When you think of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo the words unplayable, jaw-dropping and simply supernatural come to mind, among many others. But let’s face it, their quality and longevity are indescribable.
In around 1900 combined appearances, the two have amassed nearly 2000 goal contributions, while in the last twelve years either of the two have won the Ballon d’Or eleven times. The whole of the 2010s, and even further, has been irrefutably dominated by these two players, widely considered the best in the history of the game.
However, as their careers come to their latter stages, we are seeing many up and coming players that look to possess the same potential that Messi and Ronaldo once showed in their formative years.
This decade has not got off to the best of starts in general society and we don’t really know what the 2020s will look like at this moment in time, but the future of football looks very bright.
While a similar rule of world football is doubtful to be repeated, the next ten years could well be dominated by a few players still early in their careers, yet with their eyes directed at the top of the game.
Here is a five-a-side team to dominate the coming decade, in a similar fashion to how Messi and Ronaldo have dominated the last.
Gianluigi Donnarumma, 21-years old
Despite being just 21 years of age, the Italian goalkeeper has been the established first choice for AC Milan for the past four years, racking up over 200 appearances for the Rossoneri, while he has already been his country’s first choice since 2018.
Since Donnarumma made his debut at the age of 16, AC Milan has had six managers at the helm, with the young ‘keeper being one of the few constants the fans have had in what has been a turbulent few years.
He was instantly under monumental pressure, after being hailed as the successor to Gianluigi Buffon’s legacy in Italy. While he shares a forename with the former Italy number one, he also demonstrates the same composure, goalkeeping ability and leadership qualities. The Juventus cult figure has praised Donnarumma’s ability and has tipped him to have “an extraordinary career”, while footballing legend Dino Zoff suggested he was “predestined to become a great goalkeeper”.
As few goalkeepers seem to have the same potential and quality as the AC Milan shot stopper, it seems his constant progression and already established status in Italy will lead him to dominate the position over the course of the next decade and, if he does follow in Buffon’s footsteps, beyond.
Matthijs De Ligt, 21-years-old
This player has been widely revered for the whole of his career so far and, although that’s only four years, it has been quite a special time for the young man. His many records include being the youngest ever player in a major European final, when he started for Ajax in the 2017 Europa League final against Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, at just 17 years of age.
He became an established starter for the Ajax senior team after the sale of Davinson Sanchez to Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 2017, and later that season became the clubs youngest ever captain, aged 18. The youngster already had a presence and composure of a world-class, seasoned centre back as a teenager- traits that earned himself a big money move to Juventus in July 2019.
Although a slow start at the European giants, De Ligt has rapidly excelled and proved himself as one of Juventus’ best and most influential players since December, thanks to Mauricio Sarri’s persistence with the young centre back.
With the tutorage of Giorgio Chiellini at the Old Lady and Virgil Van Dijk while on international duty, he is quickly building upon the clear natural ability he already has, and will no doubt be able to compete for Ballon d’Or titles during the next decade.
Eduardo Camavinga, 17-years-old
Comfortably the youngest player in this five-a-side team, Camavinga is also the most promising when all compared at 17 years of age. The teenager is possibly the most technically gifted in the side, with a grace and fluidity on the ball reminiscent of Zinedine Zidane and pace, technique and a style of play similar to that of Yaya Toure during his famous years at Manchester City.
Instantly making an impact on Ligue 1 with Rennes, he enjoyed a fantastic 19/20 season in his first full year of professional football, aiding the club to a Champions League finish for the first time in their history. Camavinga has played his way into becoming a crucial player in the Rennes starting XI, a regular feature for world champions France, and is fast becoming a hot property in football with Real Madrid continuously marking him as a priority target.
The central midfielder announced himself on the world stage with his national side in September, making his debut against Croatia in a 4-2 win and a month later making his full debut in a thumping 7-1 win against Ukraine. Camavinga was exceptional, marking the occasion with a memorable goal and a commanding performance befitting of any player in their prime, dictating the game in the first half especially.
As the teenager continues to perform, he is showing that he possesses as much ability and potential as any player has for a very long time and why he is one of the brightest prospects in world football.
Although it is likely that his prime years will come predominantly in the 2030s, it is a certainty that the football world will be watching and captivated by this player in the very near future. With his quality and progression, he is bound to be a fixture on the Ballon d’Or contenders list in the next ten years, and for a while after that.
Marcus Rashford, 22-years-old
We’ve all known the potential of Marcus Rashford for a while now, and in the last couple of seasons he has really shown the world why he was hailed as one of the best wonderkids in the game. His quick, direct and ruthless approach to playing football makes him a thrill to watch and terrifying to defend against, especially in such an exciting Manchester United attack.
The young forward made his United debut at the age of 18, bursting onto the scene and even inspiring a game mode called ‘The Journey’ that was introduced on FIFA 17. The forward has been a starter for United since the 16/17 season and has cemented himself as a crucial part of the club and its image.
Four months after his senior debut, Rashford was named in Roy Hodgson’s EURO 2016 squad, and since then has only become more and more vital in the national squad. There is no doubt the young forward can become the talisman for his country and make himself a force on the international stage, once the likes of Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling come out of their prime years.
While he has the potential to leave a legacy on the pitch, Rashford is doing his best to create one outside of the sport as well. As modern footballers continue to gain more of a platform to voice opinions and promote change, Marcus Rashford is doing exactly that, in an inspiring way.
The 22-year-old has already earned himself an MBE for his campaign and activism towards battling child poverty and hunger. His continuous plea has gathered much attention, and as his honourable work in ensuring no child goes hungry continues, the Manchester United man will leave a legacy that reaches further than the world of football.
Kylian Mbappe, 21-years-old
Any team of future stars wouldn’t be complete without this man in the side, which has been the case for the best part of five years now. The true generational talent has 124 goal involvements in just 121 games in Ligue 1 (twice claiming the league’s golden boot), he has won 12 trophies already (including four league titles and, of course, the World Cup), and has been named French Player Of The Year for the past two years.
By the age of 21, Mbappe has firmly established himself as a senior player for both club and country, and as one of the best players in world football. Incredibly sought after, the Frenchman is also the most valuable player in the game, currently estimated to be worth around £200 million. This valuation can only increase as he continues to progress and is bound to win Ballon d’Or titles.
His truly electric pace and dribbling, sheer strength, football intelligence, and incredible goal-scoring talent make him one of the most exhilarating players to watch in the sport and there is no doubt that the 21-year old will dominate the world stage in the coming decade and beyond
Of course, it is near impossible to know for sure what is going to happen in football, especially in today’s climate. While a domination like that of the Messi and Ronaldo era will likely never be seen again, these are five players that are more than capable of capturing the attention of the footballing world in their positions, dominating the limelight in the 2020s, and leaving a legacy on the stage upon which they perform that cements them in the memories of football fans globally, just as Messi and Ronaldo have done over the course of more than a decade.