Before we start, the primary criteria here is simply how good the player was in their teenage years, typically between their 16th and 20th birthdays, but factors such as the number of games they played and what they accomplished are naturally also taken into account. There will also be some very honourable mentions at the end.
Here are our 7 greatest teenage footballers of all time:
7. Cesc Fabregas
Seventh place was actually the trickiest decision in this seven, and you’ll see why when we get to the honourable mentions. There are two or three players who we’d say were probably even more talented than Cesc Fabregas in their teens, but the Spaniard sneaks in by virtue of the extraordinary amount of game time that he had accumulated before his 20th birthday.
Fabregas joined Arsenal from Barcelona at the age of 16, soon becoming the club’s youngest ever debutant and youngest ever goal scorer, both of which records still stand. He made over 150 Arsenal appearances as a teenager, which is virtually unheard of. Lionel Messi had fewer than half that number for Barcelona at the same age for comparison.
Fabregas was so good, he prompted Arsene Wenger into allowing Patrick Vieira to leave for Juventus, as Fabregas inherited both his shirt number and his place next to Gilberto Silva in the Gunners starting XI. Having won both the Golden Ball and the Golden Shoe at the 2003 U17 World Cup, Fabregas won both the Golden Boy and the Bravo Award after a dominant performance in the 2006 Champions League final.
Equally impressively, Fabregas racked up 15 caps for Spain as a teenager, despite having to compete with the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and Marcos Senna for a starting berth.
6. Jimmy Greaves
There are a couple of English centre-forwards who I’m sure many of you would have been expecting to feature here or in the honourable mentions, but the one who makes the seven proper is the greatest British forward of the lot, Jimmy Greaves. The highest scorer in the history of English football’s top flight, Greaves was a born goal scorer. He proved that with 122 goals in a single season for Chelsea’s youth team at the age of 16, so it was little wonder he was promoted to the first team the following season.
In his debut campaign, aged 17, Greaves scored 22 goals in 37 games. He followed that up with 37 goals in 47 games, which made him the First Division’s top scorer in his teens. In total, Greaves scored a remarkable 82 goals in 113 games for Chelsea as a teenager, as well as two goals from 5 caps for England.
5. George Best
Two of the finest players Britain have ever produced feature consecutively in this seven, as George Best beats Jimmy Greaves into fifth place. It’s no surprise that exceptionally technical and seemingly naturally gifted players should exceed in their early years, possibly falling away in their later years dependent upon their attitude, lifestyle and application, and some of the most technically gifted footballers of all time feature in this seven and the honourable mentions.
George Best is certainly a man who falls into that category. An individualist who could thrill and frustrate in equal measure, few players have been as gifted on the ball and when running at opposition defences. Best’s talents were clear from a young age, and he scored 37 goals in 128 games as a teenager for Manchester United. Best’s teenage peak came in March 1966, when he scored twice in a European Cup quarter-final win away at Benfica, a match which saw him crowned the fifth Beatle.
In his debut season with Cruzeiro, aged 16, Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima scored 20 goals in 21 games. A star had been born in Belo Horizonte, and he re-enforced his class with 24 goals in 26 games the following season. The young forward made Brazil’s squad as they won the World Cup in America in 1994, although he didn’t manage to get a game, and that summer he transferred to PSV of the Netherlands.
In Europe, Ronaldo was just as prolific, bagging 35 goals in 36 games in his first season and 19 in 21 in his second with the Dutch title challengers. He joined Barcelona for a world record breaking fee of £13.2 million whilst still a teenager, and went on to establish himself as one of the most ferociously talented footballers in the history of the game despite a string of horrific injuries.
3. Diego Maradona
Only two footballers have ever set multiple world record transfer fees. Both players did so before their 21st birthday, and both feature in this seven. They are Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima, and Diego Armando Maradona.
Maradona’s teens were remarkably his most prolific period as a footballer. He scored 19 goals in 49 games in his first full season with Argentinos Juniors, 26 in 35 the following season, then 26 from 26, and finally 43 goals in 45 games in the 1980 season, which he began as a 19-year-old and ended as a 20-year-old.
You can make a very good case for Maradona being the most extraordinarily talented human being to ever step foot onto a football pitch. A force of nature with magic in his boots, Maradona was a flawed genius, but a genius nonetheless. He was the Argentine Primera Division’s top scorer twice and the South American Footballer of the Year twice in his teens, before going on to inspire Argentina and Napoli to glory in the 1980’s.
2. Johan Cruyff
Marco van Basten once said that Johan Cruyff was technically perfect from a footballing perspective as a boy, and that is why he turned his attention to the tactical side of the game so early. Whether he was and whether it is possible to be technically perfect is up for debate, but only one man has been a more talented footballer in their teens than Johan Cruyff in our eyes.
Like Maradona, Cruyff’s most prolific years came in his teens, averaging roughly a goal a game for Ajax before his 20th birthday. Cruyff scored 4 goals in 10 games in his first season as a bit-part player, followed by 25 in 23 and 41 in 41 over the next two campaigns.
Following his teens, Cruyff went on to star for Barcelona, win three Ballon d’Ors and reach a World Cup final, before becoming one of the most influential coaches in the history of the game.
The undisputed greatest teenager in football history, and rarely has there been an easier top spot in Sevens history, is Brazilian legend Pele. In fact, at the age of 17, which was when most of the others in this seven were making their debuts, Pele had already reached a level none of them came close to in their teens, and one few players in the history of the game have come close to in their entire careers.
Pele made his own debut for Santos at the age of 15, and it will come as little surprise when I tell you that he scored. The teenager made a bit of a habit of scoring goals, bagging two in two in his first season as a 15-year-old, followed by 41 goals in 38 games as a 16-year-old, 66 goals in 46 games as a 17-year-old, 53 goals in 43 games at 18 and 33 goals in 33 games in his final season before turning 20.
Those numbers are hard to get your head around, or at least they should be, because they’re the numbers that you would expect an all-time great to be hitting at their absolute peak. Pele was doing it at 16, and I will confirm for any sceptics that those statistics only count official matches, not friendlies or dubious exhibition games.
Of course, those statistics are extraordinary, but a teenage Pele is best known for one thing, and that is the 1958 World Cup. The fifth youngest player in World Cup history to this day, Pele had the greatest impact upon a World Cup by a teenager ever, with very little genuine competition.
Pele went into the tournament with a slight knee injury and didn’t feature until Brazil’s third match against the Soviet Union, where he assisted his strike partner Vava. In his second match, Pele scored the game’s only goal in a 1-0 quarter-final win over Wales. His third appearance came in the semi-final, and it would be one of the finest in the history of the World Cup. Pele was just unplayable, linking everything in Brazil’s play in the final third, as well as scoring a hat-trick against the French. He added a brace as Brazil won emphatically against Sweden in the final, but by that point few were surprised.
The name of the 17-year-old Pele was on everybody’s lips, and football would never be the same again.
That’s it for the seven proper, but honourable mentions go to Patrick Kluivert, who had two 20+ goal seasons, helping Ajax to win two league titles and scoring the winner in a Champions League final at the age of 18.
Wayne Rooney, who amassed more than 130 appearances and 40 goals as a teenager, as well as scoring a hat-trick in his Champions League debut and starring for England at Euro 2004 as an 18-year-old.
Gianluigi Buffon, who deserves some love in a seven unsurprisingly dominated by forward players, since the Italian broke into the Parma starting XI at the age of 17, which is incredibly young for a goalkeeper, and he famously kept a clean sheet against AC Milan on his debut.
Gerd Muller, who scored 122 goals as a teenager, albeit a large number of them outside of Germany’s top flight.
Josef Bican, who is the only man to rival Pele in terms of goal scoring before turning 20 if one includes friendly games, and was already averaging better than 1.5 goals per game in league football as well.
And lastly, Michael Owen, who scored on virtually every debut he ever made, enjoyed multiple 20+ goal seasons for Liverpool, had won both the Premier League Golden Boot as well as being named Premier League Player of the Year, and scored one of the all time great World Cup goals all before his 20th birthday.
I’m sure we’ve missed some great shouts, in the honourable mentions particularly, so let us know some of your candidates in the comments.