After the second edition of Under 21s at the World Cup went up, we were halfway through our look at the young players who just might get a chance to shine on world football’s biggest stage.
Cameroon (5) — Their 23-man squad includes 18-year-old forward Vincent Aboubakar and 18-year-old defender Joel Matip. Matip, despite his youth, was a prominent figure in Schalke’s first team, making 22 appearances overall and scoring three goals. His place in the team is aided by his versatility as he can play as a holding midfielder, center back or at full back. That sort of versatility, as well as a string of good performances, would have helped Matip find a place in the national team.
As it's been stated before, versatility is a godsend at a tournament like this, as injuries and fatigue take their toll, a player who can play many positions well is invaluable. Aboubakar has the honor of flying the home flag for Cameroon as he is the only player who plays in Cameroon. Don’t let that give you doubts about his talents — he’s a deadly finisher with either boot, such a sought-after quality in a striker, and he has a bag of tricks to rival any of the top players like Messi.
Add to that the fact that he’s been likened to a young Samuel Eto’o and you can see that Aboubakar could cause quite a stir in South Africa, given the chance. Fellow youngsters Nicolas Nkoulou, Georges Mandjeck, and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting could all feature heavily in South Africa. Nkoulou has emerged as a key part of Coach Paul Le Guen’s side while Mandjeck is player similar to Matip in that you can almost put him anywhere and he’ll do the job.
The five players mentioned here are expected to be the face of Cameroon soccer for the next decade so even if their World Cup impact is limited you’ll certainly be hearing about them again.
Denmark (2) — Denmark have only two players under the age of 21 but one of them, 21-year-old defender Simon Kjaer, has his future on the squad in danger.
The highly-rated defender, who plays for Palermo, was injured in a recent friendly against Senegal. Even though the defender suffered damage to the ligament in his knee, he has been included in Denmark’s final 23-man squad.
Such is the importance of Kjaer to the Denmark side that the management has chosen to take a chance of his injury. The early reports say he’ll most definitely miss the first group game, against the Netherlands, but for the Dane’s sake hopefully he’ll be back later.
Simon Kjaer and Daniel Agger, despite their youth, are incredibly important to the Dane’s as they form the heart of their defense. Kjaer is joined by 18-year-old Ajax attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen. Eriksen, who has recently broken into the Ajax first team, has been likened to Dutch players Wesley Sneijeder and Rafael van der Vaart for his ability to read the game and start attacks from midfield.
Japan (0) — The Japanese squad has a few 22-year-old players but no players under the age of 21. The squad features experienced players like Junichi Inamoto and Shunsuke Nakamura, who are quite possibly playing in their last tournament. While there isn’t much youth in the squad, midfielder Keisuke Honda is definitely one to look out for. The talented 23-year-old has made limited appearances for the Japanese national side but he turned some heads playing for CSKA Moscow in the Champions League. His set-pieces can be deadly and in general he plays with an eye for goal. If a place can be found for him in the first team then he could really light things up in South Africa.
Netherlands (0) — Like the Japanese, the Dutch don’t have any players under the age of 21 in their squad. Van Marwijk must be hoping past experience and age will help his team at the tournament. Goalkeeper Sander Boschker will be 39 while defenders Andre Ooijer and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst will be 36 and 35 respectively.
Italy (0) — The defending World Champions have taken a similar approach as the Dutch with the story not focusing on their youth, but their experience — or, the number of players over the age of 30. In Coach Marcello Lippi’s final 23-man squad, there are nine such players. It will be interesting to see whether Lippi’s reliance on the old guard will pay off.
New Zealand (3) — The All Whites are expected to be one of the weakest sides in South Africa. They will rely heavily on stars Shane Smeltz and Ryan Nelsen lead the squad but they are joined by two youngsters who could be the All Whites stars of the future.