Youth is the gift of nature, but age is a work of art, writes Ryan Baldi.
One of the most thrilling aspects of any major international tournament is the inevitable emergence of a handful of young superstars, signaling the arrival of an exciting new generation of talent.
While the breakout star of the last World Cup, Kylian Mbappe, struggled to replicate the same exhilarating form for France this summer, Euro 2020 has delivered several youngsters who have captured the imagination.
Here, we have picked out the five standout players aged 21 or under who have shone at the European Championship this year.
Pedri – Spain
He won’t turn 19 years old until late November, but Barcelona’s gifted playmaker Pedri has shone at the Euros as an ever-present in Luis Enrique’s Spain midfield.
Pedri’s rise to stardom has been rapid. He moved to the Camp Nou from Las Palmas – where he set a record as the Canary Island club’s youngest-ever scorer – just last year and played in all but one of Barca’s 38 La Liga games last term.
A Spain debut arrived earlier this year and he has already established himself as a key figure for La Roja, adding inventiveness, unpredictability and relentless line-breaking passing into Spain’s midfield mix.
“Facts define a situation better than words,” Luis Enrique said ahead of his side’s last-16 showdown with Croatia. “Pedri is a unique player, a footballer unlike anything else.”
Alexander Isak – Sweden
Although he didn’t manage to find the net at the European Championship, Sweden striker Alexander Isak didn’t fail to impress with his all-round performances.
The 6ft 4ins striker dazzled with his pace, close control and ability to attack inside from the left channel, traits reminiscent of Arsenal and France legend Thierry Henry.
Isak provided two assists in his four Euro 2020 outings and reportedly caught the eye of several Premier League clubs. Real Sociedad wisely tied down the 21-year-old to a new contract upon Sweden’s exit, raising his release clause to €100m and buying out former club Borussia Dortmund’s buyback option.
“Don’t think there’s much doubt that Alexander Isak will attract a lot of attention from clubs across Europe,” said BBC presenter and former Tottenham, Barcelona and England striker Gary Linker during the Euros. “Exceptional talent.”
17 goals in La Liga this season. Big performances in the first two games of #Euro2020. Still just 21 years old.
Alexander Isak is one to watch ???? pic.twitter.com/XS5EdFfMfB
— B/R Football (@brfootball) June 18, 2021
Jeremy Doku – Belgium
Belgium’s “golden generation” once again fell short of attaining an elusive major international title this summer, despite being able to count upon such talents as Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard.
But as that generation of Belgian stars begins to move past its peak, a bright future for the Red Devils is heralded by the emergence of dynamic winger Jeremy Doku.
The 19-year-old Rennes attacker only started two matches at Euro 2020, but his performance in Belgium’s final game, a 2-1 quarter-final loss to Italy, was enough to make him one of the tournament’s breakout stars.
From his position wide on the left, Doku tormented the experienced Italian backline, completing a staggering eight take-ons and consistently looking like the Belgian player most likely to rescue his side.
Mikkel Damsgaard – Denmark
Given everything they have had to overcome at Euro 2020 in light of Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest in their opening game, that Denmark have made it all the way to the last four is nothing short of incredible.
And while mention of the tournament will likely always conjure sombre reflections of Eriksen’s shocking collapse, the emergence of Sampdoria midfielder Mikkel Damsgaard as a genuine star of international calibre and his role in helping the Dane’s outperform expectations represents one of the summer’s heartening success stories.
Damsgaard was an unused substitute in that dramatic opening loss against Finland. But he has started all four of Denmark’s matches since, contributing a goal in the 4-1 group-stage win over Russia and an assist in the 4-0 last-16 trouncing of Wales.
Valued at around £25m, the 21-year-old has so impressed that he now finds himself the subject of Liverpool transfer rumours.
Ferran Torres – Spain
After a breakout first season in the Premier League, Manchester City forward Ferran Torres has carried his club form into Euro 2020 with Spain.
The 21-year-old played predominantly as a winger in his time in La Liga with Valencia, but Pep Guardiola also deployed the versatile attacker as a No.9 at City at times last term and the goal-scoring instincts he honed in those outings have served him well at the European Championship.
He scored in Spain’s 5-0 demolition of Slovakia, earning himself a starting place in La Roja’s next two games, against Croatia and Switzerland, scoring and assisting in the former.
“He is an incredible signing for us as a young player,” Guardiola enthused last season. “He can play in three positions up front, but playing more central, he has an incredible sense of goal.”