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The next Iniesta, Ronaldo and Eusebio: The best young talents in Iberia

The Iberian Peninsula has been the birth place of some of football’s biggest names. These are the next to follow their steps.

The Spanish national team dominated world football throughout the latter part of the 2000s. They became the first country from Iberia to win three consecutive major titles and claimed their first World Cup in the process. The decade saw Spain introduce players like Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Iker Casillas, Cesc Fabregas, and Fernando Torres.

The Spanish can also count legendary names such as Alfredo Di Stefano, Fernando Hierro, and Paco Gento amongst those to have pulled on the national jersey. 

In recent years Portugal have also enjoyed their fair share of success. Spearheaded by Cristiano Ronaldo, A Seleção defeated host nation France in the final of Euro 2016 to claim their first title.

Three years later the Portuguese also won the inaugural edition of the UEFA Nations League.

As well as Ronaldo, the Portuguese also boast an impressive historic roster including Eusebio, Luis Figo, and Fernando Peyroteyo. 

The next batch of young starlets from across Iberia are ready to chase the achievements of their compatriots. They have already started to break through.

Here we look at five of the most promising:

Joelson Fernandes

Current Club: Sporting CP

Age: 17

Position: Forward

Strengths: Pace, Technique, Dynamism

Weaknesses: Aerial Ability

FTF Rating: 9/10

Born in Guinea-Bissau in 2003, Joelson Fernandes is the latest from Iberia in a long line of prestige wingers to graduate the Sporting CP academy. 

Fernandes was destined for football. His father, Eusebio Mango, played in the youth setups of Sporting and Porto as a child. He went onto craft a career in Portugal’s lower divisions. 

Joelson however, began his footballing journey with local club Academia Valusa do Bairro Militar in the suburbs of Bissau. 

At age 11, Fernandes made the move to Portugal. and did not take long to attract the attention of Sporting’s scouts. The next two years were spent commuting 250km from Aveiro to Lisbon to turn out for the Leões’ developmental squads before moving to the capital permanently to sign full time. 

After further honing his craft, Fernandes has earned call ups to represent Portugal at under-15,16, 17, and 21 levels. 

The winger spent last season representing Sporting’s u23 side and making occasional appearances in first team training before the COVID-19 crisis brought football to a halt. After the Primeira Liga restart, manager Rúben Amorim handed Fernandes his debut. Thus making him the club’s third youngest debutant. 

Pace and trickery are Fernandes’ strengths

Joelson Fernandes’ pace and trickery make him a nightmare for opposition defenders. Which is proven by his five goals and two assists in 28 outings in Portugal’s reserve league. 

Should his development continue, Fernandes is well on course to receive a first senior national call up. 

It is rumoured clubs such as Barcelona and RB Leipzig are keeping tabs on the youngster. Arsenal came the closest to making an attempt to acquire his services this past summer. With his current contract running until 2023, it is likely Joelson will remain at the José Alvalade Stadium for the time being as he looks to cement his place in Amorim’s starting XI.

Romário Baró

Current Club: FC Porto

Age: 20

Position: Midfielder

Strengths: Passing

Weaknesses: Finishing, Crossing

FTF Rating: 8/10

Romário Baró is another Iberia starlet originating from the capital of Guinea-Bissau who made the switch to Portugal.

Baró arrived on the peninsula aged 11 and began to craft a name for himself with União Atlético Povoense. After a single season, the midfielder joined Sporting CP’s youth ranks for two years before heading north to FC Porto’s academy. 

Baró appeared for Porto at various age levels until making his professional debut for the B team during the 2017/18 season. During the season, he aided the team to victory in the Premier League International Cup, and scored one goal in 10 appearances in the Liga Pro. At this point, the youngster had already represented Portugal across the U15s, 16s and 17s. He would further go on to earn caps in every group up to U21 level. 

The following season Baró tasted further success, scoring six goals in 10 games as Porto triumphed in the 2018-19 UEFA Youth league. He did all of that whilst continuing to gain experience in the second tier with the reserves. 

Ahead of the 2019-20 season Baró inherited the first team number eight shirt following the departure of Yacine Brahimi. He made his debut against FC Krasnodar in the UEFA Champions League. Since then, he’s been used as a squad player by Sérgio Conceição and made sporadic league appearances, impressing when given the chance. 

Baró’s abilities make him an all-round midfield threat

Baró is a powerful creative midfielder who’s vision and positioning are bound to amass him countless assists throughout his career. He offers an impressive arsenal of passing capability which allows him to play a great variety of passes. Pinpoint long balls as well as rapid, technical short passes in and around opposition lines. 

Baró is under contract with Porto until 2023 with a deal that includes a €40 million release clause. Real Madrid have been heavily rumored to be weighing up a move for the playmaking prodigy. However, the huge fee that would be required to bring him to the Bernabéu at such an early stage in his career is likely to deter them, for now. 

There is no doubt that Baró is equipped with all the tools to carve out an illustrious trophy laden career. His tremendous potential makes him possibly one of the most exciting players on this list. 

Diogo Leite

Current Club: FC Porto

Age: 21

Position: Defender

Strengths: Aerial Ability, Positional Awareness

Weaknesses: Discipline, Tackling

FTF Rating: 9/10

Diogo Leite is another great talent from Iberia and a lifelong Porto fan. He was born in the city, and came up through the youth ranks. He now proudly wears the club’s number four shirt. 

Leite first joined the club at age nine, and has since played with every age group (often well above his own) right up to the senior setup. Apart from time spent on a youth loan to Padroense. The Iberia native has also similarly represented Portugal since the age of 15 and featured for the U21s at just 19. He was later selected in the squad for the 2019 UEFA U21 European Championship play-off round.

Leite’s professional debut came in 2017 when he turned out for Porto’s reserve team in a Portuguese second division contest with C.D Santa Clara; playing the full 90 minutes. 

Injury crisis allows Leite to emerge

Almost a year later, during which the centre-half continued to represent Porto B, first team manager Sérgio Conceição was forced to promote Leite to senior duties due to an injury crisis. Leite partnered Felipe in a 3-1 win over Aves in the Portuguese super cup to claim his first piece of silverware. 

Leite continued to fill in at the back for the opening three games of the 2018-19 Primeira Liga season. He scored his first goal for the club on matchday two. His efforts secured him the individual accolade of the league’s defender of the month award. Leite then returned to the reserves in order to gain further experience as first-choice players returned to full fitness. 

The Porto native has since returned to first team action, often being deployed from the bench. His involvement to date has been enough to qualify him for medals as a part of Porto’s winning Primeira Liga and Taça de Portugal squads last season. 

Great defensive awareness and aerial strength part of Leite’s skillset

The 6ft 3in, left footed defender possesses immense aerial ability – proving to be a huge threat from set piece play. Leite’s positional awareness is extraordinary and allows him to intercept and block opposition moves. Thus making up for his sometimes slightly less fine-tuned tackling. 

Leite is a hugely talented footballer who’s ability is already attracting the attention of Europe’s elite, with FC Barcelona reportedly making contact over a loan deal in previous months.

The 21-year-old is the oldest player on this list but has enough potential to become a world beating defender. Perhaps, even emulate the career of a man who once owned his squad number at Porto, in Ricardo Carvalho. 

Ander Barrenetxea

Current Club: Real Sociedad

Age: 18

Position: Forward

Strengths: Dribbling, Finishing

Weaknesses: Aerial Ability, Crossing, Passing

FTF Rating: 9/10

Ander Barrenetxea is another on this list who represents his hometown club. Born in San Sebastián in 2001, the winger first appeared on Real Sociedad’s books in 2013 after departing local amateur club Antiguoko. 

Barrenetxea has progressed all the way through Real Sociedad’s youth ranks albeit not via the conventional path. After playing in the Basque club’s C team in the amateur fourth tier of Spanish football, Barrenetxea began training with the senior squad during the 2018-19 season. He went on to sign a new contract lasting until 2025.

Just days later, the teenager made his professional La Liga debut as a late substitute in a 1-0 defeat to Deportivo Alaves. This unexpected appearance happened to not only mark Barrenetxea as the first player born in the 21st century to feature in Spain’s top flight, but also as the youngest Real Sociedad player since the end of the Spanish Civil War.

Barrenetxea a history maker in Spain

He also became the first youth product from the club to feature for the senior squad, straight from the C team, skipping the B side, since Antoine Griezmann nine years prior. Only two days after stepping out on to the turf of the Anoeta for the first time, Barrenetxea returned to the C team. 

The youngster would go on to earn promotion to the B team. Consequently returning to senior football on a permanent basis in 2019. He scored his first professional goal against Real Madrid CF in a 3-1 victory. 

Barrenetxea was a part of Spain’s winning 2019 UEFA European U19 Championship squad. He has featured for his country at U18,19 and 21 level. He has also represented the Basque Country autonomous region’s non-FIFA affiliated national side. 

This season it has become apparent the wide-man is a key part of manager Imanol Alguacil’s plans. Therefore, Barranetxea has featured in all of Txuri-urdinak’s opening five games. 

Ander Barranetxea is a gifted winger/forward with impressive dribbling skills and a good eye for goal. His nailing down of a starting spot for his boyhood club at just 18 signifies the quality he possesses. Prying Barrenetxea away from Real Sociedad may prove to be difficult, but there is no doubt he is a player that looks set to be capable of fitting in amongst Europe’s elite.

Pedri

Current Club: FC Barcelona

Age: 17

Position: Midfielder

Strengths: Creativity, Passing, Flair

Weaknesses: Finishing, Physicality 

FTF Rating: 9/10

Pedri is the only player on this list who, although has always played within Spanish football, has not always plied his trade on the Iberian Peninsula. 

Heralding from the town of Tegueste, on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, Pedro González López started his footballing education with his local hometown team of the same name. Later, after a brief spell in the youth team of Juventud Laguna, Pedri signed for Canarian club Las Palmas. 

Pedri excelled in the academy set up and was quickly deployed amongst the first team. In the 2019/20 season he nailed down a starting spot and was Las Palmas’ most used player. Going on to net four goals and supply six assists in 34 Segunda División A appearances. He also becoming the club’s youngest ever goal scorer. 

In late 2019, FC Barcelona agreed to sign Pedri at the end of the season for €5 million. 

Pedri making positive impressions in the first-team

The 17-year-old has made three substitute league appearances for Barcelona this term, which is testament to his quality.

The new manager Ronald Koeman has already forced out high-profile, long-serving members of the squad since arriving. Including the likes of Luis Suarez and Arturo Vidal, due to them being surplus to requirements.

Pedri’s presence in the squad at such a young age suggests he could evolve into a key player at the Nou Camp. With potential mentors such as Lionel Messi around him, the future certainly looks bright. 

Pedri’s technical prowess, and ability to play as a central midfielder or wide-man on both sides, has earned him the moniker of ‘the next Iniesta’. 

Pedri consistently looks to drive forward with the ball at his feet and thread pinpoint passes through opposition back-lines when possible, if not, he is more than confident to go it alone and create some magic of his own. 

Having just completed the transfer of a lifetime, Pedri looks to be a valued asset in Barcelona’s rebuilding phase, and has all the makings of an essential piece in the puzzle that Koeman must crack.  

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