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.
20-year-old defender Tommy Smith and 18-year-old striker Chris Wood have been given a ticket to South Africa. The two youngsters play their trade in England and are highly regarded by their clubs. At 18, Wood already holds the honor of being only the fifth New Zealander to play in the Premier League when he made an appearance in West Brom’s game against Birmingham in the 08-09 season.
Wood's could feature heavily in South Africa as he’s already made eight appearances for the All Whites. Smith and fellow defender 21-year-old Winston Reid could both have been sitting at home for this World Cup. Smith had represented England at youth level while Reid had featured for the Danish youth teams. The two only decided to play for New Zealand at senior level late last year and early this year. If you’re the type of person that reads things into squad numbers, Reid has been given the No. 4 shirt, meaning the young centre back could be set to start in South Africa.
Paraguay (1) — 21-year-old striker Rodolfo Gamarra has done well to make it into the squad, but expect his impact to be limited. Paraguay has many gifted options in attack including Borussia Dortmund pair Lucas Barrios and Nelson Haedo Valdez, national star Roque Santa Cruz, lanky Benfica forward Oscar Cardozo who is coming off a 25 goal season and fellow youngster Edgar Benitez. Unless there are some serious injuries I cannot see Gamarra getting much time in South Africa.
Slovakia (2) — 20-year-old midfield pair Vladimir Weiss and Miroslav Stoch, who can both play on the wing, are based at English clubs Manchester City and Chelsea respectively which should already tell you something about their talents.
The pair are both good on the ball, can whip in a good cross, and aren’t afraid to run at a defender. Stoch definitely had the better season as he went on loan to FC Twente and was a revelation at the club bagging 12 goals in all competitions. Weiss found playing time a little harder to come by and it will be interesting to see what his match fitness is like but the two lively wingers should feature heavily for the Slovakians. Their fearless playing style and Stoch’s eye for goal might give the Slovakians a chance of progressing through a group which is wide open after the Italians. Plus the two have the added incentive of knowing a good World Cup performance against some of the best talent in the world could lead to more first team opportunities in England.