Won a World Cup with France, and that seems to be more than enough for the midfielder. Three years after winning the 2013 Golden Boy award, he moved to Manchester United for a record fee, which he woefully failed to justify in six hugely frustrating years at Old Trafford. Juve took him back for nothing, which is roughly equivalent to what he’s given them since returning.


9) Isco
Shortly after winning the 2012 award, Isco moved to Real Madrid where he won the Champions League five times in addition to three La Liga titles. He averaged 29 league appearances a season over eight campaigns before dropping off the radar somewhat in his final year at the Bernabeu. From there he joined Sevilla last summer but he didn’t even last until Christmas. The 30-year-old is currently training on his own waiting for an offer.


8) Rafael van der Vaart
Van der Vaart, then the ‘new Johan Cruyff’, was the first ever Golden Boy back in 2003 when he was an Ajax player after coming through the clubs academy. From there he went to Hamburg for three years – “I don’t know what to say about it or what Rafael van der Vaart is doing in Hamburg,” said Cruyff – before Real Madrid came calling in 2008. He stayed with Real for two seasons before two at Tottenham and three more back in Hamburg. Van der Vaart continued to wind down his career at Real Betis, Midtjylland and finally Eisborg. Amid all that, the forward earned 109 Netherlands caps.


7) Erling Haaland
The 2020 winner is doing ridiculous things after moving to Manchester City from Dortmund last summer.

Gavi celebrates a goal during Barcelona's game against Girona.

6) Raheem Sterling
Sterling was among 10 Premier League players on the 2014 40-man short(ish)list, which also featured Liverpool team-mates Lazar Markovic and Divock Origi. The following summer, Sterling made an acrimonious departure from Anfield to join Manchester City, where he won four Premier League titles and the FWA Player of the Year award in 2019, all while boiling all the right piss.


5) Sergio Aguero 
Aguero was the Golden Boy in 2007, a year after moving to Atletico from Independiente for around £15million. Atletico more than doubled their money by moving Aguero on to Manchester City, where he did alright.


4) Cesc Fabregas
Fabregas was already one of the top midfielders in the Premier League when he was crowned in 2006, three years after swapping Barca for Arsenal. He eventually returned to Barcelona in 2011, playing three seasons before heading back to London with Chelsea where he won two Premier League titles. Fabregas also earned 110 caps for a brilliant Spain team that won the World Cup and and two European Championships.


3) Kylian Mbappe 
After helping Monaco win the Ligue 1 title in 2016-17, Mbappe comfortably beat Ousmane Dembele and Gabriel Jesus to the 2017 award. Less than a year later, he was a World Cup winner and he could hardly have done more to help France retain their crown.

2) Wayne Rooney
Rooney was already a Manchester United player when he received the 2004 award but it was his exploits at Everton (not those exploits) and for England at the European Championships that earned the crown. He pipped Cristiano Ronaldo, with Atletico’s Fernando Torres third. Rooney went on to become Manchester United and England’s highest-ever goalscorer before Harry Kane took his Three Lions record.


1) Lionel Messi
The GOATiest of the lot. The 2005 Golden Boy, ahead of Wayne Rooney and Lukas Podolski, was the Golden Boy a year after his Barcelona debut. His first Ballon d’Or came four years later and six more have since followed.