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Too many false idols competing for Golden Boy award

Robin Bairner
SENIOR ANALYST
Feature
1.48K   //    21 Sep 2017, 21:06 IST

M
Mbappe is almost certain to win the Golden Boy award

On Tuesday, the annual Golden Boy shortlist was released by Tuttosport to the usual fanfare. Twenty-five names of hopeful young footballers were put forward as the stars of tomorrow, although realistically, the winner will come from a small elite band at the very top.

The list is drawn together by 25 experts from nine European countries and 11 publications, including Bild, L’Equipe, Marca and The Times, but despite this extensive panel, there is a clear bias towards the larger competitions.

Past winners include the likes of Wayne Rooney, Sergio Aguero and Paul Pogba, yet for all of the ongoing success of these players, all were already stars when they claimed the award. This was hardly a case of the panel looking into a crystal ball and picking out an unknown teenager.

That will be the case again this season when Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappe is surely destined to claim the prize ahead of Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford.

There is no doubting the handful of players who are among the elite players aged under 21 in Europe’s top leagues. Into this category others such as Gianluigi Donnarumma, Kasper Dolberg, Gabriel Jesus and Ousmane Dembele, a candidate to win the award before 2017-ending his hamstring injury, fall.

Yes, there are a handful of genuine ‘Golden Boys’, but there are too many false idols on the list.

What, for example, has Reece Oxford achieved in the last year to merit inclusion onto this list, which is meant to be for youngsters playing top-flight football? He has never played a game at that standard in his life. If he can be included, why not Dortmund 12-year-old sensation Youssoufa Moukoko?

There are better but slightly more obscure defensive candidates in Europe today. Kieran Tierney at Celtic, for example, is eligible for the award after impressing in the Champions League and on the international stage, while Panagiotis Retsos became the youngest captain ever to win the Greek Super League last season with Olympiacos and then made a big-money move to Bayer Leverkusen in the summer as if to prove his qualities.

That both players have turned out in less mediatised leagues has seen them unjustly overlooked.

Meanwhile, in past years there are screeds of players deemed among the best 25 players aged under-21 in Europe based purely on hype. Last season, Alex Iwobi made the list amid a brief period of bright form at Arsenal but thereafter quickly degenerated into a figure of fun.

In the past, the likes of Adnan Januzaj, Divock Origi and Yaya Sanogo have made the cut, which is perceivably based more around reputation than on-field quality.

The lower reaches of the Golden Boy award have become more about hype than any serious research or thought as to who the best candidates might be. It’s much easier simply to agree with the zeitgeist.

Ultimately, such a list is unwieldy and, therefore, inaccurate, with a bias towards players already involved in big leagues. Only two of these youngsters play outside any of the ‘Big Five’ leagues, while a mere four play in France – arguably the country with the most prolific record of producing young talent in Europe over the course of the last decade.

The Premier League, meanwhile, offers six nominees (not including Oxford, who is on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach), despite having an abysmal record over the years in terms of hampering youngsters’ development by failing to offer first-team football.

As such, the award is flawed, driving more media attention and hype towards those who are not necessarily deserving of it.

To an extent, it is understandable, because the panel, journalists, like fans, will tend to watch the biggest leagues and have a vested interest in promoting the talent that they are most familiar with.

Other names may be blips on their radar, but watching leagues like the Scottish or Greek top flights is difficult, while it is also unrealistic to expect the panel to have such a wide-ranging overview of the game.

As such, it defeats the purpose of having a 25-man ‘shortlist’, which has been cut from 40 in the past but remains much too great in any case.

Imagine if Oxford beat Rashford to the award or Allan Saint-Maximim, who was loaned out by Monaco, claimed it instead of Mbappe, who spent the first half of 2017 starring for them.

A better idea would be to limit the shortlist to 10 players who really merit being there based on performance over the last year. Of course, these men would typically come from the biggest clubs, but at that absolute elite level, it could be justified. 

At least it would help to earn a potentially interesting award some credence.

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Robin Bairner
SENIOR ANALYST
UK-based freelance football journalist for the last decade, I've appeared in publications such as the Guardian, the Blizzard, When Saturday Comes, but can most frequently be found on Goal.com. I write about European football, and have worked at both World Cup 2014 and Euro 2016.
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