Bayern Munich’s Renato Sanches has picked up the 2016 Golden Boy award, handed out each year for the best player in Europe under the age of 21. The award has been a pretty good indicator for future stardom, but not all previous winners have lived up to their promise. Here's a look back at every Golden Boy since its inception in 2003, and how they’ve fared since.
2003: Rafael van der Vaart
Van der Vaart drew comparisons to Johan Cruyff after he rose through the Ajax youth ranks, made his first-team debut as a 17-year-old, and won the inaugural Golden Boy award three years later. He never did reach Cruyff’s level (who ever has?), and he’s never won any major titles save for the Eredivisie, but van der Vaart did have a solid career with Hamburg (twice), Real Madrid and Tottenham. He now plays for Danish outfit Midtjylland.
2004: Wayne Rooney
Let’s see. He’s England’s all-time top scorer. He’s three goals away from being Manchester United’s all-time top scorer. He's a Champions League winner, five-time Premier League champion and four-time FA England Player of the Year. Sure, Rooney might be showing his age nowadays, but that is one hell of a career.
2005: Lionel Messi
Uh, you may have heard of him.
2006: Cesc Fabregas
Fabregas left Barcelona's La Masia for Arsenal at 16 and took over the Gunners’ playmaker role after the departure of Patrick Vierira just two years later. After winning the Golden Boy for helping Arsenal reach the Champions League final in his first season as starter, Cesc has won La Liga with Barcelona, the Premier League with Chelsea, and was an integral member of Spain’s World Cup and two-time Euro winning squads.
2007: Sergio Aguero
Half of Europe was after Aguero since he became the youngest player to debut in Argentina’s Primera Division at just a shade over 15. Three years later, he made the move to Atletico Madrid and became a star almost overnight, netting 27 goals in just his second season. He hasn’t stopped scoring since. After 101 goals in five years with Atleti, he’s now up to 147 in six with Manchester City.
The first and inarguably biggest Golden Boy bust to date. Man United bought Anderson from Porto for €31.5 million to be Paul Scholes’ successor in the heart of the team. Instead, the Brazilian mustered just 70 Premier League starts over 8 seasons and is regarded as one of the club’s biggest transfer flops ever. He’s now 28 and back in Brazil playing for Internacional, where he was recently suspended for punching a teammate.
2009: Alexandre Pato
Maybe it’s something about Brazilians and the Golden Boy? Pato was hailed as an even bigger talent than Anderson, but he too has largely disappointed after a flying start to his career. Pato’s 15 goals in 2008/09 also earned him Serie A’s Young Player of the Year honors, but he’s never scored more in a season since. After returning to Brazil for a few years, Corinthians practically begged teams to take him off their hands this summer. He landed with Villarreal.
2010: Mario Balotelli
His talent may know no bounds, but unfortunately so does his indiscipline. Balotelli drew Europe’s attention with some brilliant performances for Inter, but issues off the pitch with teammates, coaches and fans saw him sold to Man City in 2010, and those issues have followed him wherever he’s gone since. Balotelli can be brilliant one day and infuriating the next, but after two dark seasons with Liverpool and Milan, Balotelli is now 26 and playing well again for Ligue 1 outfit Nice. Has he turned over a new leaf? We’ll see.
2011: Mario Goetze
Goetze was dubbed the “German Messi” early on, and as a teen he even played up to the hype. Goetze led Borussia Dortmund to back-to-back Bundesliga titles in his first two full seasons, earning the Golden Ball in between. But after his much-maligned switch to Bayern Munich in 2013, Goetze hasn't been able to take the next step to superstardom (his World Cup winning goal aside). Now back with Dortmund, the 24-year-old hopes to revive the old magic.
Isco won the Golden Boy after leading Malaga to their maiden Champions League campaign, in which he promptly scored a brace on his debut. He was inevitably plucked by Real Madrid a year later, with Iker Casillas lauding Isco as “Spain’s most important player of the future.” But after a promising first three years with Real, you now have a better chance finding Isco’s name in transfer rumors now than in Real’s starting lineup.
2013: Paul Pogba
We all know the story by now. After Manchester United allowed him to leave for nothing in 2012, Pogba quickly played himself into Juventus’ starting lineup, reeled off four straight Serie A titles, generally became ‘the coolest,’ and saw United make him the world’s most expensive player ever this summer. ‘Nuff said.
2014: Raheem Sterling
Lightning quick with bags of tricks and dangerous in front of goal, Sterling is everything you’d want in a winger, but his consistency and psyche was often questioned while at Liverpool and in his first season with Man City. Since Pep Guardiola took over this summer though, Sterling has been in the form of his life. Should he continue to develop, the still only 21-year-old will be a central figure for both his club and England for years to come.
2015: Anthony Martial
Practically everyone scoffed at the £36 million price tag Man United were willing to meet for Martial last summer, but the 19-year-old paid instant dividends, scoring four goals in his first four games and getting named the EPL’s first Player of the Month last season. The world’s most expensive teenager ever notched 17 goals in his debut season for United, winning the Golden Boy along the way. So far, so good.
2016: Renato Sanches
Sanches was always the frontrunner for this award. The powerful box-to-box midfielder was swooped up by Bayern for €35million this summer after dominating the Portuguese league with Benfica in his first full season as a professional. Then he helped Portugal win their first major title and was named Young Player of the Tournament at the Euros, in the process breaking Cristiano Ronaldo’s records as his country's youngest to start and score a goal at a major tournament. At just 20 years old, the sky's the limit for this newest Golden Boy.