The best breakout wonderkids in Euros history from Wayne Rooney to Pedri

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Five youngsters who have burst on to the scene at the Euros in the last 20 years

The phrase ‘bursting onto the scene’ is used to describe a person who arrives in a certain place without much prior warning, or someone who becomes very well known, very quickly, within a short space of time.

In the world of sport that can be used to describe many people. including darts sensation Luke Littler, golfer Tiger Woods in 1996, former England captain David Beckham after that chip against Wimbledon, and even Sky Sports pundit Micah Richards who in his words ‘burst onto the scene’ when he replaced Danny Mills as a substitute for Manchester City 2005.

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There are many ways to achieve the feat, but it typically happens when performing on the big stage, and there are few bigger stages in international football than the European Championships.

With that in mind we take a look back at some of the greatest young stars from Euros history and how they fared after their incredible rise to prominence.

Pedri - Euro 2020

Spain star Pedri is the most recent recipient of the European Championship Young Player of the Tournament award, but he probably wouldn’t have even played in the competition at all that summer if it wasn’t for the Covid-19 pandemic.

Pedri is a product of the Las Palmas academy and he made his first team debut in August 2019 when he was just 16-years-old. The teenager became the team’s youngest ever goalscorer that same season and was the standout talent in a team that finished ninth in the second division of Spanish football.

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The youngster arrived at Barcelona for around £5m in the summer of 2020 and made a strong impression in his debut season as he helped the club to Copa Del Rey glory. Overall, he made 52 appearances in his first season - the most of any Barcelona player, and while he wasn’t really an unknown quantity in Spain ahead of the Euros, it was fair to say that most in Europe were not yet aware of the prospect that the Spanish national team had on their hands.

Pedri proved to be his side’s standout player at the delayed Euros tournament as he played in all but one minute of his side's six games as they reached the semi-final. Due to his slight fame, composure on the ball, and elegance in the mezzala role, he has been compared to the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Michael Laudrup.

Still only 21-years-old, he has since lifted a La Liga title and a Supercopa de Espana - whilst racking up 18 caps for Spain. He is expected to once again be a standout player at Euro 2024 this summer.

Renato Sanches - Euro 2016

Portuguese midfielder Renato Sanches was the first ever recipient of the European Championship Young Player of the Tournament award and he was certainly a worthy winner for his performances at Euro 2016.

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Like many Portuguese greats like Eusebio and Bernardo Silva, Sanches is a product of the Benfica academy. He had only made his first team debut in November 2015, but his 24 appearances in the capital were enough to convince Fernando Santos to include him in what was at the time a much unfancied Portugal for Euro 2016.

Sanches’ call-up made him Portugal’s youngest player at a major tournament since Cristiano Ronaldo 12 years earlier. The 18-year-old was gradually introduced to the Portugal team and appeared as a substitute in two of the team’s three draws at group stage level.

The teenager appeared as a substitute once again in the round-of-16 against Croatia and won man of the match as his side triumphed in extra time. Sanches fired in the goal of the tournament in the quarter-final against Poland in a 1-1 draw and smashed home a penalty to send his side to the semi-final.

He remained an integral player throughout the latter stages of the tournament as his team lifted their first major championship, but has since struggled to reach the same heights.

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Sanches lifted silverware as a utility player for both Bayern Munich and PSG, suffered a relegation on loan at Swansea City in 2018, and has been largely plagued by injuries barring a fairly fruitful spell with Lille. You may also remember him for a viral clip where he accidentally passed the ball to an advertising board logo, during the aforementioned grim loan spell with Swansea.

The PSG midfielder has made 10 appearances in all competitions on loan at AS Roma this season and is yet to win a cap under new boss Roberto Martinez.

Mario Balotelli - Euro 2012

Former Manchester City forward Mario Balotelli, otherwise known as ‘Super Mario’, earned his nickname after the Italian video game character ‘Mario’ from the iconic Nintendo series.

Like a typical race on rainbow road, Balotelli’s career has been full of highs and lows and he has certainly experienced his fair share of bombs and red shells, along the way, not least the fireworks that he set off in his own bathroom on the eve of a Manchester derby.

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Heading into Euro 2012, Balotelli was already a well known name due to his antics off the pitch - while on it he had already lifted three Serie A titles, a Champions League, a Premier League and an FA Cup.

But at 21-years of age, he hadn’t really established himself as a key figure for his country having only scored one solitary goal in a friendly before the tournament. 

However, at Euro 2012, Balotelli proved to be a man on the mission. He scored a crucial goal in the group stage against Republic of Ireland to secure his side’s passage to the knockout stage and became a key figure in his side’s unlikely journey to the Euro 2012 final.

He scored the first penalty in Italy’s shoot-out triumph over England in the quarter-finals, before producing one of the performances of the tournament by scoring two great goals against Germany in the semi-finals. The second strike in particular proved to be one of the goals of the tournament as he beat the opposition's offside trap, outpaced Phillip Lahm and unleashed an unstoppable strike into the top corner.

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With three goals, Balotelli was the joint golden-boot winner of the tournament and while his side were humbled in the final against Spain, the youngster would have a shoo in for young player of the tournament, if the award existed at that time.

Since the Euros 12-years ago, Balotelli has not been able to consistently reach the heights displayed at that tournament though he has shown signs of his quality at times for AC Milan, Nice and Adana Demirspor.

Euro 2008 - Luka Modric

Nearly 16 years have passed since Luka Modric’s first European Championship for Croatia, yet he still remains his country’s most important player heading into Euro 2024. Modric was actually taking part in his second tournament in Euro 2008, having appeared sporadically at the 2006 World Cup as a teenager.

The Dinamo Zagreb stars' performances in qualifying, not least against England in Euro 2008 qualifying, had earned him plaudits, but few knew just how good he was going to be.

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The youngster was highly coveted by Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan at the time though he claims the club ‘hilariously’ blocked his attempts to sign him. Instead, Modric was Spurs-bound before the tournament started and it was fair to say that the excitement around the deal escalated greatly after seeing him in action.

Modric’s performances at the tournament led to him being dubbed the ‘Croatian Cryuff’ and he notably helped the team finish top of featuring finalists Germany, Austria and Poland.

Croatia’s Euro dream may have ended in heartbreak with Modric missing a penalty against Turkey in the quarter-final shoot-out, but Modric’s performances earned him huge hype that he has since gone on to live up to in his incredible 174 caps at international level.

Modric is widely regarded as one of the best midfielders of the 21st century and since leaving Tottenham for Real Madrid in 2012, he has lifted an incredible five Champions Leagues, three La Liga titles, two Copa Del Reys, won a Ballon d’Or and led his country to their first ever World Cup final.

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Wayne Rooney - Euro 2004

Few players can fit the definition of bursting onto the scene better than a teenage Wayne Rooney. The Everton academy graduate made a name for himself when he scored his first Premier League goal just five days before his 17th birthday against Arsenal - earning plaudits from opposition manager Arsene Wenger who lauded him as the biggest England talent he’d seen since arriving in the country.

Rooney was a raw talent at Everton, praised for his aggression, pace, determination and immense physicality for a teenager. He was a nightmare for defenders to contain and shone instantly on the international stage with four goals in the run-up to Euro 2004.

Most in England were aware of the hype surrounding Rooney, but many were unsure whether a kid who had just turned 18 would be able to produce the goods against team such as France who contained serial-winners such as Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Lilian Thuram.

Thuram himself commented at the time: "I doubt how much Rooney can give to the England team. He is very young - too young for such a hard competition like this. He lacks international experience, so for England to depend on him to score their goals is dangerous.”

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Minutes into the match, a riled up Rooney claims he whacked Thuram and said: “Now you know who I am.”

Rooney was England’s star man against the French and then became the nation’s youngest goalscorer in the next game with a double against Switzerland, another double followed in a 4-2 win against Croatia, but the youngsters tournament came to a close when he suffered an injury against hosts Portugal in the quarter-finals. England, in typical fashion, would lose the game on penalties, while Rooney, at least in a major tournament, would never hit the same heights for the Three Lions - scoring just three more times in the four tournaments he played in and being part of a team which failed to reach Euro 2008.

However, at club level, he remains one of Manchester United’s greatest ever players - lifting five league titles, one FA Cup, three League Cups, one Champions League and one Europa League. He is the Red Devil’s all-time leading goalscorer and the third highest in Premier League history.

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