Around this time seven years ago, Neymar had already won multiple Brazilian titles and a Copa Libertadores trophy with Santos. He'd starred in the Club World Cup. He'd been named South American Footballer of the Year in consecutive seasons. He'd scored over 100 professional goals, one of which earned him the Puskas Award. Pele, the last superstar to lead Santos to a continental title prior to Neymar, even went so far as to claim that the Brazilian prodigy was better than Lionel Messi.
Thanks to a combination of mold-breaking agility, elite production, incredible hair, audacious flair and a rapidly globalizing soccer-watching audience that could access clips of any player anywhere, he became the most-hyped prospect in the history of the sport. And yet, Neymar didn't move to Barcelona
until the summer of 2013, at the age of 21; compared to today's top youngsters, his career path seems quaint.
On Wednesday, Tor-Kristan Karlsen released his list of the top 36 21-and-under players in the world. The next Neymars, essentially. All 36 players in this year's rundown are plying their trade in Europe, and all but two play for a team in one of Europe's Big Five leagues.
Soccer at the highest levels is quickly becoming a younger and younger man's game.
Across the Big Five leagues during the 2010-11 season, 21-and-under players took up 14.4% of the minutes played. This past season, that number has ticked up to 15.1%. Somewhat shockingly, the Bundesliga's overall numbers are actually down. In 2010-11, 22.7% of minutes went to youngsters, and that figure has dropped to 14.9% this season. Perhaps that helps explain the trajectory of the national team: peak in 2014 with a bunch of prime-age players who now had plenty of minutes under their belts, and then slowly taper off as those same players kept playing even as they began to decline.
However, the other four leagues all saw increases from 2010-11 to today. Italy remains the worst place for prospects, as just 10.5% of minutes this season have gone to the 21-and-under crowd, although that's an increase from 9.2% in '10-11. It's impressive enough that Milan's Gianluigi Donnarumma has already made 166 league starts before his 22 birthday, but particularly so because he's done it in a league that's mostly skeptical of guys who aren't old enough to run for elected office.
In Spain, not much has changed, as the 21-and-under cohort has barely edged up its share of minutes from 16.1% in 2010-11 to 16.4 this season. Messi led the league in goals back then, and he's doing it today. He can already control everything on the field, so who knows -- maybe he holds sway over the league's demographic trends, too.
Unsurprisingly, France now leads the way in Europe's Big Five leagues when it comes to opportunities for young talent. The country produces more talent than anywhere else. Plus, outside of Paris Saint-Germain, the rest of the league is at a financial disadvantage when compared to its contemporaries in England, Italy, Germany and Spain.
No teenager has played more minutes in the Big Five leagues this season than Rennes midfielder Eduardo Camavinga, and he doesn't turn 18 until the end of November! In fact, among 18-and-under players with the highest percentage of their teams' minutes, seven of the top 10 play in France. And then, of course, there's Kylian Mbappe, who with his astronomical goal-scoring rate and transfer fee (plus a World Cup trophy!) might be the most accomplished U21 player ever. Want to play, young man? Head to France. Want a young man who has played, big European club? Head there, too.
However, the league that has seen the largest increase in 21-and-under playing time is the world's biggest, richest, most competitive and most cutthroat competition: the Premier League.
In '10-11, 10.8% of minutes went to kids and now that number is up to 16.7% , behind only France. Ten players on Tor's list play in the Prem, and no other league has more than eight players. Despite the stakes being higher than ever before, Premier League managers are calling on the kids at an increasing rate.
So what's caused the shift?
At the top level, it does seem like Liverpool and Manchester City's recent dominance has perhaps eased the pressure on the rest of the league to win now and only play veterans. Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal have seven combined players in the 36-man list, all of whom have played significant roles this season. But beneath those immediate factors were a number of nationwide efforts to promote youth development.
In 2012, the Elite Player Performance Plan was created to improve the number of homegrown players in the league. And in 2014, the English FA revamped the focus of its youth national teams to focus on so-called "England DNA," or, more simply, a coherent nationwide style of play. The richest clubs in the world were incentivized to turn their resources toward youth development and in 2017, England won the Under-17 and the Under-20 World Cup. Problem solved!
In 2020, most elite managers also play a physically demanding style that favors younger athletes who can run all day and thanks to these programs, they now get to choose from arguably the greatest collection of young talent England has ever assembled.
Over the past decade, the Premier League has become the financially dominant league; it's the place to go if you want to get paid. According to UEFA's most recent benchmarking report, the Premier League made €5.4 billion while no other league was above €3.2 billion. On top of that, Premier League teams accounted for more than a third of all transfer spending in the most recent fiscal year tracked by UEFA. And guess where those fees are going?
The consultancy 21st Club compared global transfer fees paid from the periods of 2012-15 and 2016-19. They found that fees paid for peak-age players (25-28 years old) increased by 45% and fees for pre-peak players (21-24) increased by 55%, but fees for under-21 prospects leapt up by 70%. Teams are both investing in and employing 21-and-under players more than they did 10 years ago.
The same UEFA benchmarking report notes that Big Five clubs made up 75% of all revenue across professional European soccer -- a new record for concentrated inequality. And while this was before the global pandemic hit, initial indicators had suggested that the top 30 clubs in the world would soon make up more than half of all top-division revenue. That's mirrored in the talent from Tor's list: Some 28 of the 36 players are already owned by one of the world's 30 richest clubs (according to the most recent Deloitte Money League).
Rather than waiting for a middleman or hoping to see a couple seasons of professional performance at the highest level, the world's biggest clubs are gobbling up the hottest young prospects as early as they can, and then they're playing them, too.
The days of Neymar's superstar incubation period are going away, and they're being replaced with the paths of Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior. Real Madrid agreed to sign the former when he was 17, except he was already old news by then. Vinicius Junior ranks fourth on Tor's list. He's only 19 -- and Madrid had already secured his services three years ago.