The pain on Kylian Mbappé’s face said it all.
As the 23-year-old French superstar collected the Golden Boot Award, his walk off the stage saw him go past the one thing he got inches closer to hoisting a second time – the World Cup trophy.
Just four years ago, Mbappé made history as the second teenager to ever score in a World Cup final, joining Brazilian icon Pele. That year, the then-19-year-old launched himself as potentially the next big thing in global football en route to lifting the title.
Four years later, he proved he was just that – from understudy in a stacked French squad to the top dog in an injury-filled one, now with a World Cup final hat trick to his name.
Though Mbappé’s eight goals and two assists weren’t enough to push Les Bleus to a repeat title, he certainly laid it all on the line, which makes him the first current youngster to watch ahead of the 2026 FIFA World Cup, co-hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Along with the Paris Saint-Germain star, these are the other nine to watch:
Kylian Mbappé, France
The 2022 final surely felt like a passing-of-the-baton moment. From Lionel Messi to Mbappé, the next G.O.A.T. could already be upon us.
Along with being one of two teenagers to score in his first final and a hat trick in his second final and tournament appearance, Mbappé also became the highest-scoring player ever in World Cup Final history.
He scored all three of France’s goals in the 2022 final and was really the lone Frenchman who looked like he had a goal in him throughout the game. This loss should give him plenty of motivation for 2026 as other youngsters like Eduardo Camavinga, Ibrahima Konate, William Saliba, Moussa Diaby and more could join him to try to return to the grand stage.
Enzo Fernández, Argentina
Winning the Young Player of the Tournament Award usually comes with great territory. Thomas Müller, Paul Pogba and Mbappé all took home the award from the previous three World Cups, and Argentine midfielder Enzo Fernández now joined the list.
Fernández didn’t become a regular starter for Argentina until the third group stage game. In the match against Mexico prior, the Benfica youngster unleashed a ridiculous curling strike to seal the win.
His impressive play all over the midfield continued. He rarely made mistakes with the ball, always looked to progress with it, got off threatening shots and won his defensive duels. He was primed for a breakout tournament, and now he’ll look to lead the La Albiceleste midfield in North America.
Joško Gvardiol, Croatia
Another candidate who broke out for his nation was Joško Gvardiol, a left-footed center back from Croatia. The 20-year-old RB Leipzig defender stepped into the spotlight and rarely put a foot wrong.
Left-footed center backs who are fast, agile, gifted technically and strong in the air, are one of the rarest breeds in the sport – Gvardiol is just that, and he still has plenty of potential to tap into as he develops.
He got rewarded for his hunger in attack with a goal against Morocco in the third-place game, and he’ll be the focal point for the Vatreni when 2026 comes around as they look for yet another deep run in three tries. Josip Šutalo, 22, could form the starting center back partnership alongside Gvardiol.
Youssoufa Moukoko, Germany
Germany has struggled to find a proper No. 9 replacement since the retirement of Miroslav Klose in 2014, but it has one on the rise.
The recently turned 18-year-old was named to Hansi Flick’s squad in Qatar but made just one appearance off the bench as Müller started at No. 9 with Niclas Füllkrug as his primary backup. But goal-scoring issues plagued Germany as it ended its run in Qatar in group play.
Moukoko already has six goals and three assists in 14 Bundesliga games with Borussia Dortmund this season, and top clubs are already swarming for his signature. If Germany wants to avoid three straight group-stage eliminations in 2026, giving Moukoko more reps might just be the way to go to solve their striker problem.
Jamal Musiala, Florian Wirtz and Karim Adeyemi are some other attacking-minded youngsters to watch out for.
Gio Reyna, USA
The United States had a solid run in Qatar, but things could’ve been different had one of its best attackers logged more minutes. The drama between Gio Reyna and manager Gregg Berhalter has made headlines in the aftermath of the USMNT’s exit, but it’s clear that someone of Reyna’s quality needs to be on the pitch.
Like Moukoko, Reyna is another youngster emerging from Dortmund. The 20-year-old can play on the wings but mostly thrives as an attacking midfielder roaming the central parts of the final third. The USMNT sorely needed his creativity on the pitch when they struggled to find goals, but there’s reason to believe that will change on home soil in 2026.
Christian Pulisic, Yunus Musah and Gianluca Busio are others to keep tabs on, primarily Busio, a 20-year-old versatile midfielder who plays for Venezia in Italy.
Rafael Leão, Portugal
Perhaps one of manager Fernando Santos’ biggest mistakes in Qatar was not finding ways to get Rafael Leão on the pitch more often.
The 23-year-old AC Milan left winger was a threat to score every time he touched the ball. The problem was he only came off the bench during Portugal’s five games in the tournament.
Both goals were mesmerizing curling finishes, primarily the one against Switzerland in the 6-1 round of 16 rout.
Mbappé is the young left winger who is a global superstar, but Leão is not that far off in terms of production, playstyle and flair. He just needs more minutes and a better platform to showcase his skills. That’s why 2026 could be a crucial one for the Portuguese in the post-Cristiano Ronaldo era.
Gabriel Martinelli, Brazil
When you’re on a team that has nine quality attackers, it can be hard to stand out. Gabriel Martinelli found that out the hard way as he logged three appearances in Qatar, with two coming off the bench and the lone start coming against Cameroon with the rest of Brazil’s B-team.
But like Leão, Martinelli was another left winger who looked like he’d score a goal every time he made a move down the flank. His one-on-one directness and change of pace as either a straight line runner or cutting in has played a huge role for his club team, Arsenal, in England, where he has five goals and two assists in 14 games.
Manager Tite made a costly mistake by not substituting him in against Croatia, where Martinelli’s ability to stretch out defenses and cause chaos would’ve helped unlock the Vatreni backline that ultimately shut down the Brazilian attack in a penalty shootout. The 21-year-old has a bright future with the Seleção.
Roméo Lavia, Belgium
Based on the squad manager Roberto Martinez brought in, it was coming. The Red Devils were too reliant on aging veterans who are past their prime, and that hindered the opportunity for some of their emerging talents to come through.
In 2026, 18-year-old midfielder Roméo Lavia could be a pivotal force with guys like Kevin De Bruyne and Youri Tielemans around him. The Manchester City youth prospect is now with Southampton of the EPL, but there’s a reason why the Citizens reportedly slapped a 40 million (euros) buyback clause on his contract.
He’s a disruptive defensive midfielder who never stops running, wins the majority of his ground and aerial duels and has a goal in him when he helps the attack. He’s already at 5-foot-11 at such a young age, making him all the more intriguing to get even better in 2026. Jérémy Doku, Amadou Onana and Charles De Ketelaere are other Belgian youngsters to remember.
Emile Smith Rowe, England
If you’ve seen Musiala ball for Germany, it’s not too crazy to say that England has its own version of the talented youngster: Emile Smith-Rowe.
Manager Gareth Southgate hinted that the 22-year-old winger-midfielder hybrid would’ve been on the trip to Qatar had he not been injured, which was a shame considering his performances for Arsenal the last few seasons.
He broke out at the club level with 10 goals and two assists in 33 league games in a year where he also received his first senior call-up by Southgate. His dribbling in tight spaces, creativity and ball striking would’ve been an immense help in games like the quarterfinals against France where the Three Lions lacked the finishing touch.
If he’s healthy come 2026, England should look to integrate him into the squad, primarily in advanced central areas like Germany does with Musiala to optimize him.
Erling Haaland, Norway
Let’s end this with a bang. Norway has not been a regular in the World Cup, having made just three appearances since 1938, with the last occurring in 1998. But the 48-team bracket in 2026 opens up the door for more teams, and the Lions should be roaring at the opportunity.
That also could pave the way for 22-year-old goal-scoring sensation Erling Haaland to make his World Cup debut. At the club level, Haaland is Mbappé’s greatest nemesis – they’re the next iteration of the Messi-Ronaldo debates.
But adding more international football tournaments to his resume is currently Haaland’s kryptonite in those debates, as the Norwegians have always lacked the star power to consistently qualify. If he and creative star Martin Ødegaard can punch a 2026 World Cup ticket for Norway, they’ll immediately be a prime dark-horse candidate.