If you’re good enough, you’re old enough – a cliché that feels as though it has been around as long as association football itself. But regardless of how tired a refrain it can sometimes sound, the adage holds true because it is rooted in the essence of the game.
One of the most uplifting spectacles of the game we love is when a young player is given an opportunity, and grasps it with both hands.
The international stage has long been home to such stories; from a 17-year-old Pelé who stole the show at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, through to Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo in Euro 2004 – when the eyes of the world are watching, the fearlessness of youth comes to the fore.
And in France this month, the UEFA European Championship could be host to another, if not several more, of these fairytale rises, particularly as there is a handful of youthful prospects who are considered surprise inclusions in their nation’s squad.
Marcus Rashford (England)
England’s Marcus Rashford is one such case. The 18-year-old Manchester United striker has enjoyed a meteoric rise to stardom. Having only made his professional debut in February, England manager Roy Hodgson had previously stated that he would not be considering the inexperienced youngster.
But Rashford just kept doing what he does: influencing high-stakes games with crucial goals and masterful performances. And after a virtuoso display in May’s FA Cup final, Hodgson could no longer deny Rashford, and pencilled the teenager into his provisional Euros squad. A debut international goal in a friendly against Australia effectively assured the United man of his place in the final selection.
Emre Mor (Turkey)
Although born in Denmark and having played in the Danish under-19 side, 18-year-old winger Emre Mor has elected to represent Turkey at full international level.
Mor made his professional debut in November 2015 and, despite playing on 13 times at senior level last season, has recently been snapped up by Borussia Dortmund. So impressive has the tricky wideman been in his fledgling carer that he was included in Turkey’s Euro 2016 squad, and has already featured in two preparatory friendlies.
Though unlikely to start due to Turkey’s abundance of quality attacking midfielders, Mor has shown his readiness to contribute at the highest level, and will not be overawed if given the chance to show what he can do.
Oleksandr Zinchenko (Ukraine)
Oleksandr Zinchenko made his Ukraine debut against reigning European Champions Spain in October 2015, and in his second international appearance, the 19-year-old attacking midfielder became his country’s youngest ever goal-scorer, breaking the record previously held by the legendary Andriy Shevchenko.
The Ufa player is thought to be a target for Manchester City, as new boss Pep Guardiola overhauls his squad. But City will want to move quick to tie up a deal because Zinchenko’s star could be about to rise in France, and his price tag will follow suit.
Mariusz Stępiński (Poland)
Having represented Poland at every youth level – including playing a key role in his country’s run to the under-17 European Championship semi-final in 2012 – Mariusz Stępiński’s senior career did not take off as expected. The six-foot tall striker scored five goals in his two seasons at Widzew Łódź and, after being signed by Nurenburg and loaned out, only two in 25 appearances for Wisła Kraków.
But last season, after joining Ruch Chorzów, Stępiński came to life, scoring 15 goals and registering two assists in 36 appearances.
At Euro 2016, the 21-year-old will be deputy to Poland’s first-choice strikers Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik, and will be champing at the bit to show that he can translate his new-found club form into goals at international level.
Ante Ćorić (Croatia)
Many people were surprised to see that Barcelona’s teenage prodigy Alen Halilović was omitted from Croatia’s final squad for the Euros, especially following his impressive season on loan at Sporting Gijón in La Liga. But national team coach Ante Čačić opted to select a different 19-year-old in one of his attacking midfield berths.
Ante Ćorić was the man chosen, and not without good reason. The Dinamo Zagreb midfielder played 41 times last season, scoring five goals and assisting a further three. Despite his tender years, Ćorić has experience of playing at the highest level in the Champions League, so there will be no questions of his temperament at the Euros.
West Ham United are thought to be weighing up a £10 million offer for Ćorić, who, if given the chance to play alongside Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakiti in the Croatia midfield, will hope to prove himself deserving of such a price tag.
Milan Škriniar (Slovakia)
Sampdoria defender Milan Škriniar made his Slovakia debut against Georgia on 27 May this year,. Then, just three days later, Ján Kozák named the 21-year-old in his 23-man Euro 2016 squad.
Škriniar, a physically imposing centre-back, joined Sampdoria from Slovan Bratislava in January, and has only made three appearances for the Italian club. But with 77 appearances for Žilina in the Slovakian league already under his belt, as well as 14 under-21 caps, Kozák trusts Škriniar to add solidarity to his side’s back-line.
The expanded 24-team format of Euro 2016 has enabled nations who wouldn’t normally stand a chance of qualifying, to have their shot at tournament football.
And just as there will be lesser-established teams ruffling the feathers of their higher-level counterparts, there will also be a cast of young players, many of whom are far from household names, ready to snatch their chance at stardom.
About the author – Ryan Baldi
Ryan is a Midlands based freelance sports writer specialising in European football. He has been fascinated with the continental game ever since he was presented with his first football kit at the age of 7 years old whilst on holiday in Spain – a Barcelona shirt with ‘Romario 10’ printed on the back. A contributor to numerous footballing websites, Ryan has also covered martial arts for local and national print publications. Ryan’s musings on European football can be found here.