Nothing venture, nothing have. You’ve probably heard that in entrepreneurship class. The same maxim applies to football. Some of the most rewarding soccer feats were registered by managers who gambled on youth – ‘children’ in local parlance. So which of the 32 teams at Qatar 2022 is ready to follow into the footsteps of Vicente Feola, who famously gambled on 17-year-old Edson Arantes dos Nascimento or Pele and was rewarded abundantly when he guided Brazil to World Cup glory?
Germany has traditionally relied on the tried and tested. However, if Die Mannschaft boss Hansi Flick is to prevent the four time World Cup winners from terminal decline, his biggest trump card will be teenagers Jamal Musiala, 19, and Youssoufa Moukoko 18. Musiala should be an automatic starter because he’s the most creative player in the Bundesliga and Moukoko is a wild card that can only benefit from being part of the national team.
The benefits of handing a wild card to a starlet aren’t always realised immediately. Luis Nazario Ronaldo da Lima was part of coach Carlos Alberto’s USA 1994 World Cup winning squad but didn’t get a minute of game time. Four years later, he was the most dangerous player at France 1998 where he led Brazil to the final, before eventually lifting the Japan/Korea 2002 World Cup after top scoring with 8 goals.
It’s noteworthy that there is a difference between an accomplished teenager and a wildcard. Cristiano Ronaldo was accomplished when he featured for Portugal at Euro 2004. The same applies to Lionel Messi at World Cup 2006 and Kylian Lottin Mbappe at the Russia 2018 event. But Diego Armando Maradona would have been a wild card if then Argentina coach Cesar Menotti had named him in his 1978 World Cup winning squad. Same applies to Manchester United starlet Alejandro Garnacho.
Michael Owen was already a superstar when he travelled to France 98 but Theo Walcott was a wasted wild card when Sven Goran Eriksson took him to Germany 2006 because he didn’t progress much after the global event.
Spain manager Luis Enrique is not afraid of capping teenagers. He confounded critics by fielding 18-year-old Pedri Gonzalez at Euro 2020 and wasn’t disappointed when the Barcelona youngster was named young player of the tournament. At the Qatar 2022 World Cup, he has three more Under 21 players – Yeremy Pino, 20, Ansu Fati, 20, and Pablo Martin Gavira or Gavi 18. All four are potential starters, giving La Roja the zip that comes with youthful fervour.
Arguably Africa’s greatest ever footballer Samuel Eto’o won his first international cap at 15 and had already won the Africa Cup of Nations and Olympic Games gold before his 20th birthday. Progressive coaches are right to say ‘if they are good enough, they are old enough’. Morocco’s Abde Ezzalzouli, 20, is a player with magic in his feet. If Atlas Lions boss Walid Regragui is courageous enough to field him, the North Africans will benefit from his sharp dribbling and creative skills.