Young Guns

Judging from the headlines, you might have thought a prophet had passed away. IS THERE LIFE AFTER ROO? Read one. A KILLER BLOW, lamented another. The Mirror best summed up the national mood: OUR ROOINATION. Wayne Rooney, the star of the English team, had fractured a metatarsal during a Premier League match last month. Although the England squad boasts world-class names like David Beckham, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard, the country's World Cup chances suddenly seemed to have deflated like a punctured ball--simply because a pug-faced 20-year-old kid had hurt his right foot.

Since the first World Cup in 1930, young players--particularly those making their debut on the international stage--have often become the breakout stars of the tournament. In 1958, a 17-year-old Pele startled the world with his precision-passing. In 1982, a 21-year-old Diego Maradona showcased his inimitable dribbling skills on the pitch (and warned of many tears in years to come after being sent off it in the second round). In 1998, England's Owen, then only 18, showed a knack for the quick dash into the penalty box. And in 2002, 22-year-old Ronaldinho's flair propelled Brazil to its fifth title.

But whereas those youngsters of years past were counted on only for occasional heroics--leaving the heavy lifting to their older, more experienced teammates--today's rookies are increasingly finding themselves in positions of responsibility and leadership. Fans in particular often expect them to carry their squads. "If you look back at World Cups of years past, [a young star] was more an exception," says Bill Gerrard, a football expert at Leeds University. "Now, we expect a Pele-type player to turn up at every World Cup." On June 9, the likes of Argentina's Lionel Messi, 19; Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, 21; Spain's Cesc Fabregas, 19, and 20-year-old South Korean Park Chu-young will be expected to shoulder the load for their teams rather than simply add a dash of youthful vigor. And England needs Rooney so badly that it has named him to its 23-man World Cup squad--despite little evidence that he will recover in time.

Other than the injured Rooney, this year's young guns could well live up to the hype. Messi--who has already been compared to Maradona--led Argentina's under-20 side to a world-championship crown almost singlehandedly (he scored six goals to become the tournament's top scorer). Germany's Lukas Podolski, 21, has proved an adept leader when veteran Michael Ballack's golden foot has failed him. Gung-ho Ghanaian striker Prince Tagoe, 19, helped propel his team to its first World Cup; Park's goals kept South Korea in the running. And 21-year-old Croatian midfielder Niko Kranjcar (sometimes referred to as a younger version of French legend Zinedine Zidane) powered his team through a tough group in the qualifiers.

Talented as they are, however, these tyros are not all Peles. Other factors have helped fuel their newfound prominence. For one, international football is played at a much more rigorous, faster pace than in the past. And with the burgeoning growth of both foreign and domestic tournaments in the past decade, clubs play more games throughout the year. As a result, the grueling, monthlong World Cup now favors energetic legs over steady ones. "It's becoming a younger man's game," says Gerrard. Some analysts even argue that stocking their rosters with new faces can provide a psychological advantage for national squads. "Selecting new and young players gives a sense of optimism," says Dominic Malcolm, a football expert at Loughborough University. "Selecting older players says 'It's going to be the same again.' The young players haven't failed yet." A team like Brazil's, which has won the World Cup five times, need not worry about showcasing its older stars. Spain, which has never made it past the quarterfinals, needs untainted ones like Fabregas.

Globalization, too, has played its part. In the past decade, football has spread rapidly to the world's far-flung corners, and young players are no longer unknown quantities--so they don't benefit from the element of surprise. When Pele emerged on the world stage in 1958, few fans--or even players and coaches--were aware of his talent, so expectations both at home and abroad were low. "We, as consumers of football, are more aware of the potential impact of young players," says Malcolm. "With Pele, the expectations only came after he delivered in the World Cup." Players like Messi are already known threats, despite their lack of Cup experience. Fans from Buenos Aires to Bangkok have watched the Argentine score goal after goal for Barcelona FC on television, as well as lead his country in the World Cup qualifiers and friendlies. His T shirt is sold in shops around the world.

Even up-and-comers from football's hinterlands are well known because they play their year-round football for the biggest clubs in Europe: for instance, Togo's 18-year-old sensation Toure Assimiou plays for Bayern Leverkusen, while 20-year-old Ghanaian Asamoah Gyan wows fans on a weekly basis in Modena, Italy. They've proved that they can "survive in the toughest leagues," says Rogan Taylor, director of the University of Liverpool's Football Industry Group. As a result, coaches know they can take more chances on the young. Consider England boss Sven-Goran Eriksson's latest addition to his squad: Arsenal's 17-year-old Theo Walcott, who has never played an international match. "Coaches tend to be more astute with regards to what these players are capable of," says Gerrard. Opposing managers in the World Cup will be aware of their talents, too. And fans will expect them to live up to the reputations that precede them.

The young stars will also have to live up to the vast sums of money they make. Messi, for instance, reportedly has a five-year contract at Barcelona valued at $190 million, and is sponsored by footwear giant Adidas; Brazil's 24-year-old wonderboy, Kaka, also sponsored by Adidas, rakes in more than $1 million a year for A.C. Milan. With salaries that high, even the greenest player cannot afford to let his side--or sponsors--down. "The money creates a whole new world," says Taylor. "[These players] are engaged in a global business."

So will youth--driven by fame, fortune and fitness--triumph over experience in Germany? Perhaps less than people expect. Coaches still value the wisdom and leadership of their veterans, and players like the 31-year-old Beckham and 34-year-old Zidane will undoubtedly have chances to grab the spotlight if the upstarts stumble--or, like Rooney, are injured. Pundits also agree that building a team around one player--particularly a young one--can be dangerous. For that reason, Taylor argues that Rooney's injury could be a blessing in disguise for England. "It's much better [having Rooney on the bench]," says Taylor. "A lot of things have gone right for England, and one is Rooney getting injured--it brings things down to realistic levels." It may be harder for passionate fans--and the hungry youngsters themselves--to do the same.