It’s a schoolboy’s dream. To play for your nation at the FIFA World Cup. But just imagine if you were actually the age of a schoolboy and doing it. For a lucky few, this was their reality, so let’s take a closer look at the youngest players in World Cup history.
1. Norman Whiteside
(17 years, 40 days)
Northern Ireland vs. Yugoslavia – June 17 1982
As a youngster Norman Whiteside drew immediate comparisons to fellow Northern Irish star George Best, even being scouted for Manchester United by the same person. But despite some early injury setbacks, which would eventually curtail his career, he did get to become the youngest player in World Cup history.
Whiteside had only appeared in two senior matches for the Red Devils (although he did become the club’s all-time youngest goal scorer on the final day of the 1981-82 season) before Billy Bingham called the striker up into Northern Ireland’s 1982 World Cup squad. Whiteside would break the record in his country’s first game of the tournament (their first at the event in 24 years) although he couldn’t celebrate the achievement with a goal. Instead, he had to settle for a caution and in doing so became the youngest player to receive a yellow card in FIFA World Cup history.
Incredibly, this Northern Ireland side would reach the quarter-finals of the 1982 World Cup, including a famous 1-0 victory over Spain to qualify from the group stages, before being dumped out by a Michel Platini-inspired France. And although Whiteside would not score in this edition of the tournament, his performances were enough to encourage Ron Atkinson to start the 17-year-old throughout the following season, culminating in Whiteside becoming the youngest League Cup final (against Liverpool) and FA Cup final goalscorer (albeit in a replay against Brighton).
Northern Ireland, and Whiteside, were back at the 1986 World Cup and he managed to get himself on the scoresheet with a deflected free kick against Algeria in a 1-1 draw, though with two other group stage defeats they failed to advance.
Sadly, within ten years of his World Cup debut, Whiteside was forced to retire from football due to knee injuries that plagued the final years of his career whilst an Everton player at the age of 26. He ended his career with 39 caps for Northern Ireland, scoring nine goals.
2. Samuel Eto’o
(17 years, 98 days)
Cameroon vs. Italy – June 17 1998
The exact same day as Whiteside made his debut, but 16 years later, Samuel Eto’o made his World Cup bow in a 3-0 defeat for Cameroon against Italy to become one of the youngest players in World Cup history. This was far from the then-Real Madrid player’s maiden appearance for his country, having made his debut just the day before his 16th birthday the previous year but it would be the first of four World Cup finals that Eto’o appeared in.
Granted he would only appear for 24 minutes in 1998 but by 2002, with back-to-back Africa Cup of Nations titles under his belt as well as an Olympic gold medal, hopes were high that Eto’o could lead his side to a repeat of their quarter-final appearance in 1990. However, a solitary strike in a 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia would be as good as it got for Les Lions Indomptables, once again dumped out in the group stages, although they did surprise many by finishing runners-up in the 2003 Confederations Cup – Eto’o scoring the only goal in their shock 1-0 victory over Brazil after which he sealed a switch to Barcelona, where he would go on to taste UEFA Champions League success.
For a player who went on to become Cameroon’s all-time leading goal scorer (56), only two of them would come on the biggest stage of them all. He raised hopes of qualification into the knockout stages with the opener in a decisive match-up against Denmark in 2010, which they’d eventually go on to lose 2-1. Three more defeats in 2014 and Eto’o announced his retirement from international football finishing with 116 caps, the third most in Cameroon history after sealing a move to Premier League side Everton from Chelsea.
3. Femi Opabunmi
(17 years, 100 days)
Nigeria vs. England – June 12 2002
The 2002 tournament, overall, was a disappointment for Nigeria with two defeats to Argentina and Sweden eliminating them from contention. But the 0-0 draw in their final game against England saw Femi Opabunmi become the third-youngest player in World Cup history.
The winger had broken through the previous year thanks to some stellar performances at the under-17’s World Cup that included a hat-trick against Australia as he won the bronze ball as the third best player in the tournament.
It should have been the start of a promising career, with reported interest from the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Lyon, but sadly within the space of four years, Opabumi was forced to retire from all football due to an eye problem that eventually became glaucoma and left him blind in one eye.
4. Salomon Olembé
(17 years, 184 days)
Cameroon vs. Austria – June 11 1998
Six days before Eto’o made his bow, Salomon Olembé had become Cameroon’s youngest player in the FIFA World Cup finals (and then second-youngest overall) after breaking through in the national team the year before, making his debut at the old Wembley Stadium against England as a 16-year-old.
Olembé had continued to impress during his maiden senior campaign with Nantes in Ligue 1 with the midfielder underlining his blossoming reputation in his first AFCON bow just months before the 1998 World Cup – providing an assist in his tournament debut to Alphonse Tchami, the only goal in a victory over hosts Burkina Faso.
His 65th-minute substitute appearance against Austria was followed up by starts in Cameroon’s following two games but these would be the only World Cup finals appearances of his career, although he would eventually win 65 caps for his country and was part of the side that won back-to-back Africa Cup of Nations titles in 2000 and 2002. On the domestic front, he’s still fondly remembered as part of the Nantes side that won Ligue 1 in the 2000-2001 season, as well as their back-to-back Coupe de France successes.
(17 years, 234 days)
Brazil vs. USSR – June 15 1958
The original record setter and, in many ways, the player who still owns most of the youngest World Cup records in the men’s game. How different it could have been if Pelé had been able to shake off a knee injury that initially left him on the sidelines for the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. But having eased himself back into action against the USSR, even providing the assist to the second of Vavá’s goals in a 2-0 victory, the knockout stages were where the Brazilian really shone.
Starting off by becoming the youngest goalscorer in World Cup history with the only strike in their quarter-final victory over Wales, the Seleção’s 5-2 triumph over France in the semi-finals saw Pelé become the youngest scorer of a hat-trick in World Cup history. A similar scoreline followed in the final over hosts Sweden, Pelé having to settle for just a double on this occasion as he became the youngest player to feature and score in a World Cup final at the age of 17 years and 249 days old. The images of a 17-year-old boy crying on his team-mates’ shoulders following the triumph would soon circulate the globe as Brazil won their first ever World Cup, even if he wouldn’t be the tournament’s top scorer overall, thanks to Just Fontaine’s incredible 13 strikes.
For Pelé, this was just the beginning as he eventually featured in four World Cup finals, winning the Jules Rimet trophy on three occasions. Not content with banging the goals in (with his 12 leaving him fifth on the all-time list behind Miroslav Klose, Ronaldo, Gerd Müller and Just Fontaine) he holds the record for most assists at a single tournament – his six in the 1970 World Cup. Along with his four goals, he would be directly involved in 53% of Brazil’s goals in the 1970 showpiece.