Four years before the first of his eight Ballon d’Or wins, Lionel Messi was one of the first recipients of the Golden Boy award, which recognises the best Under-21 player in Europe.
Messi’s future teammate at Paris Saint-Germain, Kylian Mbappe, also took the award in 2017, while the two most recent winners — Gavi last year, and Pedri in 2021 — have made Barcelona the joint-most successful club in Golden Boy history.
Jude Bellingham’s win in 2023 means an equal number of midfielders and forwards have triumphed. The Real Madrid midfielder came out on top of the vote for this past year, having won widespread acclaim for his performances in La Liga and for England.
With journalists across the continent voting for a prize for which any young player in the top 25 leagues in Europe may be eligible, it’s an estimable award that recognises the best and brightest emerging talent in the game.
The Sporting News takes a look at a few other statistics around the award, including a full list of previous winners.
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Gavi, who was only longlisted this time, followed in the footsteps of an illustrious lineup including Messi, Sergio Aguero, Mbappe and Haaland.
Here’s the full list.
Gavi and Pedri’s victories put Spain on four wins as the country with the most players to have won the award.
France and England are the next-nearest, with Les Bleus’ three wins coming across five years courtesy of Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Kylian Mbappe.
Bellingham, Raheem Sterling and Wayne Rooney are the English players to have won the award.
Manchester United and Barcelona have three winners each, although Barca could make a case for having the edge on the Premier League side.
Two of the players to have won while playing for United spent part of the time the award covered representing other clubs: Wayne Rooney had joined the Red Devils from Everton in 2004, and Anthony Martial had arrived from Monaco in 2015.
Borussia Dortmund matched that tally because Bellingham played for them before joining Real Madrid, who have their first winner in their new signing.
Wins for Joao Felix (2019) and Erling Haaland (2020) put forwards three clear in the running, but Pedri, Gavi and Bellingham have levelled the scores for midfielders.
Matthijs de Ligt is the only defender to have prevailed, in 2018, and no goalkeeper has ever done so.
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In order to qualify for the Golden Boy award, players must play for a team in a top division in one of the top 25 leagues in Europe based on UEFA coefficient rankings as of May 2023 (such as the English Premier League).
To win in 2023, they must also have been born on January 1, 2003, or later (in other words, they need to be under 21 years of age this year).
The award is then voted for by journalists across Europe. These votes are worth a certain number of points, rather like the Ballon d’Or: 10 points to a journalist’s first choice, seven for their second, five for their third, three for their fourth, and one for their fifth. Those points are then tallied to determine the final rankings, and the winner.
To help the journalists make their selection, 2023 saw the implementation of the ‘Golden Boy Index’. This is a data- and analytics-driven tool, powered by Football Benchmark, that those casting their votes can use to assess who has been the best Under-21 player this year. This system takes into account sporting performance, amount of playing time, and the strength of the team for which the player plays. Performances for national sides and in UEFA competitions are used for a ‘bonus metric’. The ranking is based on games played between the start of the 2022 World Cup (which began on November 22 last year) and October 2, 2023.
There is a separate ‘Golden Boy Web’ award in 2023, which is voted for by members of the public. Bellingham was comfortably top of that poll.