As European football’s old guard cruises towards retirement, new generation of superstars ready to reign
With impactful players such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo cruising towards retirement, a new generation of superstars has stepped into the spotlight. The likes of Jude Bellingham and Jamal Musiala are now terrorising opponents.
Players such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets have made their mark permanently in the sport of soccer over the last 15 to 20 years.
As their legs give into the weight of their respective achievements, particularly in the case of Ronaldo and Messi, who rewrote the history books in tandem during their playful rivalry, a new generation is rising.
Though some of the duo’s list of staggering records and accomplishments may never be matched or usurped — simply owing to their longevity and consistency — young players such as Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham are poised to mesmerise the masses as much as the outgoing stalwarts.
The same applies for Bayern Munich and Germany’s exciting 20-year-old attacking midfielder Jamal Musiala. As well as Barcelona and Spain’s 16-year-old prodigy Lamine Yamal.
The English, whether it is soccer, cricket, rugby or tennis — have the propensity to exaggerate the brilliance of their sports teams and players at times — to the ire of the greater sporting community.
Hence some scoffed and rolled their eyes when Bellingham’s former club Birmingham City decided to permanently retire the shirt number he had always worn at the club as he rose from the youth structures to the first team.
After making just over 40 appearances, including becoming the youngest player to don the colours of City at just 16 years, the lanky midfielder departed for Germany’s Borussia Dortmund in 2020. Prompting Birmingham’s eyebrow-raising decision.
“The 22 shirt has become synonymous with Jude during his rise to the first team aged just 16 years and 38 days. And as such the club have decided it would be fitting to retire this number, to remember one of our own and to inspire others,” the club said in a statement at the time.
In spite of several links to some of Europe’s heavyweight clubs — Bellingham and his family opted for Dortmund, probably due to the club’s track record with managing young players. They also served as a detour for a certain Erling Haaland before he made his move to Manchester City last season.
Their decision was vindicated as Bellingham thrived and was already breaking records months after his arrival in Germany. In October 2020, in a Champions League match versus Italian outfit Lazio, he became the youngest Englishman to start in the competition.
He would be voted the Newcomer of the Season by his peers at the culmination of that season after some strong performances at the heart of Dortmund’s midfield.
After another successful season in Germany, Real Madrid came calling. As a parting shot to his massive contribution over the three years he spent in Germany, he was awarded the Player of the Season gong. All this while he was a teenager.
Now a 20-year-old, he has taken to life in Spain like a duck to water. Known for his astute technical ability, physicality and eye for key passes — at Madrid he has added another dimension to his play: goal-scoring.
As it stands, he already has six La Liga goals from seven matches. An impressive return that any striker would be proud of. Except Bellingham is far from being a striker.
Surrounded by Madrid midfield greats in the form of Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos — he is sure to add even more facets to his game. Though with him wearing the powerful No 5 shirt that was donned by midfield don Zinedine Zidane — he has some way to play before he can unequivocally establish himself as an all-time great.
Barcelona starlet Yamal is the same age as Bellingham when he burst onto the scene. Much like the Englishman, the Spanish teenager — born to a Moroccan father and a mother from Equatorial Guinea, is already sending records tumbling like dominoes.
In April 2023, when he came on as a substitute against Real Betis, he became the youngest player to appear in the Barcelona team — aged 15 years and nine months.
Since then, the 16-year-old winger has grown immensely. This season Yamal has made many more appearances for the Catalans, featuring for a varying number of minutes as current manager of the Blaugrana, Xavi Hernández manages the highly rated prospect.
In that time, he has registered two assists. Though has yet to score. He did manage to find the net on his debut for the Spanish senior men’s team in early September — scoring as Spain routed Georgia 7-1 in a Euro 2024 qualifier.
The 16-year-old had already made history through his presence on the field — becoming the youngest player to represent Spain’s senior side. The goal was a cherry on top.
Yamal dazzled for Barca as they beat Villareal 4-3 at the tail-end of August. So outstanding was he in the game, he received a standing ovation from the opposition fans when he was subbed off.
Such things can sail straight to a young player’s head. However, in Xavi, Yamal has a mentor who knows what it means to rise from Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy and reach the pinnacle of world soccer. As such he is in safe hands to develop both as a player and human being.
Following their opening Champions League game week 4-3 loss to Bayern – Manchester United will certainly know of Jamal Musiala. The 20-year-old German midfielder was a constant menace to the Red Devils throughout the tie.
At Qatar 2022 — the former Chelsea academy player was one of the few highlights for the German team as they were eliminated in the group phase.
Last season, he was under some pressure with Bayern lacking a proven striker following the departure of Robert Lewandowski for Barcelona. Musiala stepped up to the challenge, finishing as Bayern’s second-highest scorer in the Bundesliga with 12 strikes from the centre of the park. He had a further 13 assists to his name.
The Bavarians have since recruited Englishman Harry Kane. Freeing up Musiala to pull the strings even more this season, and score the odd goal.
As for his future goals? Speaking to Bild he said: “In one or two years, I want to be at the highest possible level. I want to be one of the best players in the world. It’s my plan and ambition. That’s my idea, I hope to compete for the Ballon d’Or.” DM