The 2022 World Cup highlighted a bunch players who showed they could handle the pressure at a very young age. They’re playing bigger roles for clubs and countries, and sport’s biggest stage didn’t deter them. The tournament in Qatar increased our anticipation to see how some of the players who’ve recently broken through will fare in the three and a half years leading to the 2026 World cup.
Being a gifted Spanish midfielder who grew up in Barcelona’s La Masia academy carries huge expectations. It was only a decade ago when Xavi and Iniesta dominated world football, leading Spain and Barcelona to win all of football’s major titles. With that regard, Pedri has huge shoes to fill. At times, he looks like he’s up for the task. The flip side is that he isn’t consistent enough and didn’t always show up when it mattered. However, we should remember that Pedri celebrated his 20th birthday during the 2022 World Cup. Xavi was 30 in the 2010 World Cup title winning campaign, and Iniesta was 26. The next few years will define whether Pedri can lead La Roja’s midfield. After two consecutive round of 16 exits to teams that, on paper, should’ve been inferior to them, come 2026, Pedri and Spain will no longer have the generation-shift excuse.
4. Julian Alvarez
The 22-year-old arrived in Qatar with only 11 caps for his country and left the Gulf state as one of the world’s rising stars. Alvarez proved he was up for the task since he became Argentina’s starting striker in the third group game. He paid Lionel Scaloni back with four goals and an overall key role in Argentina’s first World Cup win since 1986. Now, he needs to continue his form, standing out at one of the most competitive squads in the world. In Pep Guardiola, he has one of football’s best teachers to up his game. He better do so, because in 2026 he’ll no longer have Messi (and Di Maria) by his side, meaning more eyes will be on him.
3. Jude Bellingham
Bellingham needed zero time to adapt to professional football. He made his debut for Borussia Dortmund at only 17 and has proven his quality at the top levels of the Bundesliga and Champions League. The 2022 World Cup was just a continuation of that process. All of the hopes England fans put on the midfielder were justified, and more. Besides playing excellent football, Bellingham looked like a natural leader, showcasing extraordinary charisma. There are a handful of reasons for the Three Lions fans to be optimistic following the Qatar campaign, and Bellingham is a major one. They simply know they’re in good hands. Bellingham will surely leave Dortmund sometime soon. Where to is a great question, with Real Madrid leading the race according to rumors. The decisions he makes in the next few years will determine whether or not the potential will be fulfilled. Just remember, Jadon Sancho seemed just as promising when playing for Dortmund, and things haven’t turned out for the best for him.
2. Erling Haaland
The first and only player on this list that didn’t play in the 2022 World Cup. By 2026, Norway will complete a 28-year hiatus from the tournament. The question is will they break it or extend it? One thing is sure. Every football fan wants to see one of the world’s best players taking center stage. Prolific club-level scorers have often struggled when tasked to maintain their level for their mediocre national team in World Cups. Haaland’s scoring rate for Norway is similar to that of his present and former clubs, but all of his goals were in qualifiers and friendlies. It would be interesting to see if he can do what he did and still does, week-in, week-out, in the Austrian, German, English, and Champions League, also in the World Cup. He’ll celebrate his 26th birthday shortly after the tournament in the USA, Canada, and Mexico will conclude, meaning he should be at the peak of his career. The expansion of the tournament to 48 teams, granting Europe three additional final slots should improve Norway’s chances of qualifying. Make it happen, Erling. Oh, and we’ll throw in Martin Ødegaard while we’re at it.
1. Kylian Mbappe
We all remember that he’s only 24, right? Because the striker has been consistently excellent for over six years since his breakthrough season for Monaco. Unlike Messi, who’s taken 16 years and four attempts before leaving his mark on a World Cup, the Frenchman took the tournament by storm. At only 19, he was key in Les Bleus’ title-winning campaign in Russia and even more so in their runner-up campaign in Qatar. Mbappe showed skill, maturity, leadership, and efficiency in his game. His eight goals added to the three in Russia put him in a great position to equal or surpass Miroslav Klose as the all-time top scorer. Also, after the dramatic and painful loss in the final, the striker will surely be motivated to bring back the title he surely thinks he deserves. Come 2026, Mbappe will possibly be in the peak of his career. Yet a lot of open questions are yet to be answered. Will he arrive at the tournament still as a PSG player? Will he finally make the move to Real Madrid? Win the Champions League? All these and more will determine if the star will travel to North America as the world’s best player of the post Messi-Ronaldo era.