Don’t believe the hype: Despite being a sport that embraces pure, youthful talent more wholesomely than perhaps any other, at its highest level international soccer still shuts out the teens.
While the U.S. is sidelined from the 2018 FIFA World Cup which kicks off in Russia on Thursday, one could still keep an eye out for the youngest talents on other national team rosters. The issue is that those talents by and large are still beyond their teenage years. In fact, according to most guides, among the youngest players expected to have any sort of impact on the tournament, only two are still teenagers: French striker Kylian Mbappe (who stars for Paris St. Germain) and Moroccan right back Acraf Hakimi (who plays club football for Real Madrid, splitting time between the first and Castilla, i.e. second, side). Both Mbappe and Hakimi are 19.
Yet before anyone gets up in arms about FIFA’s inherent ageism, it’s worthwhile to take a broader, historical perspective. As it turns out, despite so many prior exhibitions of youthful exuberance, there have only been five players who were clearly of high school age at the time of their World Cup debut. And none of them were American.
Pele, traditionally referred to as the greatest of all-time, is the most famous of that teenage grouping. Pele debuted for his native Brazil in 1958, helping the samba boys to a World Cup title with a 5-2 victory against Sweden. He was 17 years, 7 months, and 23 days at the time of his first start in the tournament. That’s just slightly older than former Cameroonian winger Saloman Olembe, who was 17 years, 6 months, and 3 days at World Cup 1998, former Nigerian prodigy Feni Opabunmi, who was 17 years, 3 months, and 9 days in 2002, and former all-everything Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto’o, who was 17 years, 3 months, and 7 days when he began in 1998.
If Pele and Eto’o are clearly the most talented of the true World Cup teens, the man most frequently connected with playing on the world’s biggest futbol stage as a schoolboy is Northern Ireland’s Norman Whiteside, who was just 17 years, 1 month, and 10 days when he suited up in a 0-0 draw against Yugoslavia in 1982.
Considering the fact that none of these prior 17-year-olds have competed at a tournament since 2002 it’s clear that only a truly transcendent talent would be able to break through and participate today.
Could it happen? Sure. But it’s certainly not worth anyone holding their breath. After all, Eto’o’s don’t grow on trees (and they don’t play for free, either, as Eto’o himself has readily proven).