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Meet the 12 most exciting under-19s in world football

1. Martin Odegaard (Real Madrid)

There aren’t many talented prospects who have become household names across the football world by the tender age of 16, but then again Martin Odegaard isn’t your average young star.

Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Bayern Munich were all linked with the Strømsgodset academy graduate before he signed for Real Madrid at the start of 2015, with reports in the Spanish media suggesting that his first contract with los Blancos is already worth a cool £80,000 per week. A left-footed attacking midfielder who can dribble, pass and shoot, Odegaard has already won eight full caps for Norway.

2. Lee Seung-woo (Barcelona)

It’s often said that exporting players to Europe’s major clubs is a vital step for African and Asian countries looking to further their development. Park Ji-sung helped that process in South Korea when he joined Manchester United in 2005, but there’s now significant hope that Lee – who moved to Barcelona from Incheon United four years ago and was the subject of an approach from Real Madrid this summer – can become his nation’s first bona fide world-class footballer.

3. Krystian Bielik (Arsenal)

Bielik made his senior Arsenal debut in the 3-0 Capital One Cup defeat to Sheffield Wednesday last month, playing the final 30 minutes in central midfield. That was the position in which he made his breakthrough at Legia Warsaw last season, but it could be that Arsene Wenger sees his long-term future at centre-back: the 17-year-old has spent most of the current campaign in the heart of the backline for the Gunners’ under-21s. Composed on the ball and never afraid to put a foot in, Bielik is expected to earn a call-up to the full Poland squad ahead of the European Championship next summer.

4. Ruben Neves (Porto)

What were you doing at 18? Probably not captaining your boyhood club in the Champions League, right? That’s the pleasure Neves was afforded in October, when the gifted holding midfielder was handed the armband for Porto’s group stage clash with Maccabi Tel Aviv. The teenager has already become an essential part of Julen Lopetegui’s side, winning plenty of admirers for his neat passing, astute positional sense and all-round understanding of the game.

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5. Dayot Upamecano (RB Salzburg)

With Manchester United and PSG among the elite European outfits tracking Upamecano earlier this year, it was something of a surprise to see the Frenchman pitch up at Red Bull Salzburg from Valenciennes in July. A strong and speedy central defender, the 17-year-old is also a fine reader of the game and comfortable with the ball at his feet. Currently enjoying regular football with Salzburg’s feeder club FC Liefering in Austria’s second division, Upamecano has a big future ahead of him.

6. Fabian Benko (Bayern Munich)

What is it about Croatia and technically sound playmakers? As if Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Alen Halilovic and Mateo Kovacic weren’t enough, the Vatreni could soon have Bayern Munich’s Benko – born in Bavaria to Croatian parents – to call upon too. An attacking midfielder who can play centrally or on either flank, the 17-year-old has already caught the eye of Pep Guardiola, who brought him along for the first team’s pre-season tour of China in the summer. “Fabian Benko is a very young player,” the Catalan said at the time. “He’s only 17 years old, but we think that he is very good... he still has to improve in all areas of the game, but we’re very satisfied with his performances and his attitude in training.”

7. Breel Embolo (Basel)

It’s easy to forget that Embolo is still only 18. The Basel striker, born in Cameroon but having lived in Switzerland since shortly after his sixth birthday, has become a prominent member of the reigning Super League champions’ team since making his debut back in 2013/14. Comfortable playing as a central striker or out on the right, Embolo is quick, powerful and direct, but it’s his finishing that’s his most impressive attribute: he rarely snatches at chances, and his return of 16 goals in 46 league appearances would be a respectable enough tally for someone 10 years his senior.

8. Hachim Mastour (Milan)

Seeing as you’re reading an article detailing some of the best young talents in the world, it’s highly likely you’ve seen a Vine or video of Mastour working his magic (and in case you haven’t, the one below is a beauty). The Italy-born Moroccan is regularly captured on film doing some sensational things with a football, with his fast feet and silky skills making him a real joy to watch. Currently on loan at Malaga from Milan, the 17-year-old has the natural talent to become a real star.

9. Gedion Zelalem (Arsenal)

For a modern midfield player, there cannot be much higher praise than that which U.S. youth coach Matt Pilkington once heaped upon Zelalem: “He dribbles like Iniesta and passes like Xavi.” Born in Germany to Ethiopian parents, the midfielder and his family emigrated to the States in 2006, seven years before Zelalem was snapped up by Arsenal. Currently dazzling Scottish audiences on loan at Rangers, the 18-year-old distributes the ball with accuracy and intelligence from the centre of the park. “He can be a great player,” the usually cautious Arsene Wenger raved in July.

10. Luka Jovic (Red Star)

“At this moment [Robin] Van Persie could come to Red Star and the No.9 [shirt] would still go to Jovic,” club director Zvezdan Terzic exclaimed in the summer, elucidating exactly how highly the Serbian club rate their 17-year-old marksman. A centre-forward who’s been compared to Radamel Falcao (and not the Manchester United or Chelsea version), Jovic has already attracted admiring glances from Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Atletico Madrid. Four goals in 14 league outings this season is a good return given that 11 of those appearances have come from the bench.

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11. Youri Tielemans (Anderlecht)

If Tielemans was born in any other generation, he’d probably already be a regular fixture in the senior Belgium squad. With the likes of Radja Nainggolan, Mousa Dembele and Axel Witsel already established in the Red Devils’ ranks, however, the 18-year-old has had to be patient for his international debut. But if he continues to play as he has done over the last two years, the wait will soon be over. A fine passer of the ball who has two good feet and an eye for goal, the Anderlecht man is perhaps the most promising young central midfielder around right now.

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12. Goncalo Guedes (Benfica)

The ‘new Cristiano Ronaldo’ is a pressure-filled moniker that any young player could do without, but it’s easy to see why Guedes has been likened to the Ballon d’Or holder (it’s not just because he’s Portuguese and plays out wide). The 18-year-old, who made the breakthrough at Benfica earlier this year and has started all four of the Eagles’ Champions League encounters in 2015/16, is a strong runner who possesses a powerful shot. Linked with Manchester City in recent weeks, he could soon be making the same move from Lisbon to the north-west of England that Ronaldo undertook back in 2003.

The list

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Greg Lea
Greg Lea

Greg Lea is a freelance football journalist who's filled in wherever FourFourTwo needs him since 2014. He became a Crystal Palace fan after watching a 1-0 loss to Port Vale in 1998, and once got on the scoresheet in a primary school game against Wilfried Zaha's Whitehorse Manor (an own goal in an 8-0 defeat).