If you missed Part 1 of the series, don’t forget to take a look here !
As we saw in the first instalment of Golden Ball winners at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, the fortunes of precocious young footballers can vary greatly as their careers progress. Some, like the iconic Diego Maradona, inscribe their name into football legend for generations to come. Others, such as Romulus Gabor, end up peaking in their teenage years before fading into obscurity.
Having profiled the first 11 winners of the top individual prize at FIFA’s flagship underage tournament recently, we now look at the subsequent 11 who have claimed the honour since 1999. Stand by to see some very familiar names, along with those who may have since escaped your memory bank.
Seydou Keita (Mali, 1999)
The Mali midfielder became Africa’s first Under-20 Golden Ball winner at the first finals staged on the continent in Nigeria. His side came third at the tournament, bolstered by the goals of Mahamadou Dissa and Mamadou Bagayoko, with Keita netting in the third place play-off against Uruguay.
Not since Robert Prosinečki in 1987 did an Under-20 Golden Ball winner have such a distinguished club career. Featuring for the likes of Marseille, Lens, Sevilla, Roma and Valencia, Keita was a member of Pep Guardiola’s iconic Barcelona team of 2008-2012, winning the Champions League twice in that time. He also became a centurion for his country over a 17-year international career, scoring twice in a memorable 4-4 draw with Angola at the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations.
Javier Saviola (Argentina, 2001)
No player has owned a FIFA Under-20 World Cup quite like the Argentina striker, who scored 11 goals at the finals as his nation triumphed on home soil. He scored in five of their seven games, including two hat-tricks against Egypt and France, and was on target as they defeated Ghana in the final.
Saviola’s senior career never quite hit the same heights but nor did it fizzle out to nothingness. Like previous Golden Ball winner Prosinečki, he lined out for both Barcelona and Real Madrid, playing for six different clubs in the Champions League and winning the UEFA Cup with Sevilla. He retired from international football at the young age of 28, going on to indulge in futsal upon retiring from the outdoor game in 2016.
Ismail Matar (United Arab Emirates, 2003)
Asia’s first and thus far only Under-20 World Cup Golden Ball winner saw his team knocked out at the quarter-final stage on home soil, although his performances at the tournament suggested that he could become one of the foremost Arabic players in world football.
However, he eschewed a move to Europe during his career, the entirety of which has been spent with Al-Wahda in his homeland, aside from a brief loan spell in 2009. He helped the UAE to their first major triumph at the 2007 Gulf Cup and, at 37, is the oldest Under-20 World Cup Golden Ball winner still playing, with 439 appearances and counting for Al-Wahda.
Lionel Messi (Argentina, 2005)
Argentina’s latest wonderkid might not quite have reached the same figures as Saviola four years previously, but his influence at the 2005 finals in the Netherlands was no smaller. He was also the tournament’s top scorer with six goals as his team emerged triumphant, all but one coming in the knockout stage and two in the final against Nigeria.
There was no fear of Messi’s career ever nosediving, though. The all-time leading scorer for both Barcelona and Argentina, no player has netted more often for one club than his 670 for the Catalan giants. With 34 trophies at club level, including 10 La Liga titles, he stands tall with Maradona as one of the greatest to ever play the game. What he showed in the Netherlands 16 years ago was only the tip of the iceberg.
Sergio Agüero (Argentina, 2007)
Messi’s successor as Under-20 World Cup Golden Ball winner was another Argentine striking dynamo, with Agüero matching his compatriot’s six-goal haul, which included the equaliser in their 2-1 triumph over the Czech Republic in the final in Canada.
Agüero had already left Independiente for Atletico Madrid at that point, but it was upon his move to Manchester City in 2011 that his career truly took flight, scoring perhaps the most famous goal in the club’s history at the end of his first season in England. Like Messi, he has gone on to become his current club’s record goalscorer, even if the Champions League remains conspicuous by its absence from his CV…for now.
Dominic Adiyiah (Ghana, 2009)
Ghana became the first African winner of the Under-20 World Cup at the 2009 finals in Egypt, with Adiyiah to the fore as he was the top scorer with eight goals at the tournament. That run included decisive doubles against South Korea and Hungary in the knockout rounds and he also netted in the penalty shoot-out triumph over Brazil in the final.
He didn’t have the same luck from 12 yards a year later at the senior World Cup, missing in the quarter-final shootout defeat to Uruguay. He had signed for AC Milan in the meantime but failed to make the grade at the San Siro, being loaned out four times before leaving for Arsenal Kiev in 2012. He added clubs in Kazakhstan and Thailand to his CV in future years and has been a free agent since leaving Chiangmai United at the end of 2020.
After Messi and Agüero went on to have such illustrious careers, the Ghanaian’s has been somewhat less fruitful.
Henrique Almeida (Brazil, 2011)
The 2011 finals in Colombia featured prominent names such as Oscar, James Rodríguez, Alexandre Lacazette, and Philippe Coutinho, yet it was Brazilian striker Henrique who took home the Golden Ball and the Golden Shoe, as well as featuring for the eventual champions. Indeed, not even Oscar’s hat-trick against Portugal in the final could knock his team-mate off the goalscoring perch, his standout contribution the decisive double to defeat Mexico in the last four.
A product of São Paulo’s academy, he almost signed for QPR five months later, but work permit issues scuppered the move. Now playing for Goiás in his homeland, he has only had four permanent clubs in his career, but has represented a further eight on loan. Unlike Oscar and Coutinho, he was never able to forge his way into the Brazilian senior national team.
Paul Pogba (France, 2013)
The French midfielder was already well-known at the time of the 2013 finals in Turkey, having been let go from Manchester United by Sir Alex Ferguson in his youth. He did not score from open play at the Under-20 World Cup but did find the net in the penalty shoot-out triumph over Uruguay in the final.
Three years later, Pogba left Juventus and returned to Old Trafford for a then-world record fee of £89.3m. The maverick talent won the senior World Cup in 2018 but has often flattered to deceive for the Red Devils, falling foul of former boss José Mourinho and being the continuous subject of transfer rumour scrutiny. A strong 2020/21 season may have quelled the speculation a tad, though.
Adama Traoré (Mali, 2015)
First things first, this isn’t the pacey right winger who currently plays for Wolves. This Adama Traoré inspired Mali to finish third at the 2015 Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand, scoring four times for his country along the way. He could even afford to miss a penalty in the quarter-final shootout against Germany before his team fell victim to eventual winners Serbia.
Traoré has played for Lille and Monaco in Ligue 1 but failed to establish himself at either club, undergoing several loan spells before a permanent move to Turkish outfit Hatayspor last September. The midfielder is still awaiting his first goal for the club after 32 appearances – even his Molineux namesake eventually broke his 2020/21 scoring duck in recent weeks.
Dominic Solanke (England, 2017)
Paul Simpson led England to Under-20 World Cup glory in South Korea four years ago, with Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin netting the decisive goal in the final against Venezuela. Solanke was their star man up to that point, though, with his four-goal haul including the quarter-final winner against Mexico and a double in the 3-1 defeat of Italy in the subsequent match.
Unable to smash through the glass ceiling at Chelsea, he had agreed on a free transfer to Liverpool during the Under-20 World Cup, but he had no joy in making the grade at Anfield, either. The Reds somehow managed to recoup £19m for him as he joined Bournemouth in 2019, where he struggled in the Premier League before providing the ammunition for their Championship play-off charge this season.
Lee Kang-in (South Korea, 2019)
The Korean is the most recent winner of the Golden Ball prize at the Under-20 World Cup and the first to be born in this century, earning the award for his displays in Poland two years ago. Not even Erling Haaland’s nine-goal demolition of Honduras could see him supplant Lee, who scored an early penalty in the final against Ukraine, but ended up on the losing side. He was also on target in a dramatic 3-3 draw against Senegal in the quarter-finals.
Lee had already made his mark in Europe at the time of the finals, having won the Copa Del Rey with Valencia in the season immediately prior. He also played in the Champions League at the tender age of 18, but the attacking midfielder has been in and out of the team this season.