Messi, Haaland, Pato: What happened to every Golden Boy winner since 2003?

The Golden Boy award has a rich history of predicting football’s biggest future superstars.

Since the awards inception in 2003, the coveted prize that’s dished out to the best player in the world under the age of 21 has been granted to many iconic names.

Lionel Messi took home the prize in 2005, for example, whilst Kylian Mbappe won in 2017.

But for all the successes the esteemed journalists from across Europe have had in picking winners that have stood the test of time, they’ve naturally had a couple slip the net and fade into footballing mediocrity.

So, let’s take a look at each year’s winner and what happened to them next.

2003: Rafael van der Vaart

Van der Vaart picked up the gong as an Ajax player after enjoying a brilliantly impressive 2003.

His career never continued on the upward trajectory many expected, though, and he went onto become quite the journeymen across Europe.

Three years in Hamburg were followed by a failed stint with Real Madrid and a couple of inconsistent years at Spurs.

But he remained a reliable asset for the Netherlands national team, playing 109 games for his country and scoring 25 goals.

After retiring from football in 2018, he became a professional darts player through the iconic BDO circuit. Although he’s now trying his hand at management and has reportedly taken on an assistant coaching role back at his former club Esbjerg.

Rafael Van Der Vaart - Tottenham Hotspur
Rafael Van Der Vaart – Tottenham Hotspur

2004: Wayne Rooney

What needs saying about this legend? The all-time top scorer for Manchester United and England, to say Rooney went onto achieve success in the game would be the understatement of the century.

His one-time rival and Liverpool icon Steven Gerrard once labelled Rooney the best player he played with alongside Luis Suarez, after spending many a year alongside him in the England national set-up.

Now retired, Rooney recently took the reins at DC United in the MLS.

Wayne Rooney

2005: Lionel Messi

2005’s Golden Boy will surely take the cake when it comes to the most high-profile selection.

The Argentine is viewed as the greatest footballer of all-time in the eyes of many.

Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho

2006: Cesc Fabregas

It’s no easy feat following in the footsteps of Messi, but fellow Barcelona legend Fabregas certainly gave it a good shot.

Renowned for his laser-accurate passing and ability to create something out of nothing, it’s no surprise the Arsenal and Chelsea hero ranks second highest in the Premier League’s all-time assist table (111).

But besides the Spaniard’s creative talents, his lovable character combined with the success he achieved across his Arsenal, Barca and Chelsea stints has meant that he’s universally loved like few that have come before him.

Fabregas currently players for Como in the Serie B.

Fabregas

2007: Sergio Aguero

Another Premier League legend, then, with Aguero easily ranking in the top five strikers in English top-flight history.

After spending 10 years with Manchester City, Aguero left in 2021 as the club’s top goalscorer thanks to his incredible 260 strikes.

He retired in 2022 after suffering heart difficulties at Barcelona.

Sergio Aguero

2008: Anderson

The hype surrounding the Brazilian was real in 2008 but he quickly lowered everyone’s expectations after putting in some dire performances in the Man Utd red.

He somehow remained a player at the club all the way up until 2015 despite contributing very little, before eventually being shipped out to Internacional.

Things didn’t go any better for Anderson after leaving England and he’s now hung up his boots after unsuccessful spells in Brazil and Turkey.

Anderson
Anderson (far left) with Man Utd teammates in 2008

2009: Alexandre Pato

Pato burst onto the scene at AC Milan and genuinely had the footballing world convinced that he was the next Ronaldo Nazario.

He tore open Barcelona at the Camp Nou whilst sporting his iconic golden boots and it was from that moment every onlooker thought he was destined for greatness.

But his performances declined, and it wasn’t long before Pato was back in his homeland playing for Corinthians and Sao Paulo.

A brief stint at Chelsea followed, before another at Villarreal, he then went to China and now plies his trade for Orlando in the MLS.

Pato AC Milan
Pato celebrates scoring during his AC Milan days.

2010: Mario Balotelli

Okay, so we’re on a bit of a bad streak right now with Balotelli proving the third player in a row that’s struggled to stay amongst the elite.

The Italian has had many failed stints with top European clubs: Inter, Man City, AC Milan and Liverpool can all testify to that – even if he has shown flashes of genius at times.

Now he’s playing at Sion after making the switch from Serie B side, Monza.

Balotelli and Mancini at Man City

2011: Mario Gotze

Gotze secured his place in history when he scored the winning goal for Germany in the World Cup final of 2014.

He also enjoyed a brilliant spell under Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund, however, after making the usual transfer to Bayern Munich, his career faltered and he’s never recovered his form since.

You can catch him playing for Frankfurt in 2022/23.

Gotze World Cup
Mario Gotze

2012: Isco

Isco won the award after enjoying a magical season at Malaga. A season that ultimately earnt him his move to Real Madrid and his place amongst the game’s elite.

Unfortunately, the move arguably came too quick, and he struggled to get much gametime with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale keeping him out the picture.

Still, he picked up tonnes of trophies at the club before leaving for Sevilla this past summer.

Isco in action for Real Madrid
Isco in action for Real Madrid

2013: Paul Pogba

Pogba went from being a write off after leaving Man Utd’s youth set-up to the most talented midfielder of his generation at Juventus.

The hype surrounding the Frenchman was unprecedented, leading his former club to stump up a then world record £89 million fee to resecure his services in 2016.

Ironically, things didn’t go to plan in Manchester for a second time, and he once again left for Juventus on a free in the most recent transfer window.

Pogba

2014: Raheem Sterling

Sterling signed for Liverpool as a teenager after coming through the ranks at Queens Park Rangers.

He quickly rose to stardom with the Reds earning the Golden Boy award in 2014.

But left for rivals Man City a couple of seasons later and has gone onto win four Premier League titles.

Do you really need us to tell you where he is now? Na, we thought not.

Raheem Sterling

2015: Anthony Martial

The Frenchman, like so many before him, arrived on a cloud of smoke to Old Trafford after enjoying a brilliant season with Monaco in 2014/15.

His performances in Ligue One earnt him the Golden Boy award and he carried some strong momentum over to his early Man Utd days.

However, since then, inconsistency has plagued his career and he’s never really been a fully established starter – maybe that will change under new manager Erik ten Hag.

Anthony Martial

2016: Renato Sanches

Sanches has enjoyed a weird career to date that has taken him from the heights of Bayern Munich to the depths of Swansea City.

Since winning the prize with Benfica his best form to date has been at Lille.

He made the switch to Paris Saint-Germain this last summer, though, so watch this space.

Renato Sanches of PSG celebrates socring his first goal

2017: Kylian Mbappe

The Frenchman was awarded the prize when playing at Monaco and has since gone onto become a superstar at PSG.

He’s now the highest paid footballer in the world.

Kylian Mbappe in action for France in 2017

2018: Matthijs de Ligt

After leading Ajax to the Champions League semi-final as their captain, De Ligt bid goodbye to his childhood club and headed for the bright lights of Turin.

Things didn’t entirely go to plan for him there, but he’s recently signed for Bayern as he looks to reignite his career.

Matthjis de Ligt in action for Bayern

2019: Joao Felix

Felix’s 2019 campaign was impressive to say the least, scoring 15 goals and assisting a further seven in 29 league outings.

He’s since moved to Atletico for big money and is yet to truly push the upper echelons of the footballing world in terms of his overall performances.

Joao Felix
Joao Felix

2020: Erling Haaland

Well, this selection is shaping up pretty well with Haaland absolutely tearing up the Premier League right now.

England’s top-flight was supposed to be a reality check for the star who had supposedly scored all of his goals in a ‘farmers league’ but the Norwegian is only stepping on the gas.

He looks on course to become a true great.

Haaland celebrates v Dortmund

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2021: Pedri

The most recent winner of the award, Pedri was a mainstay in Barcelona and Spain’s midfield throughout the 2021/22 season.

He edged Jude Bellingham and Jamal Musiala to the prize, and probably deservedly so after appearing no less than 71 times that season despite his young age.

Can you guess where these 40 players made their pro debut?

1 of 40
Lionel Messi on Argentina duty

Lionel Messi made his professional football debut for which club?

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