When UEFA EURO 2012 gets under way in earnest in just over a week, aficionados of the beautiful game will get to see some of the finest players in world football. From Xavi Hernández to Cristiano Ronaldo, Robin van Persie to Philipp Lahm, Zlatan Ibrahimović to Gianluigi Buffon, the continent’s best-known footballers will be all competing to emerge as conquerors of Europe.
But at every major tournament a new star is born. The 1984 UEFA European Championships introduced a precocious Enzo Scifo to the international arena, while 20 years later, Wayne Rooney burst on to the scene. The England striker became the youngest player to score in the history of the competition, getting two against Switzerland, until recently retired Swiss striker Johan Vonlanthen stole his thunder just four days later to claim a record – at 18 years 137 days – that still stands today.
As the latest crop of youngsters emerge from the shadows of their elder statesmen, UEFA.com has taken the opportunity to profile the seven teenagers who will be involved in Poland and Ukraine.
Jack Butland (England, 19 years old)
When he was farmed off on loan to third-tier Cheltenham Town FC at the start of the season, not in his wildest dreams can Butland have imagined that by the season’s end he would be jetting off to a major tournament with the England senior side. The 19-year-old has come in following John Ruddy’s debilitating finger injury and many England supporters may have muttered ‘Jack Who?’ upon learning of his inclusion in Roy Hodgson’s 23, but Butland was no stranger to Stuart Pearce, who selected the 193cm-tall keeper six times for the Under-21s.
Kostas Fortounis (Greece, 19)
Fortounis came to prominence at Asteras Tripoli FC, where his fine displays caught the eye of Juventus. The Serie A outfit tried to take him on loan in January 2011 but instead he moved to Kaiserslautern FC last summer, where he provided some of the brighter moments in what was an otherwise disappointing campaign for the ultimately relegated side. Nonetheless, after making his international debut in February’s 1-1 friendly draw with Belgium, the attacking midfielder has impressed enough to get the call-up, one of three Bundesliga-based players selected by coach Fernando Santos.
Maxym Koval (Ukraine, 19)
Goalkeeper Koval was given his big break as a 16-year-old at Metalurh Zaporizhya FC. Rushed into the first team after an injury crisis he took his chance, quite literally, with both hands, conceding just 23 goals in 19 matches. FC Dynamo Kyiv came calling in the 2010/11 season after another standout performance against them and he has deputised impressively ever since as understudy to Oleksandr Shovkovskiy. Injuries in the goalkeeping department have earned him a spot at UEFA EURO 2012, but only time will tell whether the uncapped 19-year-old, who is vying for a place along with Andriy Pyatov and Oleksandr Goryainov, will get his chance for the co-hosts.
Jores Okore (Denmark, 19)
The imposing Ivorian-born stopper was handed his first-team debut at FC Nordsjælland last season and has never looked back. He cemented a regular place in the side this term, earning two international caps in friendly victories against Sweden and Finland in November, and helping Nordsjælland win their first ever Danish title. With excellent control for a big man and an innate sense of anticipation, Okore’s shortlist of admirers could become a very long one by the end of June.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (England, 18)
Tender in years but bullish in stature, Oxlade-Chamberlain is the latest in a long line of young midfielders to emerge under Arsène Wenger. The Arsenal FC manager signed the gifted son of former England winger Mark Chamberlain after he had helped Southampton FC win promotion to the English second division last season with nine goals in 34 league games. Powerful and fleet of foot, he has played well enough in his 18 Premier League appearances and four UEFA Champions League matches to convince Hodgson that he was ready for the big stage.
Jetro Willems (Netherlands, 18)
A left-back who only broke into the PSV Eindhoven first team this season, Willems made the step up following an injury to team-mate and Netherlands regular Erik Pieters. He only won his first international cap against Bulgaria at the weekend but is now vying for a second when the Oranje take on Denmark in their opening game. Should the full-back play this summer, he will become the youngest player to appear at a EURO, breaking the record set by Scifo, who was 18 years 115 days when helping the Diables Rouges to a 2-0 win against Yugoslavia on 13 June 1984.
Rafał Wolski (Poland, 19)
Regarded as one of the most exciting young talents to emerge in Poland, Wolski will be hoping to shine for the co-hosts if given the opportunity. He has been in wonderful form for Legia Warszawa this season and earned comparisons with Borussia Dortmund starlet Mario Götze – who only turns 20 himself on 3 June – which perhaps explains why the German champions have been linked, along with several other leading clubs, with the playmaker. Wolski appeared in both recent friendly victories against Latvia and Slovakia and could be the wild card that inspires the home nation.
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