Whilst it is the dream of every schoolboy to play for their country at a World Cup, for a select group they got their chance before they were legally able to vote and drink. Here are the youngest players to have appeared at World Cup finals.
Norman Whiteside (Northern Ireland)
Norman Whiteside had made just a handful of appearances for his club side Manchester United before he was called up by Northern Ireland for their squad for the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
And, when he appeared against Yugoslavia in their group match, he became the youngest player ever to appear in the World Cup finals at the age of 17 years and 40 days old. He set another record in that game by becoming also the youngest player to get a yellow card in the World Cup finals.
Four years later the Northern Irish and Whiteside returned in Mexico 86, where he would get on the scoresheet against Algeria.
However, it was not the start of better things for Whiteside who was forced to retire from the game at the age of just 26 due to persistent knee injuries.
Samuel Eto’o (Cameroon)
By comparison Samuel Eto’o enjoyed a long and glorious career with the likes of Barcelona and Inter Milan and he remains the all-time top goalscorer for his country Cameroon, with whom he earned 118 caps.
He was first capped by them one day short of his 16th birthday, and, by the time of the 1998 World Cup, which was held in France that year, he was a regular in the squad.
His World Cup debut was not an auspicious one – he was part of a side that lost 3 – 0 to Italy. But at the age of 17 years and 98 days old, he had come close to matching Whiteside’s record.
Although he would play in four World Cups in total, Eto’o would only find the net twice in all those matches, a surprisingly low return for such a fine striker.
Femi Opabunmi (Nigeria)
Although some of the players on this list would enjoy successful international careers, the same cannot be said of Nigerian Femi Opabunmi.
The winger had broken through the previous year due to the quality of his performances in the under-17 World Cup, and that was enough to earn him senior recognition and a place in their 2002 World Cup squad.
He only appeared in their third group game, a disappointing goalless draw with England, but at the age of 17 years and 100 days, had become the third youngest player in the history of the competition.
Sadly for him, that proved to be the high point of his playing career. Within four years he was forced to retire from the game with a serious eye problem that became glaucoma, and he lost sight in one eye.
Salomon Olembé (Cameroon)
Days before Cameroon gave Eto’o his debut, Cameroon had already shown their willingness to give youth a chance at the 1998 World Cup by bringing on midfielder Salomon Olembé as a substitute against Austria in their first group match. He was just 17 years and 184 days old at the time.
He would then start in their next two matches in the tournament.
Although he would eventually win 64 caps for Cameroon, that was the only time he played for them in the World Cup finals. However, he was part of the team that won back to back African Cup of Nations titles.
Pelé had become Brazil’s youngest ever goalscorer as 16 year old in 1957, but, although he was part of their squad for the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, he was initially sidelined with a knee injury.
He finally made his World Cup debut against the USSR at the age of 17 years, 234 days, providing an assist, before catching fire in the knock-out stages. He scored the only goal in their quarter-final win over Wales, and then became the youngest World Cup hat-trick scorer in their semi-final defeat of France.
Against the hosts the final he became the youngest player to both feature and score (he found the net twice) in a World Cup final. He would feature in four World Cup finals in all and finished his career with three winners’ medals, and he is regarded by many as the finest player in the history of the game.
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