Soccer

Which of these 10 young players will become World Cup stars?

Germany's Timo Werner is one of the young players who could make headlines at the 2018 World Cup in Russia
Germany's Timo Werner is one of the young players who could make headlines at the 2018 World Cup in Russia AP

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The 2018 World Cup in Russia is less than three weeks away, and club executives and managers all over the world will be paying close attention to the new crop of young players to see who has a breakout summer during the sport’s biggest audition.

Which players will emerge as household names? Which will cave under the pressure? Colombia’s James Rodriguez shined four years ago in Brazil. Surely, a few rising stars will land big contracts after this World Cup, too.

Here are 10 players under the age of 23 to look out for at the World Cup...

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Marco Asensio AP

Marco Asensio (Spain)

Age: 22.

Club: Real Madrid.

Position: Midfielder.

Son of a Spanish father and a Dutch mother, who died when Asensio was 15, this talented midfielder has been a star on Spain’s youth national teams. He shined with the Under-21 team, scoring a hat trick in a 5-0 win over Macedonia in the U21 Euro Cup. He is eager to prove himself with the senior team.

He signed with Real Madrid in 2014, as an 18-year-old, but spent the first few years on loan with Mallorca. This season, he scored four goals and had four assists in 17 games. Critics say he didn’t live up to expectations, but he is determined to prove doubters wrong in Russia. His father and brother played professional soccer.

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Rodrigo Betancur Juventus.com

Rodrigo Betancur (Uruguay)

Age: 20.

Club: Juventus.

Position: Midfielder.

Betancur’s career began in Argentina with Boca Juniors, where he played from 2015 to 2017. He was part of the Carlos Tevez 2015 deal that sent the Argentine back to Boca, where his career started. In return, Juventus got the first option to sign Betancur, which they did on July 1, 2017.

He stood out at the Under-20 World Cup, playing every minute as Uruguay won its group ahead of Italy, Japan and South Africa. He played the entire game in the Round of 16, a 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia.

Betancur is tall (6-2), powerful and known for his physicality and box-to-box running. He was a surprise starter for Juventus against Real Madrid in the 2018 Champions League quarterfinals. According to news reports, an unnamed Spanish team tried to sign him in the January transfer window, but Juventus declined the offer.

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Leander Dendoncker Getty

Leander Dendoncker (Belgium)

Age: 23

Club: Anderlecht.

Position: Defensive Mid/center Back

Leander Dendoncker made headlines this week when Belgian coach Roberto Martinez chose him for the World Cup team over Roma star Radja “Il Ninja” Nainggolan, one of the world’s best midfielders. Nainggolan and Martinez have had personal conflicts, which may be a reason for his omission. Dendoncker, a 6-2 defensive midfielder who can also play center back, is one of only two domestic-league players on the World Cup squad.

He hasn't missed a single minute through 32 Belgian league matches and 12 Europa League games -- and is known for his work rate, decision-making, and team-first attitude.

Manchester United showed interest in Dendoncker last year, and several European clubs – including West Ham, Crystal Palace and Atletico Madrid – are considering signing him and will be paying close attention to his performance in Russia. His current price tag: $23 million.

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Achraf Hakimi RealMadrid.com

Achraf Hakimi (Morocco)

Age: 19.

Club: Real Madrid.

Position: Right back

Fans of Real Madrid are familiar with Achraf, who goes by his first name. Born in Madrid to Moroccan parents, he represented Morocco on the U-17, U-20 and U-23 national teams before joining the senior team in October 2016 at age 17.

He joined Real Madrid’s youth academy at age 8 and worked his way up. He joined the first team last fall as a backup to Dani Carvajal at right back and scored his first La Liga goal on Dec. 10 against Sevilla, becoming the first Moroccan player to score for Real Madrid.

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Gabriel Jesus Rui Vieira AP

Gabriel Jesus (Brazil)

Age: 21.

Club: Manchester City.

Position: Forward.

Each World Cup brings a new Brazilian star, and this time, it could be Gabriel Jesus. Known for his pace, creativity and fancy dribbling, he has scored nine goals in 15 international matches. He was called up to the national team in September 2016, shortly after winning a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics. In his first match, he scored two goals and Brazil beat Ecuador 3-0 at altitude in Quito.

Jesus grew up in a Sao Paulo favela, and joined Palmeiras’ youth program as a pre-teen. At 16, he scored 54 goals in 48 games. At 17, he scored 37 goals in 22 games. Manchester City signed him in January 2017 for $42 million. He missed 10 games early in the 2018 season with a knee injury, but has recently returned to top form, just in time for the World Cup. A lifelong collector of Panini soccer stickers, he said he is delighted to now have his own sticker — one of the most sought-after in the world.

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Chucky Lozano Getty

Hirving “Chucky” Lozano (Mexico)

Age: 22.

Club: PSV Eindhoven.

Position: Winger.

One of the most sought-after prospects in Europe this summer is Chucky Lozano, a 5-9 and 154-pound winger from Mexico. He has been a sensation in the Dutch league since signing with league champion PSV Eindhoven last summer. He was the first player in club history to score in the first three games, and he finished the season with 17 goals and 11 assists in 29 matches.

He has also been a star in his national shirt, scoring seven goals in 24 appearances since being called up in February 2016. He scored two goals against Belgium in a friendly last November. A good performance at the World Cup could land him a big-time contract in Spain, England or Germany.

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Kylian Mbappe AP

Kylian Mbappe (France)

Age: 19.

Club: PSG.

Position: Forward.

This teen phenom burst onto the international soccer scene with Monaco, and French fans have been buzzing ever since. The talented forward has drawn comparisons to Thierry Henry. He scored a hat trick for Monaco as a 17-year-old and last summer was loaned to PSG for big money.

He made his senior debut with the national team in March 2017, becoming the second-youngest player in French history behind Maryan Wisnieski to be called up to the national team. His father is a soccer coach and his mother played competitive handball. Mbappe will be wearing the No. 10 shirt for the World Cup, the same number worn by legend Michel Platini.

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Davinson Sanchez AP

Davinson Sanchez (Colombia)

Age: 21 (turns 22 June 12).

Club: Tottenham.

Position: Center back.

Tottenham spent a club-record $56 million to get Sanchez from Dutch team Ajax last summer, and he quickly became a regular in central defense. He played in 41 games for the Spurs, who finished third in the Premier League. He was so impressive that the club just extended his contract through 2024.

Sanchez began his career with Atletico Nacional in Colombia’s domestic league and was noticed by numerous European scouts. Barcelona offered him a spot on its B squad, but he chose instead to go to Ajax, where he won Player of the Year his first season. Tottenham then signed him to the record-deal, he was named to the Colombian World Cup team, and he is expected to be an anchor in the “Cafeteros” backline for years to come.

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Lee Seung-Woo Getty

Lee Seung-Woo (Korea)

Age: 20.

Club: Verona.

Position: Winger.

By age 12, Seung-Woo was nicknamed “The Asian Messi” and spotted by a Barcelona scout when he led all scorers at the Danone Nations Cup youth tournament. His body type — 5-7 and slender — and movement with the ball was reminiscent of Messi. He signed with Barcelona’s youth academy, La Masia, and moved to Spain in 2011 at age 13.

The Korean sensation was one of the most exciting players in Barca’s academy, but in 2014 he and eight other players were banned because Barcelona had broken FIFA youth eligibility rules. He was prohibited from practicing or playing with a sanctioned club until age 18. Barcelona sent him to Verona in 2017 but retains the rights to re-sign him through 2019.

Seung-Woo spent the 2017-18 season trying to prove that a player of his stature and lack of experience could be valuable. He scored late in the season against AC Milan. The Korean World Cup team will be missing two key players due to injury, opening the door for “The Asian Messi” to make his mark.

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Germany's Timo Werner is one of the young players who could make headlines at the 2018 World Cup in Russia Martin Meissner AP

Timo Werner (Germany)

Age: 22.

Club: RB Leipzig.

Position: Forward.

Of all the promising young players in the World Cup, the one who could make the biggest jump is Warner. Among the teams reportedly interested in the Leipzig forward are Real Madrid, Manchester United and Liverpool.

At age 17 years, 4 months, he became the youngest player ever to player for VfB Stuttgart’s first team. He would go on to become the youngest ever to reach 100 and 150 Bundesliga games. He played for the German youth national teams from U15 to U21, scoring 34 goals in 48 matches. He won the Golden Boot trophy at the 2017 Confederations Cup.

Werner signed with Leipzig in 2016 and scored 21 goals this season, including a historic game-clinching goal in a 2-1 win over Bayern Munich, the first time in history Leipzig beat the Bundesliga giant.

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