After every World Cup, one of the most exciting aspects of watching the spectacle is how the tournament can showcase young talents on their way to greatness. During the tournament, they may not be perfect- their first touch might be flawed or their decision-making may be questionable. However, the tantalizing potential of these players is evident.
This World Cup was no different in this respect. We were lucky to witness some great young players announce their arrival on the world stage, with one particular 19 year old being one of the best players in the tournament regardless of age (no prizes for guessing). So how would an XI of the best 23 or under players look?
Goalkeeper and Defenders
Goalkeeper: Francis Uzoho
As a 19 year old, Uzoho is a rarity for an international goalkeeper. In fact, there were only two active shot-stoppers in the tournament who fit the criteria of this XI. The other was Tunisia goalkeeper Mouez Hassan who only lasted 15 minutes against England before picking up an injury. So this wasn’t exactly a difficult decision. That isn’t to say that Uzoho didn’t deserve it: the Nigeria goalkeeper was excellent for his side especially in the air against a very tall Iceland side.
Right-Back: Benjamin Pavard
Before the tournament, not many expected Benjamin Pavard to have any playing time for France considering the explosiveness and dynamic attacking play of Djibril Sidibe. However, Didier Deschamps opted for him and by the end of the tournament we knew why. Pavard was solid defensively throughout, handling opposition wingers and full-backs. As a 22 year old, Pavard has a really bright future both at international and club level.
Centre Back: Yerry Mina
At 23, Yerry Mina has shown an incredible maturity for Colombia. After not having played in Colombia’s first game against Japan, Mina was incredible defensively for the South Americans- averaging seven clearances per game. He and Davinson Sanchez helped Colombia only concede one goal in their next three games. Furthermore, three games in a row, the South American team faced certain elimination. All three times, Mina thundered in a header to save his team. That alone guarantees a spot in this XI.
Centre Back: Jose Gimenez
Jose Gimenez is probably the luckiest young centre-back in the world, getting to play with and learn from Diego Godin both at international and club level. Yet Gimenez has also managed to establish himself as a great defender in his own right. The Atletico Madrid defender was brilliant for Uruguay throughout the tournament. Gimenez’s excellence was most evident in the group stages, where he was a vital part of a defence that didn’t concede a single goal and even scored a vital late winner against Egypt.
Left Back: Lucas Hernandez
Like Pavard, Lucas Hernandez is a natural centre-back whose initial selection was questioned by many in France. By the end of the tournament, he too had proved his doubters wrong. Hernandez was brilliant for Les Blues, especially in a Round of 16 game against Argentina where his marauding runs helped set up two of their goals. He was formidable defensively too, making the second-most tackles of any player in the tournament.