Messi, Pogba, Mbappe: Ranking every Golden Boy award winner from best to worst

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The Golden Boy award is dished out annually to the most impressive player, under the age of 21, in each calendar year.

The individual accolade was first established by Italian sports newspaper Tuttosport in 2003 and has been handed out to a host of future stars since its inception.

The shortlist for the 2020 Golden Boy award was announced in October and most of the world’s top youngsters have been nominated.

Borussia Dortmund duo Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho feature, as do the likes of Bayern Munich left-back Alphonso Davies, Barcelona forward Ansu Fati, Manchester United’s Mason Greenwood and Manchester City midfielder Phil Foden.

But who are the previous 17 winners, and how do they rank from worst to best?

We’ve ranked every Golden Boy award winner based on their overall careers (so far, in certain cases) plus their ability or, for the latter-day winners, their potential.

Let’s begin…

17. Renato Sanches

The hype around Renato Sanches was unreal prior to his 2016 move from Benfica to Bayern Munich.

The midfielder sealed a move to the Allianz Arena shortly before helping Portugal win the 2016 European Championships but struggled to make an impact in Germany.

A disastrous loan spell to Swansea City during the 2017-18 campaign saw his reputation take a spectacular nosedive, although he somehow ended up making another 27 appearances for Bayern before joining Lille on a permanent deal in 2019.

Still only 23, let’s hope that he ends up fulfilling his potential.

16. Anderson

Anderson looked an absolute sensation at FC Porto, hence why Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson brought the Brazilian to Old Trafford in 2007.

Sadly, injuries were a big problem for the loveable South American, who Ferguson clearly had a soft spot for.

Anderson scored nine goals in 181 games for United and left Old Trafford in 2015 with Premier League winners’ medal and a UEFA Champions League title to his name.

He ended up returning to Brazil, where he suffered a couple of relegations, before ending his career with Turkish outfit Adana Demirspor in 2019 at the age of 31.

15. Mario Balotelli

Some football fans reckon Mario Balotelli could have been anything he wanted with a better attitude.

We’ll never know for certain whether that really is the case. The Italian has been a decent striker throughout his topsy-turvy career but, let’s be brutally honest now, not a great one.

The 30-year-old, who has been involved in more than his fair share of controversial incidents over the past decade, is currently winding down his career with Brescia.

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14. Alexandre Pato

Alexandre Pato was being spoken about like the next Ronaldo during his time with Internacional in his native Brazil.

The livewire striker then sealed a move to AC Milan in 2007 and impressed initially. There was a brief period where Pato looked the real deal.

But a combination of off-field distractions and injuries resulted in Pato’s sad and premature decline.

Since leaving Milan, 31-year-old Pato has played for Corinthians, Sao Paulo (loan), Chelsea (loan), Villarreal, Tianjin Quanjian and is currently a free agent.

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13. Anthony Martial

Very few Manchester United fans had even heard of Anthony Martial when the club paid AS Monaco an initial £36 million for his services in September 2015.

But the Frenchman cemented his status as an instant fan favourite by scoring against fierce rivals Liverpool on his debut.

Martial has blown hot and cold for the Red Devils over the past five years, scoring 73 goals in 229 games.

Whenever you watch him, it’s hard not to think ‘you could be an even better player if only you wanted it more’.

12. Rafael van der Vaart

Rafael van der Vaart, the inaugural Golden Boy award winner, wasn’t able to become a star at Real Madrid after joining the Spanish giants from Hamburg in 2008, but the Dutchman still enjoyed a good career.

He was excellent for Tottenham, where he enjoyed a superb partnership with Peter Crouch, before returning to Hamburg in 2012.

Van der Vaart then played for Real Betis and Midtjylland before ending his career in 2018 with Danish side Esbjerg.

11. Matthijs de Ligt

The Dutch centre-back won the 2018 Golden Boy award thanks to his eye-caching performances for Ajax in the Champions League.

He then sealed a move to Juventus in the summer of 2019 and has the potential to become one of the world’s top central defenders.

10. Mario Gotze

The 2011 Golden Boy award winner, Mario Gotze went on to score the winning goal for Germany in the 2014 World Cup final against Argentina.

The playmaker will always be able to boast that, whatever happens - but, in truth, his career has been disappointing at club level.

Many thought Gotze would become a world-class performer, but that simply hasn’t been the case.

Since October 2020, the 28-year-old has plied his trade with Dutch side PSV.

9. Isco

A wonderfully-talented footballer, it’s a big shame that Isco hasn’t always been a first-team regular at Real Madrid since joining Los Blancos from Malaga in 2013.

The playmaker would be one of the first names on the teamsheet of most European clubs.

The 28-year-old has still won a host of major honours at the Bernabeu, including four UEFA Champions Leagues.

8. Paul Pogba

Named the 2013 Golden Boy, Paul Pogba won the individual accolade with Juventus in 2013 - one year after his controversial exit from Manchester United.

The Frenchman returned to Old Trafford for a world-record fee in 2016 but has struggled to produce his best form with the Red Devils.

However, Pogba did play a key role in France’s 2018 World Cup triumph.

7. Joao Felix

In terms of ability and potential, Joao Felix has it all.

The Portuguese forward, who is the most-recent winner of the Golden Boy award, joined Atletico Madrid from Benfica in a staggering deal worth £113 million in 2019.

The 20-year-old showed glimpses of class during his first season at the Wanda Metropolitano, but has really stepped it up another level so far this term.

6. Cesc Fabregas

Winner of the 2006 Golden Boy award, Cesc Fabregas has enjoyed an excellent career, winning trophies with multiple clubs including Arsenal, Barcelona and Chelsea.

He was also a key member of the Spain squad that won the 2010 World Cup plus the 2008 and 2012 European Championships.

Now 33, Fabregas has played for AS Monaco since January 2019.

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5. Raheem Sterling

Raheem Sterling won the Golden Boy award in 2014, when he was still a Liverpool player, after starring alongside Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge at Anfield under Brendan Rodgers.

One year later, he completed a hugely controversial transfer to Manchester City, where he has taken his game to a whole new level.

The 25-year-old England international is now widely regarded as one of Europe’s best attacking wingers.

4. Kylian Mbappe

A generational talent who has already won the World Cup with France, Kylian Mbappe has the potential to become a legend of the game.

But as he’s still only 21 years old, we can’t be entirely sure that he’ll fulfil his immense potential at this stage - even if it seems a pretty safe bet at the stage.

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3. Sergio Aguero

Only Alan Shearer, Wayne Rooney and Andy Cole have scored more Premier League goals than Sergio Aguero since the Argentine joined Manchester City in 2011.

It was with Atletico Madrid that Aguero won the 2007 Golden Boy award.

He will be remembered as one of the best forwards of his generation when he hangs up his boots.

2. Wayne Rooney

Manchester United and England’s all-time leading goalscorer, Wayne Rooney has enjoyed an outstanding career.

The 35-year-old Derby County player-coach is no longer playing top-tier football, but he was an absolute animal at his peak.

Rooney won the lot with Manchester United but wasn’t able to inspire England to glory at a major tournament.

1. Lionel Messi

But there was only ever going to be one man sitting on top of this particular list.

Cristiano Ronaldo surprisingly didn’t win the Golden Boy award but Lionel Messi did, way back in 2005.

It was already patently clear back then that Messi was destined for greatness, but the Barcelona superstar has still managed to exceed all expectations over the subsequent 15 years.

A six-time Ballon d’Or winner, Messi is the greatest footballer of all time, in the eyes of many fans.

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