Over the years, some of Europe’s brightest young stars have been crowned the Golden Boy.
The award was established by Italian sports newspaper Tuttosport in 2003 and has grown to become one of the most talked-about lists of the football calendar, with votes coming from a number of European papers.
The current judging panel includes Bild (Germany), Blick (Switzerland), A Bola (Portugal), l’Équipe (France), France Football (France), Marca (Spain), Mundo Deportivo (Spain), Ta Nea (Greece), Sport Express (Russia), De Telegraaf (Netherlands), and The Times (UK).
Pedri is the latest winner of the award, scooping the 2021 edition ahead of Jude Bellingham and Jamal Musiala, who finished second and third respectively. The Spaniard had a fantastic 12 months for club and country, playing 71 games during the 2020/21 season, being named in the Euro 2020 team of the tournament and winning silver at the Tokyo Olympics.
Bayer Leverkusen forward Florian Wirtz and Barcelona’s Gavi compelted the top five, but who did Pedri join on the list of Golden Boys, and how have the previous winners fared?
2003: Rafael van der Vaart
Current club: Retired
Rafael van der Vaart picked up the gong at Ajax but the Dutch midfielder failed to settle at one club throughout his career. His time at Real Madrid was unsuccessful while a spell with Tottenham Hotspur was plagued by injuries.
In 2015, he made a surprising move to Real Betis, but his time there lasted just one season. He joined Danish side Esbjerg fB and eventually called time on his playing career in November 2018. In 2019, Van der Vaart became a professional darts player, making his debut in the BDO Denmark Open, although he was knocked out in the second round.
2004: Wayne Rooney
Current club: Derby County (manager)
Rooney was not only the Golden child of English football, it seems. Although he was routinely criticised on these shores for not quite scaling the heights we once expected he might, you can’t argue with his records.
The striker was captain of both England and Manchester United, and is now the all-time time scorer for both. He would return to his first club Everton in 2017 before spending a spell with D.C. United in MLS. Rooney moved back to England in January 2020, joining Derby County, taking on the captain’s armband and taking interim charge of the Rams. He has since retired from playing and manages Derby full-time, trying to steer the ship in a tough period.
2005: Lionel Messi
Current club: Paris Saint-Germain
Yeah, we haven’t heard of this bloke either? He must have drifted off into obscurity… Oh sorry, our mistake he’s arguably the finest player to ever be born and a downright Barcelona legend.
As a Spanish commentator once suggested, we should be thankful he is part of our lives. Give thanks. The only negative we could possibly find is that he didn’t get to say goodbye to the Barcelona fans before moving to Paris Saint-German with his former club in financial turmoil.
2006: Cesc Fabregas
Current club: Monaco
Well, tough break Cesc. Following Messi is a bit unfortunate, but the Spanish midfielder has made a real go of it. Although he turned his back on La Masia to join Arsenal he made a fairytale return to his boyhood club.
But there was no happy ending there, and he became a vital cog at Chelsea, winning the Premier League twice. After failing to impress Maurizio Sarri in 2018/19, Fabregas joined Ligue 1 side Monaco in January 2019, where he continues to chip in with goals and assists when fit, including one of each in a 3-2 win over Paris Saint-Germain last November.
2007: Sergio Aguero
Current club: Barcelona
The Argentina international slotted seamlessly into European footballing following his move to Atletico Madrid in 2006 and has never looked back. A transfer to Manchester City has seen him elevated to elite status and he is one of the best, if not the best, centre-forward in the game. This was further enhanced in November 2017 when Aguero’s goal against Napoli made him Manchester City’s all-time highest goalscorer — that particular strike was his 178th for the club, and he has since gone on to increase his tally to 260.
Although he is now a Barcelona player, Aguero’s place in Man City history is secured after a certain dramatic winner against QPR. But sadly his career could be winding down with Aguero suffering from heart problems.
Current club: Retired
Anderson showed glimpses of promise as he reinvented himself as deep-lying midfielder. Well, we say, reinvented, he was rubbish after failing to live up to his billing completely through the combination of a questionable attitude and a rather inflated waistline.
He played little part in Louis van Gaal’s reign at Manchester United and was shipped out in February 2015 (finally) to Internacional. He joined Coritiba on loan in February 2017 until December and was later released by Internacional to become a free agent. He has now retired, calling time on his career aged 31, last playing in Turkey.
2009: Alexandre Pato
Current club: Orlando City
The award is a bit of a curse for Brazilians, it seems.
If things turned out badly for Anderson, his countryman Pato (initially, at least) looked to have taken matters to a whole new level.
Billed as the next big thing, the striker was superb in the early stages of his Milan days.
His career subsequently stalled, however. Injuries and poor form took their toll and he signed for Corinthians, then joined Sao Paulo on loan, in his homeland.
It appeared a bit of a fall from grace considering he had silenced the Nou Camp with a wonderful solo goal just 24 seconds into Milan’s 2-2 draw against Barcelona not too long ago.
He had a chapter on loan at Chelsea in 2015/16, but after that failed to work out he joined Villarreal in the summer and was firing on all cylinders. Yet he jumped ship for a chance in the Chinese Super League with Tianjin Quanjian in January 2017 where he would score 36 times in 60 appearances. Pato returned to his native Brazil in March 2019, re-joining Sao Paulo, but he left earlier last year. He joined MLS side Orlando City ahead of the 2021 season but played just five times.
2010: Mario Balotelli
Current club: Adana Demispor
When the Italian picked up the award he did so graciously, in unassuming fashion. Come on, really? He insulted Jack Wilshere by insisting that he didn’t even know who the Arsenal midfielder was. We know, very modest. Then, he declared that he was better than any of the other players who had won the award in the past? We’ve got news for you, Mario. You might not be.
Following a disastrous two seasons with Liverpool and AC Milan, the Italian started to re-ignite his career at Nice. His first season in Ligue 1 saw the Italian bag 15 goals in 23 League games for Nice; he then went one better in his second, netting a career-high 18 league goals in a single season. Recalled by Roberto Mancini to the Italian national team for the first time since 2014, but Balotelli looked sluggish against Poland. After three years on the French Riviera, Balotelli joined Brescia in the summer of 2019, via a brief spell with Marseille, but left after suffering relegation to Serie B and plenty of behind-the-scenes friction.
After a short spell as a free agent, Balotelli made a shock move to Serie B side Monza on a free transfer last December, scoring six goals in 14 appearances before another surprise switch, this time to Adana Demispor.
2011: Mario Gotze
Current club: PSV
Mario Gotze may have committed the all-too-common sin of swapping hipster paradise Borussia Dortmund for the juggernaut that is Bayern Munich, but his trophy cabinet suggests the German midfielder was right to do so.
Although he hasn’t hit the heady heights that have been predicted, no one’s brave enough to say it after he netted a stunning injury-time volley to win the World Cup in 2014. As you do.
It failed to work out for him after that, however, and Gotze returned to Dortmund, but he failed to rediscover his former spark in the Ruhr district and has since joined PSV where he has managed a decent five goals and eight assists in 29 Eredivisie appearances.
Current club: Real Madrid
Spain churn out midfielders like butter at the moment – their seemingly endless conveyor belt of talent means that even some of the best have to fight for a moment of airtime.
Isco is one such man. His magical form at Malaga led to a lucrative move to Real Madrid but the pesky duo of a former Ballon d’Or winner and the world’s most expensive footballer restricted his first-team opportunities.
Regardless of his lack of a guaranteed starting place during his time at Madrid, and with Cristiano Ronaldo gone, Isco certainly has the skills to pay the bills.
2013: Paul Pogba
Current club: Manchester United
Paul Pogba was all but written off when he willingly walked out of Old Trafford following a contract dispute as a teenager. His attitude was all wrong, they said; he was arrogant, they declared; he would never make it at Juventus, they insisted.
What do they know? Absolutely nothing. The powerful and energetic midfielder rose to prominence in Serie A and was regularly touted by the red tops for astronomical fees — proven five years ago when he returned to Manchester United for a then-world record £89 million. After an underwhelming return, the World Cup winner looked to finally be playing with freedom, showing his quality in the early stages of the 2021/22 season.
2014: Raheem Sterling
Current club: Manchester City
Right, if you don’t know where Sterling is at present, take a long, hard look at yourself. But why not remind yourself where he came from? Queens Park Rangers will never forget…
The England international is now at Manchester City and, despite all the furore that surrounded his transfer, he so far looks like a shrewd investment. He has excelled for City as they won back-to-back titles in 2018 and 2019, adding goals, assists and end-product to his game. A key City cog under Guardiola, he extended his contract with the Premier League champions till 2023 and has turned into a real goalscorer albeit with some key misses.
“This is a significant moment for the [Man City],” the club’s sporting director Txiki Begiristain said of Sterling’s new contract at the time.
“Raheem has improved dramatically in the past two seasons and is now one of the Premier League’s best attacking players. His statistics tell their own story.”
2015: Anthony Martial
Current club: Man United
The fourth player to have been on Manchester United’s books at one time or another and collected the coveted award is Anthony Martial.
In 2015, people were scoffing at the astronomical £36m fee Ed Woodward shelled out to Monaco for the Frenchman, but that figure is now a fee for a reliable centre-back.
Martial is now a key figure for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United, leading the line as one of the club’s centre-forwards though his role has changed slightly. The France international scored an impressive 23 goals across all competitions in 2019/20 but has slowed up since.
2016: Renato Sanches
Current club: LOSC Lille
Renato Sanches was the talk of the summer in 2016; the teenager who was part of Portugal’s European Championship-winning side quickly became part of a transfer battle between the world’s biggest clubs, most notably Bayern Munich and Manchester United. But, by a matter of a few million pounds, according to reports, it was United who missed out on the box-to-box midfielder.
Unfortunately for Sanches, however, a £35m move to Munich was followed by a season on the bench. Carlo Ancelotti afforded the youngster just six starts in the league and only one of which was a full 90 minutes. He was then made free to leave in the summer, the Bavarians’ hierarchy confirmed, with AC Milan and Chelsea both registering an interest. But it was Paul Clement, a former assistant to Ancelotti, who signed him on loan for Swansea City where he subsequently failed to produce any star-like form that was expected upon his arrival. He’s now at Lille, calling time to his disastrous Bayern career in the summer, and was one of the club’s top players as they won the league last season.
2017: Kylian Mbappe
Current club: Paris Saint-Germain
The now-22-year-old striker moved to PSG in 2018 first on a loan deal with a £160 million buy-out clause attached, making him the second-most expensive player of all time behind teammate Neymar.
After a season that saw him catch the eye of the world’s biggest stage (the Champions League) with Monaco, it was a near certainty that wouldn’t stay at the Principality club long.
And now in the capital of France alongside Neymar, Mbappe is rubbing shoulders with bigger fish, but it’s a pond he’s thriving in too, netting 140 goals in 188 matches so far. He also played a vital part in France’s 2018 World Cup win, scoring four goals as a teenager, a tally only ever bettered by a 17-year-old Pele.
The popular opinion right now is that Mbappe and Erling Haaland will create a monopoly on the Ballon d’Or award in years to come, just as Messi and Ronaldo did for so long.
2018: Matthijs de Ligt
Current club: Juventus
At the time of his win in 2018, Matthijs de Ligt was a budding centre-back at Ajax. What followed was a season to remember, as Ajax won the domestic double including a first Eredivisie title since 2014.
De Ligt was also key in Ajax’s run to the Champions League semi-final as captain, with performances that have earned him a move to Juventus. Although he won Serie A, De Ligt hasn’t lived up to expectations just yet.
2019: Joao Felix
Current club: Atletico Madrid
Joao Felix was honoured for his impressive breakthrough season with Benfica, scoring 15 goals and recording seven assists in 26 Primeira Liga matches during 2018/19.
His performances saw Felix earn his Portugal debut in the Uefa Nations League, starting in the semi-final win over Switzerland, with 17 more appearances coming since. After the mini-tournament ended, Felix secured his move to Atletico Madrid and like De Ligt, the 21-year-old has not yet lived up to the high expectations placed on him but he’s getting there.
2020: Erling Haaland
Current club: Borussia Dortmund
Haaland was the easy choice for 2020, scoring 44 goals across all competitions for Red Bull Salzburg and Borussia Dortmund in the 2019/20 campaign. The Norwegian carried that stunning form into 2020/21, scoring 41 goals in 41 games and only injury has stopped him extending that ridiculous record so far this season.
The sky’s the limit for Haaland.