One way to catch the public's attention in the FIFA World Cup is to be its youngest player. However, many of these guys are long forgotten, as they had pretty uninspiring careers. Yet, as we'll see, plenty of them are some of the finest names in football history. This top ten list considers only a single youngest player from each tournament, including the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
10. Norman Whiteside (1982)
Norman Whiteside still owns a few World Cup records yet to be beaten. In 1982 he became the youngest FIFA World Cup player. Furthermore, he appeared in Northern Ireland's first game, aged only 17 years and 41 days. Whiteside and his team had a fantastic run and almost reached the semifinals that time. Four years later, he was back at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, where he scored a goal. However, Northern Ireland was out after losing two games.
Whiteside was a quality midfield player and occasional striker, as he spent most of his career at Manchester United. He stayed there for seven seasons before moving to Everton. Unfortunately, he was injury-prone, which forced him to retire at 26.
9. Theo Walcott (2006)
When Sven-Göran Eriksson selected 17-year-old Theo Walcott for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, everyone was surprised. However, he never got a chance to make his mark, even though he was the only attacker on the team, next to Peter Crouch. Unfortunately, Walcott didn't spend a single minute on the biggest scene. In 2010 he wasn't called up for the World Cup in South Africa, and in 2014, an injury ended his dreams. By 2018 and the competition in Russia, he was no longer a national team member.
Even though talented and pacy, Walcott was often injured and inconsistent. That's why he played less than 50 games for England and only 270 in 12 years with Arsenal. Pretty disappointing for a man that Leo Messi called one of his greatest rivals.
8. Vladimir Petrović (1974)
Vladimir Petrović Pižon was only 18 when he was selected for the 1974 FIFA World Cup in Germany. The young midfielder managed to play two games, even starting against Sweden and then coming on as a substitute versus Brazil. Eight years later, he was back at the 1982 World Cup. Yet, even though he scored against Honduras, that wasn't enough for Yugoslavia to qualify for the next round.
Pižon had his best years in Red Star Belgrade, winning four titles in ten years. However, he could play for foreign teams only after his 27th birthday because of the strict Yugoslav rules. Nonetheless, his tenure at Arsenal was relatively short, as he played only 13 games. Petrović later became a manager of his native Serbia but was highly unsuccessful.
7. Tostão (1966)
Despite being 19, Tostão was the youngest at the 1966 FIFA World Cup, where Brazil defended its title. However, the tournament proved catastrophic for the team that went home after three group games. Despite that, he formed a strong partnership with Pelé and was an essential player in their dominant 1970 World Cup-winning squad. Unfortunately, due to an eye injury, Tostao decided to finish his career in 1973 at 27.
Tostão was an atypical attacker, as he lacked strength and pace and wasn't very good at heading the ball or taking long shots. However, what he had were fantastic dribbling and passing abilities. Tostão was the player that would set things in motion and was very versatile. In practice, he could play everything from striker to central midfielder.
6. Christian Eriksen (2010)
At only 18, Christian Eriksen went to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and he even managed to play two games. Unfortunately, Denmark didn't do well, as they failed to progress from the group stage. Of course, he was again part of the team when they qualified for the 2018 tournament. This time they went to the second round but had no luck against Croatia on penalties. Finally, he played in Qatar, but Denmark again failed in the group stage.
Since his debut in the national team, Eriksen has played for prolific teams and was a key member of Tottenham when they lost the UEFA Champions League final in 2019. Eriksen is an excellent free-kick taker and a versatile midfielder who usually sets things in motion. The Dane shoots with both feet, and thanks to his speed, he successfully played as a winger.
5. Samuel Eto'o (1998)
Cameroon often called up very young players for international competitions, and Samuel Eto'o was the best of the bunch! At 17, he was already a member of Real Madrid and a participant in the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France. However, he only featured against Italy, which Cameroon lost 3-0. Despite never passing the group stage in four tries, Eto'o still had a successful international career. He was twice the champion of Africa and even won Olympic gold in 2000.
Cameronian had his best years in Barcelona, where he scored more than 100 goals, before moving to Inter Milan, Chelsea, and Everton, among others. Eto'o is known for his strength, precision, and pace, but he was also a great leader. His durability is legendary, as he played professionally for over 20 years!
4. Gianni Rivera (1962)
Gianni Rivera is a massive icon of Italian football and the youngest player in the awful 1962 FIFA World Cup in Chile. Rivera was lucky to have a debut against West Germany, but that was his only tournament game, as Italy quickly went out. Rivera played at three more World Cups but had only nine games in total! His international career's absolute pinnacle came in 1970 when he lost the final against mighty Brazil, led by Pelé. However, he was a European champion in 1968.
Of course, Rivera is a legend of AC Milan, where he played for almost 20 years, winning the European Cup (now Champions League) twice. The Italian lacked pace, stamina, and strength and was useless in defense. Yet, what made him so special was his versatility in the offense, tactical intelligence, and ball control. That made him the central figure of every team he played.
3. Kylian Mbappe (2018)
It's hard to judge Kylie Mbappe as he still has a long way to go before retiring. Yet, even as a teenager, he was a superstar for France, Paris Saint-Germain, and Monaco. Playing at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, he became the youngest French to ever score at the competition. Not only that, but he netted one in the final for a total of four. Yet, at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, he was even better! Even though FIFA gifted Leo Messi the trophy, he was the top scorer and best player with eight goals.
Despite considerable pressure to perform after a transfer to Paris Saint-Germain, Mbappe is only getting better. Often compared to Thierry Henry, he is incredibly fast but also very skillful. His versatility enables him to take different roles in the offense, including winger and center-forward positions. Potentially, Mbappe could rank even higher on our list in the future!
2. Ronaldo (1994)
Ronaldo was the youngest player at the best-ever World Cup and, aged 17, already was a world champion with Brazil. However, his contribution was non-existent, as he didn't play a single minute. Many don't know that Ronaldo was called Ronaldinho at the time, as there was another Ronaldo! Nonetheless, his role was huge in the next three World Cups, including a final in 1998 and another title in 2002. That year, Ronaldo scored nine goals and 15 in total, a record before Miroslav Klose of Germany got one more. However, Oliver Kahn surprisingly beat him for the title of the best player.
Known also as "O Fenômeno," Ronaldo did the impossible, playing for bitter rivals Barcelona and Real, and later Inter and Milan. While he was a prolific scorer until the end of his career, Ronaldo was a beast in his prime! His year in Barcelona is legendary, as he had superior, Tyson-like power, speed, and technique, scoring 34 goals in 37 matches! However, the Brazilian couldn't stay on top for long because of many injuries and weight problems. If he was healthier, Ronaldo could have been the best ever!
1. Pelé (1958)
No matter the perspective you take, Pelé has to be on top of this list! Even if we rated players based on their first World Cup performance, this Brazilian would still be number 1! Despite being only 17 at the 1958 tournament, Pelé was a considerable part of the team. Furthermore, he became the youngest player to score in World Cup and the youngest player to win FIFA World Cup! That was especially hard to achieve as Brazil was already the best side and a favorite to win it all. They easily took the title with him, as Pelé did it twice more in 1962 and 1970.
World Cups meant everything to Pelé. Unfortunately, as he never played in Europe, this was the only way for many to see him in action. Although he is known as a prolific striker, the Brazilian was also a fantastic passer, playmaker, and team leader. He also excelled at important FIFA World Cup matches and often contributed clutch performances. Plus, Pelé always stayed graceful on the field, never losing his temper or making critical mistakes.
While we still consider Maradona was better overall, there's no doubt that Pelé is the greatest youngest World Cup player! Even though Mbappe still has a chance to reach his level, doing so will be incredibly difficult.
In your opinion, who are some of the best young players in the World Cup? Would your top ten be much different? We're open for discussion in our comments section!
Cover photo: TopTens.fun/Midjourney