For those who watched any of this fall’s 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup, you might’ve noticed one distinct trait which unified the entire playing field. Whether the teenagers on show played for India, Mali, Honduras or New Caledonia, they all tried their best to look like Neymar.
With socks worn above the knees, a right wrist covered in orthopedic tape, hair shorn on the sides and left to do whatever up top, you could tell the youths were focused on the task at hand but also in a revery over what their tattoo sleeves would look like come their 18th birthday.
In sporting terms, Millennials are old news. They’ve already had their moment in the sun, transitioning from wonderkids to flops to feel-good stories to walking memes to playing in the CSL. It’s now the time of Generation Z with regards to the world’s best U-20 talent, and it’s always mind-blowing to realize that while the age of the phenom never changes, you yourself grow irreversibly older like some sort of curmudgeon.
As with the annual Beloit College Mindset List, there’s a changing worldview with this new generation of players. They grew up feasting on the growing global entity that is the Premier League and, as a matter of course, all supported Manchester United.
Yesterday, the Sunday Times revealed that 20-year-old Manchester United sensation Marcus Rashford had a pretty shocking idol growing up: USMNT star Tim Howard.
Howard was on the books at United between 2003 and 2006 while Rashford joined the club’s youth academy in 2005, when he was just a seven-year-old.
“Tim Howard was my idol,” Rashford said. “I used to have a little Tim Howard shirt. You watch, there’ll be a game, … I’m going to get the gloves one day!”
Like Rashford, 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund attacker Christian Pulisic grew up supporting the Red Devils. Pulisic idolized Wayne Rooney, who now plays for Everton.
“I was a big Manchester United fan when I was younger, so I loved to watch Wayne Rooney,” Pulisic said. “I wouldn’t say I’m a similar player, though. I think his passion for the game is something you don’t see much in players. That’s what I loved about him.”
Pulisic’s former Dortmund teammate, 20-year-old winger Ousmane Dembele, idolized a footballer he now lines up alongside at Barcelona, one Andres Iniesta.
“I had a poster of Iniesta,” Dembele said. “He seemed like a different player to me: elegant, special, … a genius. I watched all the Barcelona games to see how they played and the geniuses, Iniesta and Messi.”
For 20-year-old Swansea City midfielder Renato Sanches, it was Brazilian great Ronaldinho.
“Before I went on the pitch I always watched videos of him when I was around 13, 14, 15 years old, and he was always my favorite player,” said Sanches.
Finally, 18-year-old PSG sensation Kylian Mbappe says his idol was countryman Zinedine Zidane.
“I wanted to do everything like him, and as I didn’t know what baldness was, I asked the hairdresser to cut a round bit out of my hair, he thought I was mad,” Mbappe said.
Just imagine a U-17 World Cup with every participant trying to imitate Zidane and his male pattern hair loss. Now that’d be something special.