Golden Boy 2024: Projecting Bellingham's successor as best U21 player

Published on: 05 December 2023

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Real Madrid midfielder Jude Bellingham was crowned Europe's "Golden Boy" in an award ceremony on Monday night that recognises the best player under the age of 21 across Europe's top leagues in the calendar year of 2023. And what a year it has been for the England international: joining Madrid from Borussia Dortmund this summer for an initial €103 million and breaking the record for the most goals scored in a player's first 15 games at the club (14) --which was previously held by Cristiano Ronaldo, Alfredo Di Stefano and Pruden (13).

Bellingham, 20, reportedly earned a whopping 485 points out of a possible 500 in the vote (97%) -- which are submitted by 50 journalists at some of the continent's most prestigious media outlets as the award was established by Italian newspaper Tuttosport --- ahead of Bayern Munich's Jamal Musiala and Barcelona's Lamine Yamal.

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The Madrid star joins an illustrious list of past victors including: Gavi, Pedri, Erling Haaland, Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney and Kylian Mbappé. So you can see while winning the award is no guarantee of future success, it is about as close as you can get.

But which players look like they could challenge next year?

Bellingham himself has offered three suggestions: Real Madrid teammate Arda Güler, former Borussia Dortmund teammate Jamie Bynoe-Gittens and brother Jobe Bellingham, who would need to move to a top European league in January to become eligible as he plays in the Championship for Sunderland currently.

With a touch more objectivity, we've run the rule over Europe's next set of talented teenagers in order to form an extremely early ranking of potential candidates.

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A bit of housekeeping before we begin: Only players under the age of 21 are eligible to win the award and anyone who turns 21 in 2024 is ruled out. So if you're wondering why the likes of Jamal Musiala (Bayern Munich), Florian Wirtz (Bayer Leverkusen), Xavi Simons (RB Leipzig/PSG), Alejandro Balde (Barcelona), António Silva (Benfica), Rasmus Højlund (Manchester United), Levi Colwill (Chelsea) aren't present on this list, it's likely because they'll be too old.

To be eligible you also have to be playing in a top European league, so if, for example, prodigious left-back Valentín Barco stays at Boca Juniors in 2024, he can't be considered. You also can't win it twice -- although the only previous winner still young enough would be Gavi, and much of the Barcelona midfielder's 2024 season will be spent recovering from serious injury.

Without further ado, on to the list:

Real Madrid's Jude Bellingham picked up the award in 2023 after an incredible year. Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images5. Vitor Roque, 18, ST, Barcelona

It's a bold call to tip Vitor Roque for the award considering he's not yet played a game in Europe, but he could make a wildcard run when he joins Barcelona from Athletico Paranaense in January.

In any other year a backup to legendary striker Robert Lewandowski would probably not get a chance to shine, but with concerns mounting over the 35-year-old's form -- he has scored just three goals since September -- Vitor Roque could be thrown in at the deep end. The Brazilian teenager has netted 21 goals in 45 games for his club this season and led Brazil to glory in the U-20 South American Championships before an ankle injury saw him miss 10 games late this year.

Vitor Roque will give Barcelona something different up front, offering dynamic dribbling and speed behind the defence, as opposed to Lewandowski's polished link-up play, though both share predatory goal-scoring instincts in the box.

Make no mistake: A lot has to go right for him to contend for the 2024 Golden Boy award. Some of it -- like being registered to play in LaLiga by his new financially stricken club! -- isn't in his control. But his development at Camp Nou will be one to watch carefully.

4. Evan Ferguson, 19, ST, Brighton & Hove AlbionRepublic of Ireland international striker Evan Ferguson has a bright future ahead of him. Steve Bardens/Getty Images

What Ferguson is doing simply isn't normal. To lead the line for a top Premier League club at his age, with a physical and technical ability that shames seasoned veterans, is a remarkable feat. He is now a regular in the first XI -- last season Brighton took it slow as he started only 10 times -- and his return of six league goals from 13 league games so far is impressive.

Brighton have changed a lot since last season and are still finding their groove in parts, but the No. 9 position is nothing to worry about for manager Roberto De Zerbi. If Ferguson carries on at this rate, he'll not only comfortably hit double figures for Premier League goals by May, but will also play a major role in the club's maiden UEFA Europa League campaign too.

3. João Neves, 19, CM, Benfica

Neves is a throwback footballer in more ways than one. Not only does his game centre around a high work rate, which sees him cover every blade of grass across 90 minutes, but he way he tucks his shirt into his high-riding shorts makes it seem like has come straight from the mid-1990s.

At 5-foot-7 he may be diminutive in stature, but his impact around the pitch is just the opposite: he zips about and supplies all manner of services, from firm tackles to slick passes to fizzing shots from distance. The Benfica side that won the Portuguese league last season have lost a few players -- such as Goncalo Ramos and Enzo Fernández -- but Neves stepping up has ensured it continues to purr.

The 19-year-old won't get the chance to impress in the latter stages of the Champions League, which is a bit of a blow to his Golden Boy hopes, but he will head to Euro 2024 with a Portugal side who have destroyed everything in their path during qualifying. And he has already been linked with a big transfer this summer.

2. Lamine Yamal, 16, FW, BarcelonaBarcelona handed Lamine Yamal a chance last season and he has taken it with both hands. Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images

Barcelona keep outdoing themselves when bringing young players into the first XI. After Pedri became key to this team at 18, they introduced 17-year-old Gavi to the equation; now, 16-year-old Lamine Yamal is a regular part of the team (and he debuted last season at age 15!)

Yamal has stunned everyone this year with just how incredibly good he is and is already off the mark in LaLiga for both goals and assists. The winger is as technically gifted as you'd expect a La Masia product to be, but the real genius to his play is how composed he is in the final third and how consistently he chooses the right option.

It's not particularly easy to play on the right wing for Barcelona, as the way Xavi tilts the formation in possession often means the right-back tucks into defence rather than overlaps and supports the winger. Leaving a 16-year-old so isolated on the pitch goes against conventional wisdom, but Yamal makes light work of it all, which suggests he has a truly special skillset.

Spain's national team have also started to rely on him and he stands to play a role for them at Euro 2024, so given the fact he came second in the Golden Boy voting this year it looks like he's got very strong case. But if he doesn't win it in 2024, there's always 2025, 2026 or 2027!

play2:08Laurens sees an incredibly bright future for PSG's Zaire-Emery

Julien Laurens discusses 17-year-old Warren Zaire-Emery's importance for Paris Saint-Germain, comparing him to Jude Bellingham at that age.

1. Warren Zaïre-Emery, 17, CM, PSG

After cementing his place in the Paris Saint-Germain first XI this season, Zaïre-Emery made his first France start last month, and scored his first France goal, but then suffered an ankle injury that is likely to rule him out until the new year. Thankfully, though, this shouldn't cost him much in the Golden Boy stakes. Zaïre-Emery's timeframe is to return in early January, which gives him a shot at playing a full year for one of Europe's top clubs and a chance to make an impact for his nation at the summer's Euro 2024.

Even at 17, Zaïre-Emery is already a pivotal midfield piece for PSG. Indeed, watching them turn the ball over in midfield and fall victim to a high press against Newcastle United in the Champions League last week only served to underline how critical his presence is.

For one so young, it's amazing how physically ready for top-level football he looks. The way he rides challenges and bounces off tacklers makes it seem like he's been doing this for a decade. It's that poise and composed excellence, mixed in with the odd raking switch pass or rasping long-range strike, that has established Zaïre-Emery as a leading candidate to win the Golden Boy award in 2024.

Honourable mentions

Lille defender Leny Yoro has every right to be in this list, as like Ferguson, what he's doing isn't normal. At 18 years of age he's starting every week in at centre-back for Lille, who are competing at the top of Ligue 1 and are a strong contender to win the UEFA Europa Conference League. But his biggest obstacle is that, rightly or wrongly, it's tough for defenders to win this award -- the only one ever to do so is Matthijs de Ligt, off the back of a wondrous Champions League run with Ajax and a €75m move to Juventus. If that's the bar, it's probably impossible for Yoro to hit it.

Manchester City right-back Rico Lewis and Bayern Munich striker Mathys Tel have the talent to win this award, but the real question is whether they'll have the opportunity. As a result of playing for super clubs stacked with talent, they're light on minutes so far.

Brazil striker Endrick and midfielder Arda Güler (both soon to be Real Madrid teammates) may also suffer from this issue. Endrick won't arrive at Madrid (from Palmeiras for €72m) until next summer, while Güler's focus is on getting fit as he has suffered with injury and is yet to play since moving from Fenerbahce in the summer.

Finally, another Vitor Roque-style wild card here is Girona winger Sávio, whose blistering form has helped the Spanish club to 38 points from 15 games and a surprise run at the LaLiga title. Almost everyone expects them to drop off, but if they don't Sávio will suddenly be central to this discussion.