A cursory look at the recipients of the Golden Boy award will reveal a curious mix of world superstars and unfulfilled talent. Perhaps the pressure of being named the best young player in world football is too much for some to handle. For others, the positive reinforcement only spurs them on.
The Golden Boy award is given to the player under the age of 21 who is adjudged to have had, not the best season, but the best calendar year. Tuttosport, one of Italy’s leading sports papers, first conceived of the idea at the beginning of the 21st century and the prize was given out for the first time in 2003. The system by which the winner is chosen takes into account the votes of journalists and representatives from 12 major newspapers throughout Europe. Each juror can select five players and will rank them from 1-5 with a sliding scale of points awarded for each position.
To qualify, a player must play in the top-flight of a European nation. So far, clubs from the Netherlands, England, Spain, Italy, France and Portugal have all had players to have won the award.
List of Golden Boy Award Winners
2003) Rafael van der Vaart – Ajax
It was fitting that the first Golden Boy was the product of probably the finest academy in world football. An Amsterdam native, Rafael Van der Vaart played for Ajax since the age of ten.
When he won the inaugural Golden Boy award in 2003, he was a few months shy of his 22nd birthday and had already marked himself out as a remarkable talent.
Ajax would go on to win the Eredivisie in the 03-04 season, but it was in the previous campaign that the young midfielder really stood out. He scored 18 goals in just 21 league appearances as Ajax finished one point behind PSV in the league.
Van der Vaart would leave Holland for Germany in 2005 and went on to have a mixed career. His talent was never in doubt but the fact that he never won a major trophy in Spain, England or on the international stage was a huge disappointment.
2004) Wayne Rooney – Everton/Manchester United.
A lack of honours was never an issue for Wayne Rooney. He won dozens with Manchester United after signing in 2004 in addition to becoming theirs and England’s all-time leading goalscorer.
He signed for Manchester United from Everton at the end of the 03-04 campaign and his early performances for the Red Devils cemented his place at the top of the golden boy podium.
A famous hat-trick against Fenerbahçe on his debut fostered a sense of iconography around the young scouser and his bullish, refreshingly unthinking approach to the game enhanced it.
Of all the players on this list – bar one obvious candidate – Rooney is perhaps the most successful.
2005) Lionel Messi – Barcelona
No prizes for guessing who that obvious candidate is. Lionel Messi was 18 in 2005, and the world was perhaps unaware of just how good the little Argentine would become.
He won the award having played only a handful of games for Barcelona after making his breakthrough in pre-season. Most of his football had come for Barcelona B in the Segunda Division, but when he did manage to get on the pitch for the first team, there was no doubt that he was a special, special player.
Barcelona would win the league in 04-05 with Messi playing a supporting role. He featured much more prominently in 05-06, making 25 appearances across all competitions. But he still had the likes of Henrik Larsson, Deco and Maxi Lopez to usurp if he wanted a shot in the first team – not to mention the great Ronaldinho.
Needless to say, he exceeded them all. And then some.
2006) Cesc Fabregas – Arsenal
From one La Masia product to another. The 19-year-old Cesc Fabregas had been playing first-team football for three seasons before he won the Golden Boy award and had made nearly 100 Premier League appearances.
It was his task to fill the void left by the departure of Patrick Vieira the previous season, and the Spaniard stepped up the plate with consistently impressive performances in midfield.
Fabregas would go on to become frustrated with a lack of trophies in North London and sought a move abroad. His playing style matched the philosophy of Barcelona to a tee, and he moved to Catalonia in 2011.
Long before this, though, Fabregas was winning hearts and minds in Arsenals red and truly becoming one of world football’s brightest young things.
2007) Sergio Aguero – Atletico Madrid
It seems strange that, as he has now become so synonymous with the sky blue of Manchester City, that Sergio Aguero once played his football in sunny Spain.
When Fernando Torres moved to Liverpool in 2006, Sergio Aguero was left to pick up the pieces. He did so masterfully, scoring seven times in the first 11 matches in La Liga. Coupled with impressive performances at the tail end of the previous season, Aguero was good value for money as Europe’s best young player in 2007.
When he moved to Manchester City in 2012, Aguero would become so much more than a rising star.
2008) Anderson – Manchester United
Anderson is the first recipient of the Golden Boy award whose career was not as it should have been.
As a 19-year-old, he signed for Manchester United from Porto in 2007 on the same day as Luis Nani signed from Sporting.
While he won nine trophies in Manchester, he did not reach the individual levels which were expected of him and never really stamped his authority on the Manchester United team. His first season was his best, and his early performances were enough to win him the 2008 award.
2009) Alexandre Pato – Milan
Though they were very different footballers, Alexandre Pato’s career followed an almost identical trajectory to Anderson’s. At the beginning of his career, huge things were expected of the Brazilian striker.
His goalscoring record in his first four seasons with Milan was superb but injury blighted him in his later career. He looked to have lost his enthusiasm for the game, something which looked unthinkable when you watch old footage of a Pato who played with such joy and flair.
His award was warranted in 2009. He had scored nine goals in 18 games in his first half-season with Milan in 07-08 before following it up with 15 in 36 the following campaign.
2010) Mario Balotelli – Inter Milan/Manchester City
Why always him? Mario Balotelli moved to the Premier League in August 2010 after a solid couple of of seasons in Italy with Inter Milan. But – as City fans can attest – controversy followed the young man everywhere he went.
But t-shirt slogans and firework mishaps aside, Balotelli was a supremely gifted footballer. He ambled lethargically around the pitch, but when he wanted to, he could really turn it on.
In his first season under Roberto Mancini at Manchester City, Balotelli scored six times in 17 games, a healthy return for a youngster acclimatising to a new country. He did not set the world alight, not on a consistent basis anyway, and therefore it’s reasonable to assume that his mercurial image may have had some bearing on the outcome of the Golden Boy award.
2011) Mario Gotze – Borussia Dortmund
While Mario Gotze does not fall into the same category as Anderson, Pato and Balotelli, there is no denying that his footballing career could have been better than it is at the moment.
Still just 27, Gotze will leave Borussia Dortmund at the end of the campaign and find himself without a club. He will have plenty of suitors, but none of the calibre which was expected of him.
In 2011, it looked as though he would stay at the pinnacle of the game for many years to come. Under Jurgen Klopp, Dortmund won back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2010-11 and 2011-12 with Gotze a hugely important piece of the puzzle in both. He moved to Bayern Munich shortly after Dortmund lost the Champions League final to them in 2013.
He won titles there, but his trajectory has been downward ever since. Oh, he did score the winner in a World Cup final, though. That’s something.
2012) Isco – Malaga
When Isco won the award in 2012, he became the first player not representing a club from the traditional ‘elite’ to do so. Isco had joined Malaga from Valencia in 2011 and was making waves in La Liga with his remarkable ball control and interplay.
He propelled Malaga to a 4th place finish in the league in the 11-12 season and began to catch the eye of every big club in Europe. He would stay on for another season before joining Real Madrid where he has remained ever since.
Isco was unfortunate to just miss out on the Spanish golden era team which won three major tournaments back to back from 2008 to 2012, but in his Golden Boy award he will be remembered as one of the finest Spanish players of his generation.
2013) Paul Pogba – Juventus
When Paul Pogba left Manchester United for Juventus in 2011, it was widely regarded as one of the biggest missteps of Sir Alex Ferguson’s managerial career to let him go. Two years later, Pogba would be recognised as Europe’s top young player. He was more than holding his own in one of the best midfields of recent times and, a few years later, would return to Manchester United as the most expensive player in history.
Since then, Pogba has not had a great deal of success, at club level at least. The only two trophies he has won since returning to the club are the League Cup and the Europa League, both in 2016-17. He has, of course, won the World Cup in that time too.
2014) Raheem Sterling – Liverpool
He has established himself as one of Manchester City and the world’s finest players now, but in 2014, the 18-year-old Raheem Sterling was making his first steps into football. And what steps they were too.
Liverpool came so close to winning the title in 2014 with Raheem Sterling a permanent fixture in the starting 11. It was Luis Suarez who had top billing in Brendan Rodgers’ side, but Sterling was proving himself to be a wonderful footballer at the same time.
Liverpool could not reach the same level the following season, but Sterling continued to impress. So much so that he was linked endlessly with the world’s top clubs and, ultimately, was crowned Europe’s Golden Boy.
For Sterling, the Ballon d’Or is surely next in his sights.
2015) Anthony Marital – Monaco/Manchester United
Monaco have earned a reputation as something of a frivolous club in recent years, spending huge money where it perhaps would be wiser to invest more shrewdly. But they also have a stunning track record in scouting and developing world-class young players. Kylian Mbappe, Fabinho, Bernado Silva and more have come through in recent years. And when Anthony Martial burst onto the scene, it was expected he would have a career in a similar vein to the ones mentioned.
That has turned out not to be the case. While he has superb ability, Martial has frustrated Manchester United fans since his arrival in 2015. He is seen as something of a sulker and – though he has moments of brilliance – he is no way near as consistent as they had hoped.
In 2015 when he arrived, however, they must have thought they had an unbelievable player on their hands. Martial scored a superb goal on his debut against Liverpool and would go on to bag 17 in all competitions that season. His numbers were similar in France at the tail end of the previous season and his performances were enough to earn him the prize.
2016) Renato Sanchez – Benfica/Bayern Munich
Major international tournaments are always a springboard to superstardom. When Renato Sanchez first reared his dreadlocked head at Euro 2016, the world was convinced that this was a star in the making. He went on to win the tournament that year, but that was where his success ended.
Sanchez spent the tail end of the 2015-16 season with Benfica before transferring to Bayern Munich at the end of the campaign. He managed 17 appearances for Bayern in total in his first season with the club and was loaned out to Swansea City the season after.
It was not the illustrious career Sanchez had hoped for. He is still just 22, however. There is still plenty of time for the young midfielder to turn things around and establish himself as the presence the Golden Boy panel expected him to be.
2017) Kylian Mbappe – AS Monaco
There can be no doubt who the most impressive golden boy to appear in recent years is. In just his second season as a professional, Mbappe fired Monaco to a Ligue 1 win and spearheaded a spectacular run to the semi-finals in the Champions League.
Three years later and his stock has only risen exponentially. Mbappe is now a World Cup winner; he scored in the final against Croatia. With PSG he has already won three league titles and he has succeeded in wrestling the spotlight away from Neymar.
You can’t win the Golden Boy award more than once. Otherwise, Mbappe surely would have done so. He is still just 21, after all.
2018) Matthijs de Ligt – Ajax
Ajax’s run to the semi-finals of the Champions League in the 2018-19 season was one of football’s greatest stories. In the end, thanks to a 94th minute Lucas Moura goal, it did not have the ending that most wanted. It did, however, unveil some of the finest young players in the world.
De Ligt starred in that campaign from centre-half. An Ajax captain at the age of just 19, De Ligt’s composure on the ball and his innate ability in defence pricked the ears of every elite club in the land. Juventus was his preferred destination.
He has struggled at times with the Old Lady this season. But his Golden Boy award is surely not the last individual prize he will get his hands on.
2019) Joao Felix – Benfica/Atletico Madrid
Joao Felix became one of the most expensive players in the history of football when he moved from Benfica to Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2019. He has already seen his fair share of success in Portugal and with his national team in the Nations League.
In Spain, however, it hasn’t yet worked for him. He is still just 20 years old, but he has often looked a little lost in red and white over the past six months. A little teething period is to be expected though, and journalists certainly saw enough in him to crown him Europe’s best youngster. Quite an achievement when you are less than two seasons into your professional career.
Felix chose Atletico ahead of the likes of Barca and Real Madrid. And for that, a certain level of maturity has been displayed. It is a quality that will stand him in good stead in the coming years.
Who are the favourites this year? Well, there is definitely one standout by the name of Trent Alexander-Arnold. His performances from his pseudo-right-back position propelled Liverpool to the top of the league in the 2019-20 season. For most, he is the only candidate. But the likes of Erling Braut Haaland, Kai Havertz and Jadon Sancho will all be hoping for a look-in too.