Argentina's Lionel Messi, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and the Spaniard Cesc Fabregas are all extravagantly gifted performers who were let loose on the world stage at a tender age, and Brazil's latest wonder kid, 18-year-old Alexandre Pato, has recently followed in their footsteps. However, the generation now in the process of seizing power is composed more of players who have opted to patiently earn their spurs at their breakthrough clubs before assuming a more high-profile role both for club and country.
We are thus seeing the emergence of an ambitious new wave of players who slowly but surely are occupying berths once the reserve of established figures in the game. Among those players now looking over their shoulders are Raul, David Beckham and David Trezeguet, who are no longer automatic choice for their national team coaches.
Real team players, often unsung or with lower media profiles than the stars of their teams, the Italian Marco Amelia, Germany's Per Mertesacker, the Englishman David Bentley and the latest Swiss find Eren Derdiyok are all examples of these new key pieces in the jigsaws being put together by Europe's national team coaches. Others such as Johnny Heitinga, successfully converted to central defender, and the French strike pair of Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa, have already transcended surprise status to establish themselves at the top level.
Marco Amelia may have already turned 25, but that tends to be when goalkeepers come of age. Awarded a sixth cap against Portugal, he carried out his duties as stand-in for Gianluigi Bouffon with calmness and efficiency, quickly reassuring his defence. A FIFA World Cup™ winner in Germany despite not playing a single match, the Livorno keeper also won a UEFA European U-21 Championship medal in 2004 and became the first Italian goalkeeper to score a goal in European competition when he netted against Partizan Belgrade in 2006. The interest of Fiorentina and Milan in this reliable shot-stopper (1.88m) is a further indication of a bright future.
Mertesacker already indispensable
At just 23, Per Mertesacker already has the air of a veteran about him, whether with Werder Bremen or the German national team. His impressive physique (1.96m and 85kg) is often enough to deter opponents, with the result that he rarely needs to foul (6 yellow cards in 116 Bundesliga matches). And logically enough, Mertesacker is also extremely formidable in the air.
Christened 'the new Beckham' by England's previous coach Steve McClaren, 23-year-old David Bentley is a highly attack-minded midfielder who graduated from the Arsenal academy after joining the Gunners as a 13-year-old. Having finally blossomed at Blackburn Rovers, Bentley's finest hour with his club to date has been a hat-trick against Manchester United in 2006. Before making his debut for the senior side on 8 September 2007 against Israel, the wide man had represented his country at every level and, in March of the same year, became the first English player to score at the new Wembley during an U-21 friendly against Italy.
Nineteen-year-old Eren Derdiyok, meanwhile, has just marked his debut for Switzerland by scoring in a 2-1 defeat by England and giving a display that makes him a serious candidate for a place at UEFA EURO 2008. Despite only having appeared six times for Basle in the Swiss Super League, this young striker had already shone at U-21 level during the European Championship qualifiers, finding the target six times in four matches in Group 5.
Successful transformation for Heitinga
The 24-year-old Dutchman John Gijsbert Alan Heitinga can no longer be classed as a young player, but he is proving a revelation in his new central defensive berth, both for Ajax and for the Netherlands after having performed unremarkably as both a right and left wing-back. His goal against Croatia confirms the new role he is playing in Marco van Basten's side.
French strikers Karim Benzema and Haten ben Harfa, both aged 20, are the latest diamonds unearthed by the French national team as they seek to renew their ranks. With 24 goals to his name so far this season in all competitions, Benzema has gone a long way towards filling the void left by Zinedine Zidane, while his on-field understanding with Ben Harfa, who favours a deeper position, is presenting the French coach with a pleasant selection dilemma due to an abundance of top-class attackers.
Finally, hot on the heels of these established 'youngsters', other hopefuls are already starting to push hard for a piece of the EURO action, not least the Barcelona prodigy Bojan Krkic, who on Wednesday became the youngest player ever called up by Spain, at 17 years and 5 months.