The 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup drew to an exhilarating close on Saturday with Ukraine’s Heorhii Tsitaishvili scoring a sensational solo goal to complete an epic comeback against South Korea—and an epic tournament in general.
From the early exits of Portugal and France to Erling Haland’s nine-goal frenzy for Norway against Honduras to the delightful football played by the two finalists, Italy, Ecuador and the United States, talking points emerged and beautiful goals were scored at every stage.
We’ve been keeping a watchful eye on the young starlets strutting their stuff in Poland, and now that the competition has finished, B/R has ranked the 10 most intriguing on show. They each come with a full description as to why they’re worth your attention, plus a stylistic player comparison and a projection for their short-term future.
Note: We covered the USYNT’s promising passage to the quarter-finals in detail here. One of those players features in this list, but you can check in on the other four using that link.
10. Andriy Lunin, 20, Goalkeeper
Ukraine and Real Madrid
Comparison: Thibaut Courtois
Lunin had a stop-start tournament, literally, as he missed Ukraine’s quarter-final due to senior international commitments. He came back for the semi-final and final, making it six games from a possible seven, and in each one he showed glimpses of an elite goalkeeper.
His shot-stopping and reflexes were good, and he single-handedly stopped Alex Mendez’s attempts to score a wonder-goal as Ukraine beat the USA in the opener. But what impressed most was his willingness to leave his line and intercept or claim, reading the trajectory of the ball perfectly and foiling several attacks before they ended up in a shot on goal.
The only question mark was his distribution; short kicks and roll-outs were fine, but most longer deliveries found opposing heads, and some of his chipped attempts into full-backs’ paths went awry.
It’s not much of a negative, though, and it surprised no one when he was handed the Golden Glove—the award for the best goalkeeper at the tournament.
In three years: Real Madrid aren’t very good at dealing with their own talented goalkeepers. If Lunin is to develop into a star, it’ll probably be at another top club.
9. Raoul Bellanova, 19, Right Wing-Back
Italy and AC Milan
Comparison: Thomas Meunier
Many people’s favourite right-sided defender at this World Cup was Ukraine’s Yukhym Konoplia, his aggressive energy and robust attacking style seducing the masses.
Italy’s Bellanova was, in some ways, the antithesis of Konoplia; his smoother, less erratic style was easier on the eye and no less effective overall.
He needed no encouragement to push forward, hurtling beyond the ball from his wing-back position and consistently offering a longer ball out from the back into space.
His calmness on the ball under pressure was a standout characteristic, as was his defensive tracking of runners going the other way. He’s surprisingly fast considering he’s working with a 6’1″ frame—something you don’t tend to see too often.
Given his height, speed and defensive awareness, he’s the sort of player some managers might be tempted to try as an outside centre-back in a three if the wing-back slot is taken.
In three years: Milan don’t hesitate to use their youngsters, and Bellanova could turn out to be first-team material.
8. Sekou Koita, 19, Attacking Midfielder/Striker
Mali and Liefering
Comparison: Diogo Jota
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Mali consistently turn out very good youth sides at these tournaments, and 2019 was no different. Koita led an extremely strong contingent that fell in the quarter-finals, an own goal and a red card early on meaning they more or less beat themselves.
You may not be surprised to learn that the Red Bull family have already snapped up Koita. Playing for Liefering in Austria, a direct feeder club to RB Salzburg (who are in turn a direct feeder to RB Leipzig), he’s already on a well-established road to the top end of the Bundesliga.
Given license to roam from a support striker role, Koita worked extremely well off the bigger, more static Ibrahima Kone. Dipping and diving into the holes that appeared, he dribbled a lot (averaged 8.6 per game), shot a lot (averaged four per game) and ended up with six combined goals and assists.
Built squatly at 5’7″, his low-to-the-ground, direct dribbling style isn’t the most refined, but it is mighty hard to stop without chopping him down.
In three years: RB Leipzig’s newest star.
7. Jota, 20, Winger
Portugal and Benfica
Comparison: Felipe Anderson
Portugal badly underachieved at this World Cup, their star-studded squad fancied as potential winners but ending up dropping out in the group stage. Certain individuals did acquit themselves extremely well, though, and chief among them, arguably, was Jota.
The way he moves is simply mesmeric; he plays with the sort of freedom and flair you typically expect from Brazilian playmakers like Felipe Anderson or perhaps Douglas Costa, whipping his feet over the ball to change direction suddenly and shimmy to the side.
Jota acts on instinct when attacking space, and the key to his brilliance is that his feet act just as quickly as his brain. His technique, the way he strikes the ball, is fascinating—perhaps unique—and as a result, some of the scooped passes he delivers look unlike anything anyone else on the pitch can pull off.
Jota looked the brightest spark in each of Portugal’s three games but probably did his best work in the opener: It was his angled first-half delivery that set Francisco Trincao off to score Portugal’s winner against South Korea. In the second period, he set Rafael Leao off in the same fashion, only for the Lille man to miss.
In three years: Key man for Benfica—if he hasn’t joined Barcelona or Bayern Munich by then.
6. Chris Richards, 19, Centre-Back
USA and Bayern Munich
Comparison: Antonio Rudiger
A central defensive revolution is happening at Bayern Munich, overseen by Niko Kovac.
That’s bad news for Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels, who are both looking set to leave, per Sky Sports, but good news for the younger crop, which includes new signings Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard, but also USA under-20 star Chris Richards.
Defensively speaking, few—if any—centre-backs matched Richards during the tournament. Perhaps Denys Popov of Ukraine, but he also walked the disciplinary tightrope so finely it was no surprise to see him red-carded in the semi-final.
Richards dominated in the air, looked unbeatable in duels in his own box, read play very well, stepped forward to intercept superbly and used his body to outmuscle and block out runners when chasing balls in the channels.
The only thing he didn’t flash was an eye for a long pass; instead, he mostly kept it safe and simple.
In three years: A starter at Bayern Munich if it goes perfectly; a starter at Schalke or Werder Bremen if not.
5. Jose Cifuentes, 20, Midfielder
Ecuador and America de Quito
Comparison: Wilmar Barrios
On a short-term basis, Cifuentes may prove to be the first jewel of the Under-20 World Cup. His contract with club America de Quito expires in November this year, making him an extremely cheap—or perhaps even free—pickup very soon.
The 20-year-old excelled in three key areas in Poland, playing a major role in his country’s brilliant run to bronze.
He topped the passing charts with 492—in excess of 100 more than the next-highest, compatriot Jordan Rezabala (376). He also racked up the fifth-most defensive duels at the competition (63) and carried the ball extremely well, using his thick limbs and immense strength to ward off challengers.
On one particular carry against the USA, he took the ball from well inside his own half, beat two players and rifled home an unstoppable strike from 25 yards. It’d be unfair to expect that regularly, but we now know it’s in his locker.
South America has produced plenty of dominant defensive midfielders over the years; Cifuentes is the next one.
In three years: A Champions League team in whichever country he chooses. He’d handle the Premier League well.
4. Lee Kang-In, 18, Attacking Midfielder
South Korea and Valencia
Comparison: Aleksandr Golovin
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Lee was central to South Korea’s magical run to the final, performing so consistently well he was given the Golden Ball—the award for the best player at the tournament. The list of players to have won this in the past includes Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona and Paul Pogba.
A bundle of attacking energy and inventiveness, Lee dribbled past opponents at will, slid runners in behind with accurate through-balls and even crossed well. His combined six goals and assists was the second-best effort at the tournament, tied with Koita and behind only Erling Haland, who scored nine goals in one game against Honduras.
He continually stepped up with big moments at important times, most notably the ice-cool penalty that put his nation ahead in the final. They’re very excited about him in Valencia, and it’s easy to see why.
In three years: South Korea’s senior star and Champions League player.
3. Gianluca Scamacca, 20, Striker
Italy and Sassuolo
Comparison: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Picking a striker who played five games and didn’t score might seem a little rogue—and ranking him this high even more so—but it takes only a couple of slick touches and threaded passes to fall for Scamacca’s style of play.
Besides, he scored the goal of the tournament in the dying seconds of Italy’s semi-final defeat to Ukraine—only for it to be ruled out by VAR, robbing us of a truly great strike.
That sequence paints a revealing picture of Scamacca: Towering over defenders at 6’5″ with a lean but strong frame, he executes a seemingly impossible shot. It’s that elasticity and ambition that reminds so vividly of Zlatan.
His partnership with chief goal-getter Andrea Pinamonti was great to watch, with Scamacca back-heeling, flicking and even chesting passes into his partner’s path for shots. He regularly dropped in off the line to help build attacks, favouring first-time passes to speed things up.
Having dropped in, he often ended up making the later runs into the box once the ball had been sent wide for a cross, and he timed them well—he just never quite managed to connect.
In three years: He’ll inevitably need to start finding the back of the net more, but he has the personality of a Juventus player.
2. Serhiy Buletsa, 20, Attacking Midfielder
Ukraine and Dynamo Kiev
Comparison: Xherdan Shaqiri
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Tsitaishvili may have stolen the limelight in the final with that brilliant goal. But up until that showpiece event, it had been Buletsa—Ukraine’s other wide midfielder—shining brightest for Ukraine.
Playing off the left side of their 5-4-1 formation but with freedom to roam and interpret, all manner of skills shot the fore: passing range, ability to find space and time runs, decision-making, dribbling and more.
Against Colombia in the quarter-final, he nutmegged two players in quick succession, drawing gasps from the crowd. All three of the goals he scored in Ukraine’s run to the final were precisely placed and earned through anticipation and great positioning. The number of switch passes he thumped right onto the chest of his colleagues was incredible.
He combined combative with refined and found a consistent level few other playmakers did at the tournament.
In three years: He hasn’t even made his Dynamo Kiev senior debut yet. Perhaps in three years he’ll have gone from prospect to star for them.
1. Gonzalo Plata, 18, Winger
Ecuador and Sporting CP
Primeira Liga outfit Sporting CP will be feeling pretty smug right now.
They moved quickly to snap up Plata while he was shining for Ecuador in the 2019 South American Youth Championships back in January and will have been watching on with glee as he shone again in Poland.
They’ve picked up a player who combines incredible on-the-ball talent with a determined defensive ethic, blending the two as few others do. And true to form, no player at the Under-20 World Cup had the sort of impact he did at both ends of the pitch.
He ranked first for dribbles at the tournament (71), an average of 8.9 per 90 minutes, with a 61 percent success rate. He also ranked joint-second for defensive duels (73) alongside compatriot Alexander Alvarado as he habitually chased back and helped his full-back defend.
To get that sort of exhaustive, two-way production out of someone playing against players up to one-and-a-half years his senior is remarkable.
In three years: Starting for Sporting and attracting glances from Europe’s best.
Data via Wyscout.com