We all have our football idols – the captains, the cult-heroes, the GOATS, the goalscorers, the never-say-die defenders, the names we choose for the back of our shirts.
And we’re not alone, the professionals had them, too.
We’ve all heard about Eden Hazard’s desire to be coached by Zinedine Zidane, Dennis Bergkamp controversially idolising Tottenham great Glenn Hoddle and Sergio Aguero ‘wanting to be Micheal Owen’ when he was young.
There’s even brilliant stories about Xavi’s love for Southampton icon Matt Le Tissier and his ‘outrageous, sickening goals’, and Dimitar Berbatov sleeping in Alan Shearer’s Newcastle shirt.
All of football’s great players were inspired by a past generation of stars, whether it be Maradona, Pele, Best and Cruyff, and these players, in turn, go on to become idols themselves.
But, what about this latest crop of football wonderkids?
Whose posters did Kylian Mbappe have plastered all over his bedroom wall, who did scoring sensation Erling Haaland pretend to be in his garden, and whose dreams have come true by actually playing alongside the men they idolised when they grew up?
Here, talkSPORT.com looks at the game’s top young players, aged 23 or below, and their childhood heroes…
Mason Greenwood: Rooney, Ronaldo, Van Persie
“Rooney is such a great goalscorer, that is what I want to be. He’s done most things on a football pitch and you have to have a role model.
On Ronaldo, he added: “Ronaldo was quite a while ago—but my dad used to show me clips of him. He used to play for all those great teams.”
Quite a while ago? These kids make you feel old, don’t they?
Greenwood’s style of play and particularly his finishing has seen the youngster compared to Robin van Persie during his breakout season, which has seen him net 13 goals for United.
On the comparisons to RVP, Greenwood added: “I like taking people on, doing skills. Obviously people think that I’m similar to Van Persie, so I want to be like him one day.”
Trent Alexander-Arnold: Gerrard, Lahm, Alves
The born-and-raised Liverpool lad may be one of the world’s best right-backs, but he actually started his young career as a central midfielder.
It’s only natural, then, that he looked up to Stevie G when he was coming through the Reds’ ranks.
“My idol was always Steven Gerrard when I was growing up, because he’s such a legend and a hero at Liverpool,” he told Soccer AM.
“He had the authority everybody respected, he had a lot of respect in the dressing room, and he knew that. He’d always take the young ones and be really caring with them and help them along the way. It’s always good to have his backing and support.”
But when he started to drop back into more defensive positions, he started to base his game on two of football’s modern greats.
“When I was a bit older looking at right-backs, I’d look at the likes of Philipp Lahm and Dani Alves.
“They were the world’s best and they were the two that I wanted to be on the same level as.”
Erling Haaland: Ibrahimovic, Solskjaer, Michu
It’s obvious the Norwegian would have grown up idolising two of Scandinavia’s greatest football exports.
But his third childhood idol was a bit of a curveball, though it shows he certainly had good taste.
“I had a lot of role models and I have seen many good players, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the biggest one for me,” the Norwegian ace said on Red Bull Salzburg’s website, before his move to Borussia Dortmund.
“How he became so good, the [path] he took, the way he plays. Also, he is Scandinavian, so someone has to take over from him.
“Ole also had a very big impact on my life,” Haaland said. “He taught me a lot. He was a great footballer, he won the Champions League, so he was a big player. He is one of the reasons why I am here today. He is a good person and a good coach.”
Haaland has also indicated he was a big fan of Spanish forward Michu with a number of social media posts about his electrifying spell at Swansea.
This began an exchange between the pair, which resulted in Michu sending the teenage star a signed shirt as a sign of respect.
And the former Swans striker was touched by the shout-out from one of the game’s biggest rising stars.
“It’s an honour. I think he [Haaland] is going to be a world-class player,” Michu said. “He’s a much better player than me!
“At Swansea I had one really good season… but the way he’s exploded into European football, I don’t remember anything like that – maybe [Kylian] Mbappe. He’s breaking every record and he’s only 19 years old. He has a great future.”
Kylian Mbappe: Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldo
Considering all of these players are aged 23 or under, let’s face it, a lot of them are going to have had CR7 posters on their wall as kids.
But for Mbappe, that’s absolutely true – his bedroom was plastered with Ronaldo’s image in every nook and cranny.
But the Portuguese ace wasn’t the only star he looked up to…
“Well, I’ve had phases,” said the World Cup winner.
“To start, as a child, it was [Zinedine] Zidane. If you’re a boy and you’re French, your idol is Zidane.
“After that, it was Cristiano [Ronaldo] and I’ve been lucky enough to face him. Then it was the Brazilian Ronaldo for the way he played.
“I want to leave that sort of a mark with my values, to leave a message in the history of football.”
Well, he’s definitely on his way.
Jadon Sancho: Ronaldinho, Drogba, Lampard
Born in London, the Borussia Dortmund star grew up a Chelsea fan whose Gods were, like many, Drogba and Lampard.
The England international has certainly showed his eye for a goal and vision for a pass, but he has another string to his bow – an attacking directness that was inspired by his third boyhood hero, Ronaldinho.
“Ronaldinho was the main guy I used to watch on YouTube,” he added in another interview.
“That was a big thing for me. I just liked how he used to carry his team and used to try things no one else would try. I liked him a lot.
“I’m a bit tricky, direct, confident obviously. I believe in myself in one-versus-one situations.
“But I liked Frank Lampard quite a lot and Didier Drogba when they were playing for Chelsea. They were the three players I looked up to.”
Frenkie de Jong: Lionel Messi
The young Dutchman said leaving Ajax for Barcelona was a dream come true, not only because he modelled his style of play on national hero Johan Cruyff’s Barca team, but also to get the chance to play alongside his boyhood idol…
“I am very happy to be here finally,” De Jong said after his Nou Camp arrival.
“As a child it was a dream for me to play at Barca, and now I’m here so it’s great. I’m really looking forward to setting foot on the Camp Nou pitch for the first time.
“I’m happy to be able to play with Messi, who I have always followed. Now my idol will be my teammate.
“I like Barca’s way of playing, the philosophy of Barca and Ajax are very similar, and I think I will enjoy it.
“Barca and Holland have always had a great, special connection, and I hope to follow in that tradition. I want to be one of the great Dutch players who have played at FC Barcelona.”
Matthijs de Ligt: Ramos, Pique and Italian legends
The 2018 Golden Ball winner seems to have a number of star players who have influenced his career.
While he has hailed follow Dutchman and international teammate Virgil van Dijk as one of the best centre-backs in the world, 2018 Golden Boy winner De Ligt has named two Spanish legends as his main football idols, with one in particular standing out as his no.1.
“I always look up to players who are my idols, and I can name three defenders who are very good,” said the young Netherlands international.
“Gerard Pique is a very good defender as well, and of course my compatriot Virgil van Dijk, but Sergio Ramos is my biggest idol.”
Speaking to Ajax TV while still at the Amsterdam club, the centre-back made clear his admiration for Italian football long before making his move to Juventus.
“I have been fascinated by the Italian way of defending from an early age,” said De Ligt.
“Many of my idols from the past are also Italians. Such as Maldini, Franco Baresi, Nesta, Cannavaro and Gaetano Scirea.
“When you talk about defenders, then you soon talk about those names. I actually fell in love with the Italian way of defending and I made a choice based on that.”
Phil Foden: David Silva
Back in 2017, then aged 17, the young midfielder said he was living the dream by being selected for Manchester City’s pre-season tour of the United States.
Not just because it was his first shot at first-team football, but also because he finally got the chance to train with his boyhood hero – David Silva.
“It’s my first time away with the team and I’m enjoying it, learning a lot,” said the England youngster.
“Training is faster and it has been great playing with Silva, he’s my idol really. I try and watch what he does and learn from him and try and do the same things.
“Hopefully I can break into the first team this season and get more game time.”
He’s still waiting for that regular place in Pep Guardiola’s squad, but if he keeps working hard he’s sure to get his chance – and he’s already shown he has the talent to cut the mustard.
Gabriel Martinelli: Ronaldo
For a young Brazilian player, there’s an embarrassment of legendary players to idolise.
But for a young striker rising through the ranks, and hailing from the same region of Brazil, there was no other choice – it had to be, and was only ever going to be the original and best Ronaldo.
“I would always dream of being Ronaldo – I loved him,” Martinelli told the Arsenal website shortly after his arrival from Ituano.
“His nickname says it all: The Phenomenon. He was my biggest idol when I was growing up, well, him and my dad. My dad always told me he was an amazing footballer, too.
“But when I saw him playing, I wasn’t too sure about that! That’s OK, though, because he’s still my inspiration anyway.”
Aaron Wan-Bissaka: Thierry Henry
This may come as a surprise to a few Manchester United fans, but – even though he was from London – his idols were not Eric Cantona, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney or Ryan Giggs.
Growing up in Croydon, his family were all big Arsenal supporters and there was one player the young Wan Bissaka dreamed of emulating – Thierry Henry.
After joining the academy of Crystal Palace, he even tried to emulate his Gunners hero on the pitch by playing further forward, before the Eagles needed a new right-back and moved him.
That didn’t stop him from dreaming of putting the ball in the back of the net, though.
“Growing up I looked up to Thierry Henry,” he told Joe.co.uk.
“I just like goals, I liked the way he scored goals. I always pictured myself scoring goals when I was younger.
“I trained there [at right-back] a few times because Palace needed players in that position, that’s when they noticed how good I am at tackling and defending.”
Joao Felix: Kaka
The latest recipient of the Golden Boy award. As a promising young forward fro Portugal, surely it’s obvious who he grew up idolising?
Wrong – his favourite ever player is actually Brazilian ace Kaka.
The similarities between them are clear, not only in their looks, but in their attacking playing style on the pitch.
Felix has spoken of watching video after video of Kaka on YouTube throughout his youth, and he even got to me his hero in the flesh last year!
At just 20 years old, the young Portuguese is one of the highest-valued players in the world and after a promising start to his career in Spain with Atletico Madrid, he is well on his way to following in his idol’s footsteps.
A future Ballon d’Or, perhaps?
The 20-year-old has also named Portugal legend Rui Costa among his other inspirations while growing up.
Vinicius Junior: Neymar and Ronaldinho
The Real Madrid starlet has said he looks up to Brazilian heroes Neymar and Ronaldinho and even tries to imitate his ‘greatest idols’ on the pitch – which is certainly easier said than done.
He apparently has a helping hand, though – Neymar actually sends him videos of skills to try and perfect on the training field!
How’s that for encouragement.
“Neymar is my idol and I try to imitate many things that he does on the pitch,” he said in an interview with Fox News.
“He always sends me videos of his plays and he says: ‘do the same, youngster’. He does things like nobody else on the pitch.”
Talking about Ronaldinho, Vinicius said: “He is another player that I like and I watch his videos to learn. Neymar and Ronaldinho are two of my greatest idols.”
Vinicius has even urged Neymar to put his Barcelona ties to one side and join him at the Bernabeu… if it’s the will of God.
In an interview with The Guardian, he said: “If God wants, Neymar and I will play together at Real Madrid.
“I would definitely be in favour of him moving to Madrid because it would be my big dream to play in the same side as Neymar. He is my idol in football. If had a chance to play with him, I would feel very happy.”
Kai Havertz: Mesut Ozil
The Bayer Leverkusen midfielder has been hailed as the ‘next Michael Ballack’ throughout his rise in the Bundesliga, and has even been linked to follow the Germany legend to the Premier League, with Liverpool among his suitors.
But there’s another Die Mannschaft star he actually bases his game on.
“It’s safe to say that I copied a lot from Mesut Ozil,” Havertz told Sport1.
“I just like how he plays. He has done a lot for German football. That’s why you can say that he has been a bit of a role model for me.”
He even stuck up for his boyhood hero towards the end of Ozil’s international career, which saw him quit the Germany team after their disastrous World Cup in Russia.
“To doubt his footballing qualities is incomprehensible to me,” said the youngster.
“He has always been a player whom I love to watch and whose path I follow. Mesut Ozil is a really great player, who has done a lot for the national team and also his clubs.”
Havertz also spoke about some of the players he loved growing up. Moreover, the Germany international revealed about his favourite player among the golden Spanish generation.
“There are many players that inspired me like Kaka, Zidane, Ronaldinho. They’ve always been my idols,” he said.
“Between the Spanish players, my favourite is Andres Iniesta. He’s outstanding on the ball. Unique. I like him the most.”
Luka Jovic: Radamel Falcao
Given the Serbian ace is a threat with either foot and is also a beast in the air, the fact he looked up to Colombian great Falcao is no great surprise.
While his opportunities have been limited since joining Real Madrid last summer, Jovic’s incredible scoring record at Eintracht Frankfurt showed there’s plenty more to come from the 22-year-old.
His form in that 2018/19 season, which saw him bag 27 goals and seven assists in 48 games, led to comparisons with El Tigre and his predatory instincts in the box.
And speaking about his boyhood heroes, he has said: “I think everybody watches Ronaldo and Messi, but my idol is Falcao.
“I like Radamel Falcao the most. Playing with the left, right, head. Every chance he takes, he’s fantastic.
“I think we play similarly. I hope to achieve as much as he has one day. I’d love to be at least like him.”
Sandro Tonali: Gennaro Gattuso
It’s no surprise Manchester United have been linked with an interest in the 19-year-old midfielder, who has been tipped as the ‘next Andrea Pirlo’.
Like Tonali, the World Cup-winning legend also began his career at Brescia, but the youngster has played down the constant comparisons with the classy playmaker.
Instead, he believes he is more like Pirlo’s best mate, midfield enforcer Gennaro Gattuso.
“Being compared to Pirlo doesn’t bother me, but I think we’re very different because he had indescribable technique and quality,” said Tonali.
“I consider myself to be like Gattuso, but more technical. He’s always been my role model.”