Pitchside Europe

Future bright as young stars shine

On a weekend in which Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored again, for the 20th time in Ligue 1 this season, and Joey Barton was sent off, you could be forgiven for thinking nothing particularly surprising happened in France's top flight. But Saturday most definitely was a remarkable day for two young men.

Few people had even heard of such obscure names as Divock Origi and Axel Ngando, but French football fans know who they are now after both announced themselves on the scene with crucial goals for their respective clubs. Amid all the talk of David Beckham arriving in the country, here are two players young enough to be the offspring of Golden Balls himself.

Winger Origi is the latest player to break through at Lille, where coach Rudi Garcia is accelerating the rebuilding process after seeing so many established stars depart recently. The Belgian of Kenyan descent came on for his debut against Troyes at the age of 17 years and nine months, and six minutes later he converted a Dimitri Payet cross to earn his team a 1-1 draw against struggling Troyes.

Origi's father Mike was a footballer too, and won the Belgian title with Genk during his career - frighteningly, that was as recently as 1999.

"We've seen in training what he is capable of," Lille's Idrissa Gueye said of Origi junior. "He is good in the air, quick, and has a future in the game."

Lille fans can only hope that Origi, who has been called up to the Belgian Under-19 squad, can go on to enjoy the kind of career that his compatriot Eden Hazard forged at the club before joining Chelsea last summer.

But Origi's feat was outdone by that of Ngando earlier in the day. Rennes were trailing 2-1 in the Brittany derby at Lorient when Ngando was thrust into the action in the final minute to replace new France call-up Romain Alessandrini.

Twenty seconds later, Ngando appeared inside the penalty box to stab home a loose ball with his first touch in Ligue 1. The goal earned Rennes a point that keeps them above Lorient in the table, with both clubs chasing European qualification.

"When I came on, I told myself that I had nothing to lose," said Ngando, who is 19 but hardly looks it. "I just wanted to show up well and I was lucky to be in the right place. I couldn't have hoped for a better start to my career and I hope it is just the beginning of something great."

Ngando is just the latest young talent to emerge from Rennes' famed academy, which has reeled off a mightily impressive list of names in the last couple of decades. Ngando might sound obscure, but then maybe so did the likes of Yoann Gourcuff, Sylvain Wiltord and Yann M'Vila - who last month left for Rubin Kazan - when they first broke through.

Just 19 now, Ngando was on the books at Paris Saint-Germain before joining the Rennes academy in 2007. He is also the nephew of Cameroon legend Patrick Mboma. Rennes coach Antonetti claimed, tongue in cheek, that he knew Ngando would score, but he also sought to play down expectations around his new star.

"Axel has lots of qualities but he still needs to mature," he said. "He is just a little tot. But his goal wasn't down to good coaching, it was a big slice of luck!"

That both Ngando and Origi scored on the same day was maybe just a coincidence, but it does indicate that there is plenty of exciting young talent bubbling under the surface at leading French clubs after a January transfer window in which many leading names departed for wealthier foreign outfits.

The duo have followed in the footsteps of Neal Maupay, who was just 16 years and four months old when he scored a stoppage-time winner for Nice against Evian-Thonon-Gaillard in December to become the second-youngest goalscorer ever in France's top flight behind Laurent Roussey. Maupay, who is French but whose mother is Argentine, then scored again in his side's 2-0 win at Lille last month.

Clubs such as Nice, Rennes, Lille and title-chasing Lyon are putting more and more emphasis on youth just now. Away from the hullabaloo surrounding Beckham - who becomes the oldest outfield player in the league - the quality emerging suggests that the future of French football is in good hands.

Andrew Scott