Playing football in today’s game is incredibly demanding. Yes, they may get paid millions and millions playing their favourite sport week in, week out, which most of us would happily do for free, yet many would argue it doesn’t come without difficulty. The constant media surrounding players can take its toll, where even the smallest step out of line can be blown way up in a player’s face. With the constant temptation that must surround them, be it wanting to live a ‘normal’ life (wanting to have a drink and go out clubbing) or the ‘perks’ of being rich and famous (the women, lads… ?) a God given talent is not enough to secure your place in history as a top player. Of course, it helps, but it is also necessary to work incredibly hard at training, stay out of the headlines for the wrong reasons, and have a bit of luck.
Yet sometimes, a player who seems to show so much promise fails to reach his potential. Could it be the pitfalls of living the footballer lifestyle that takes them off the rails? Were they unlucky with injuries that blighted their career? Or was it just too much, too soon; being built too high up a pedestal they were never going to reach. Of course, the saying goes that the bigger they are, the harder they fall. So why do some players fade so much, when their star seemed destined to shine so bright? The Football Writer has picked his top 10 players who have failed to truly fulfil their potential…
10. Kerlon, 24, Brazil (currently playing for Brazilian side Nacional-NS).
Brazilians are famed for their flashy technique and dribbling ability, something which certainly wasn’t lacked by Kerlon. An incredible natural talent, he became famous all across the world as millions watched on Youtube his unbelievable ‘seal dribble’; bouncing the ball on his head repeatedly while running down the pitch. This would often force opposition players to foul him and become frustrated, which although must have been difficult for himself, could only be of benefit to the team.
Perhaps inevitably due to his trademark dribble he picked up a serious knee injury which limited his appearances. A transfer to Inter Milan via Chievo had Kerlon seemingly destined for a career at the top, yet he continued to suffer from knee injuries which prevented him from making an impact. A loan move to Ajax to gain first team fitness and experience in Europe was tarnished by another knee injury, before he escaped his Italian hell with successive loans and an eventual permanent move back to Brazil. He ended four years in Serie A with only four appearances, all for Chievo. Now featuring for Brazilian side Nacional-NS, one can only wonder just how good he could have been had he been able to replicate his early natural ability onto the European stage, yet this is a tale of injuries really getting the better of a player before he’d been given the chance to start.
9. Michael Owen, 32, England (currently a free agent having been released by Manchester United).
Having successfully graduated through their youth system and making his debut for Liverpool (in which he scored) on the penultimate game of the 96-97 season, Owen’s first season in the Premier League saw him named the PFA Young Player of the Year, finishing joint top goalscorer in the league with 18 goals. Enthusiastic, pacy and a knack for hitting the back of the net, Owen announced himself as a world class ‘wonderkid’ with a brilliant solo goal against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup.
Owen continued this excellence by being Liverpool’s top scorer for every season that followed until leaving for Real Madrid, and thus began his downfall. Failing to start with a bang meant he regularly had to settle for a place on the bench, and so he ended his single season with a move to Newcastle in order to gain match fitness in time for the World Cup in 2006. While he began to get back on track, a serious knee injury at said World Cup gave him a huge setback. It seems that since that injury he has lost some of his pace that was so devastating and such a huge part of the way he plays. Several other injuries and setbacks began to blight his career and so it was a surprise when he was signed by Sir Alex at Manchester United. Yet just five league goals in his three seasons at the club before his release show just how far he has fallen since his Liverpool days. Not only has he lost some of his brilliance he had as a youngster, he is now far too unreliable due to injuries (this was indicative from his pay-as-you-play deal he signed for the Red Devils). In a time when England could really have done with a world class striker to win their first tournament since 1966, Owen’s ill fated career is a sorry sight to behold, and shows just how much of a difference a few unlucky years can have on a whole life.
8. Denilson, 34, Brazil (retired).
When a club really breaks the bank to sign a player, you expect something in return. So when a club smashes the world transfer fee? Despite the extortionate amounts paid, Cristiano Ronaldo’s £80m transfer to Real Madrid can be classed as value for money, while I doubt there is a Newcastle fan who would regret Alan Shearer’s 1995 cost of £15m. Zidane, Ronaldo (the Brazilian one), Maradona and Cruyff are also amongst those who hold a world transfer record. And while these players all lived up to their pricetag, Denilson will surely go down in history as the most expensive flop ever signed.
After impressing at club level, Denilson enjoyed a successful start to his national career, winning both the Copa America and Confederations Cup in 1997, before playing in every game for the 1998 World Cup runners up. This prompted Real Betis to surprisingly smash the world record transfer fee, overtaking the previous record holder (his international compatriot Ronaldo) and becoming the first player to surpass the £20m mark. Unfortunately for Betis fans, that is as high as it got with regards to Denilson’s career. After two uninspired seasons which saw the club relegated, Denilson, after a brief return to his homeland on loan, became a bit part player in his remaining five years, never shining even close to how bright he was supposed to. Following a solitary season in France, Denilson continued this disappointment as he travelled the globe, unimpressively it must be said, before his retirement in 2010.
If you can look past his ‘record fee failure’ nametag he will forever live with, Denilson does boast the unbelievable strike rate of a goal every 45 minutes for Vietnamese side Xi Mang Hai Phong. It’s just as shame he only ever played one half of football for the club…
7. Gianluigi Lentini, 43, Italy (retired).
From one world record transfer to another yet upon slightly different circumstances in the shape of Gianluigi Lentini. Lentini was an up and coming winger, whose talented displays whilst playing for Torino earned him his Italy debut at the age of 21. His efforts caught the eye of the prestigious AC Milan, who were somewhat in the process of undergoing a new era and saw this enthusiastic youngster as part of their rebuilding process. A £13m transfer ensued, giving him the highest transfer fee the world had seen. Despite playing well and picking up a Serie A title in his first season he was unable to truly break out as a star player and justify his hefty price tag, yet unlike other failed stars, there became a vital moment in his life that prevented him from doing
so. At the age of 24, Lentini was involved in a car crash which left him not only battling to save his career, but his life. 2 days in a coma ensued having suffered a fractured skull and a damaged eye socket and, although he did make a full recovery off the field, he never quite did on it. Despite picking up two more Scudetto’s and a Champions League, Lentini was never able to make out on his young promise and, after four years in Milan, was sold for just £2m.Lentini’s career continued with relative personal success wherever he went, despite not being at the same level he would’ve hoped to be at. Credit must be given to the fact that he continued playing until the age of 40; it shows that he just wanted to play the sport he loves, regardless of ‘what-might-have-beens’. But you can’t help but wonder what might have been.
6. Javier Saviola, 30, Argentina (currently playing for Portuguese side Benfica).
It’s not that Saviola has been a flop, or even a bad player. In fact, he’s pretty good, in which his career has seen him play at Barcelona, Monaco, Sevilla, Real Madrid and now Benfica since leaving River Plate as a youngster. It was just that he was supposed to be so damn amazing that it is frustrating he is not currently partnering his compatriot Messi for the ‘best in the world’ tag, and that is what puts him on this list.
My earliest memory of Saviola is from the 2000-2001 edition of the Championship Manager series in which this 18 year old was easily one of the most talented players in the game, with incredible potential. This genuine ability led to a £15m transfer to Spanish giants Barcelona, where he scored 17 goals in his first La Liga season, becoming their top scorer and the league’s third. Yet perhaps Saviola was a victim of circumstance. Despite scoring nearly a goal every two games for the club, he was deemed surplus to requirements with the recent arrivals of Ronaldinho, Larsson, Eto’o and an up and coming Messi and subsequently shipped out on loan to Monaco and Sevilla.
Continued effective displays eventually saw Real Madrid snap him up, but he struggled to fit into the team and left for Portugal after two seasons, where he is enjoying a successful time with Benfica. Yet like I said at the beginning, although he has always played well whichever club he has turned out for, he was supposed to be one of the best ever. After all, Pelé named him on his FIFA 100 list at the age of 22. Perhaps the gods decided it wasn’t fair for Argentina to have two ‘out of this world’ players at the same time and, after flipping a coin, decided to wait for Messi instead.
5. Paul Gascoigne, 45, England (retired).
‘Gazza’, as he is affectionately known, is one of the greatest players to pull on a shirt for England. A technically brilliant midfielder, Gascoigne was something different who played with amazing results. He played his best football in his early years at Newcastle and Tottenham, with the great Sir Alex admitting that failure to capture the ’88 Young Player of the Year has been his biggest disappointment of his managerial career; high praise indeed. Yet never being far from controversy, his career was marred and overshadowed by some infamous incidents; driving a tractor into the dressing room, the Euro ’96 dentist chair, and ‘f*ck off, Norway’ amongst many.
Gazza was unfortunate with injuries meaning that his only real success after leaving Tottenham was in the SPL with Rangers; certainly not as high a standard that he should’ve been playing at. But these injuries did take their toll on him, as personal problems with alcoholism further disrupted his career until he retired in 2004 (some personal problems have continued past his footballing career).
I don’t really feel like I have written all that much about Gascoigne on the pitch as I have with the other players in this list, but for anyone who has watched him in his early career will know just how good he was. Along with his undoubted passion; the image of Gascoigne crying after his booking in the 1990 World Cup semi final which would’ve ruled him out of the final is iconic (perhaps second only to that Vinnie Jones picture) – Gazza was one of the most technically brilliant players England has ever produced and should’ve been so much more, but injuries on the field and personal problems off of it got the better of him.
4. Ronaldinho, 32, Brazil (currently playing for Brazilian side Atlético Mineiro)
‘A Champions League and World Cup winner? A multiple time member of the FIFPro World XI? A two time FIFA World Player of the Year? Why oh why have you included Ronaldinho in this list!?’ Let me explain before jumping to criticism. I agree that Ronaldinho was an absolutely class act, and one of the most talented footballers the world has ever seen, but this is an article not about bad footballers, but about those who failed to fulfil their full potential, and I believe that is the case.
Ronaldinho first came to media attention at the age of 13, when his local team won 23-0; he scored all 23 goals. After a successful start to his career at Gremio, he was able to translate his ability into the French league and on the European stage with Paris Saint-Germain, yet his first announcement to the world for many will be that goal past David Seaman in the World Cup and his subsequent sending off. Albeit with a little controversy off the pitch with his passion for the Parisian nightlife, Ronaldinho was fast becoming one of the most sought after players in the world.
Then Barcelona president Joan Laporta has fierce rivals to thank for being able to bring Ronaldinho to the Nou Camp (he had originally promised to sign David Beckham, but following his move to the Bernabeu, targeted Ronaldinho instead) and he quickly turned into a magnificent capture for the club. Scoring regularly was a bonus to his dazzling skills, such as his patented ‘elastico’, he displayed week in, week out; at times he was almost unplayable. Renowned as the world’s best, perhaps the highlight of his career was receiving a standing ovation at the Bernabeu after his incredible display in a 3-0 victory; not something that happens to just anyone. Yet this really is where this ‘unbelievable’ Ronaldinho’s story ends.
In his fifth season at Barcelona, where playing time was unfortunately plagued by injuries, he announced he wanted a new challenge and, at the end of the season, was shipped to Milan. Many will praise Guardiola that selling the talisman was the reason behind Lionel Messi’s emergence as a legend, avoiding him the temptation for the party lifestyle. Yet although Ronaldinho continued to play well at Milan, and since back home in Brazil, he has never reached the dizzy heights he achieved during his five years in Spain. Is it because of his party lifestyle, or did he get lazy? Or did he simply, as he said, fancy a change, and that he for some reason hasn’t been able to produce in his later years elsewhere? We’ll never know, but you can’t help but wonder what Ronaldinho would be like today if he had stayed at Barcelona. Placed in today’s Barcelona side with Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, you can’t help but believe the same gradual downfall would have happened. Ronaldinho’s career, for me, began to unravel at the age of 28. Four years on, for a man with all his talent, he should still be playing at the top.
3. Adriano, 30, Brazil (currently a free agent having been released by Corinthians).
What ever happened to Adriano? Let’s go back to the beginning of his career, where after just a season and a half in the first team for Flamengo, Inter Milan picked up the promising striker and brought him to Serie A. After a brief loan stint with Fiorentina, Adriano began lighting up the league playing for Parma (who had agreed a co-ownership deal with Inter) scoring over a goal every two games. Inter Milan, seeing a world class player in the making, brought him back to the San Siro in 2004, and the 22 year old became their star striker. The gold Nike boots he wore emphasised that he was joining the elite, with comparisons being made to a young Ronaldo thanks to his power, pace, incredible technique and ability to find the back of the net with ease. Adriano was set to become the best of his generation, and Inter tied him down to a new, bumper contract in September 2005. And this is where we can now ask; what ever happened to Adriano?
Seemingly content that his talent alone would get him by, sweetened with his hefty contract, Adriano began to disappoint on the field with a string of poor performances. Questions were raised about his personal life, where he seemed partial to the nightlife, concerns about his weight and his work ethic; skipping training was one of the final straws at Inter. He was sent back to Brazil to regain fitness and form, and while this idea started promisingly, it ended in a return to Italy to avoid unsettling the Sao Paulo team, according to the sporting director.
Eventually leaving Inter Milan saw Adriano begin to get his career back on track at his first club, Flamengo, where he did enough to convince Roma to give him a second chance in Serie A. Unfortunately for Roma, the only noticeable thing he did in his seven months stint was to pick up his third Bidone d’Oro (the ‘Golden Bin’ awarded to the worst player in Serie A). Bear in mind no other player has won it more than once; that takes some beating. Admittedly he suffered injuries at both Roma and then Corinthians, whom he joined from Roma, yet the same concerns from his Inter Milan days arose and left no option but for the latter to terminate his contract after a year.
A 30 year old, over weight footballer who shows little effort for the clubs he plays for as he enjoys the party lifestyle. Who would want to sign him now? And yet he so easily could still be on top of the world, in his prime, after an illustrious career wherever in the world he wanted to play.
2. Freddy Adu, 23, USA (currently playing for Philadelphia Union).
It’s quite hard to believe that Freddy Adu, who first shot to worldwide fame over eight years ago, is still only 23 years old. And thus of all the players on this list, he still has the greatest chance to fulfil that early promise he showed during the remainder of his career. Whether or not he will is another question.
Adu is most definitely the victim of too much, too soon. Hugely impressive as a youngster, he became the youngest American athlete in over 100 years to sign a professional contract in any team sport, was the number one draft pick in the 2004 MLS Draft and made his MLS debut; all at the tender age of 14. In any European league in the world this would not happen, but it can be argued that the bosses of the MLS saw an opportunity to exploit a youngster as a marketing gimmick; boost the popularity of the league by getting him to perform rather than to learn how to play.
Appearing in an advert with Pelé aside, while Adu performed considerably for a child amongst men, the hype that had surrounded him meant that nothing less than excellence would be considered good enough, and thus he didn’t make quite the impact that was expected of him. Yet a move to Real Salt Lake at 17 showed that, although he wasn’t yet at the standard of the Brazilian icon, he was nonetheless an exciting talent. This was proved after an impressive showing at the under-20 World Cup, before he was eventually taken to Europe with Portuguese giants Benfica. With his first start for the national team following shortly after, Adu looked back on track to become that much heralded star. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite turn out that way.
After failing to take Europe by storm as was hoped, his misery was compounded with a series of loan spells at increasingly obscure clubs, trying to find some form to add to his undoubted talent; but he never did. Yet a surprise call up to the national side for the 2011 Gold Cup saw Adu perform admirably, and he soon after returned to his country to sign for Philadelphia Union.
For the first time in several years, he seems to be getting fairly regular game time at a respectable level, along with some enjoyable performances, and people are beginning to talk about him again in the States. And so as I said at the beginning, perhaps he can still make a name for himself; time is on his side. But for now he will still be known as one of the youngest ‘wonderkids’ who had it all far too soon. Expected for greatness, but nearly washed up before he left his teens.
1. Nii Lamptey, 37, Ghana (retired).
Uhm, who? Many of you might have said this when reading that Nii Lamptey is number one on this list of players who failed to reach their full potential, so I guess that response justifies this position. Indeed, I had never heard of him until reading an article several years ago about his unfortunate career. Before Adu was a 13 year old sensation, there was Lamptey, who looked destined for greatness.
With undoubted quality, he came to the world’s attention in 1989 at the under-16 World Championship with some mesmerising displays. Making the step up to the under-17 World Championship in 1991, he won the player of the tournament ahead of a young Juan Sebastian Veron and Alessandro del Piero, of Argentina and Italy respectively. But perhaps the highlight over these achievements was to be named as the successor to the great Pelé, by none other than the man himself. Pelé naming his own successor who was non-Brazilian? That just confirmed the height of his ability.
After being sought after by many clubs, he signed his first professional contract with Anderlecht after leaving Ghana, and began to sparkle in the league. Despite an injury, his incredible performances convinced PSV to take him for a season on loan as a replacement for Barcelona bound Romario. Some big boots to fill, but fill them he did as he continued expertly and became their joint top scorer for the season. However, after PSV failed to match Anderlecht’s asking price, Aston Villa swooped in and signed the talented Ghanaian, who was still only 19 at the time. Yet this unfortunately became the beginning of his downfall. Along with the demands from the national team, who saw Lamptey as their future but were still unhappy about him leaving the country at such a young age, he struggled to adapt to the physical nature of the English game before failing to renew his work permit at Coventry, having played just 16 games during his two years in England. Travelling around the globe, he plied his trade in Italy, Argentina, Turkey, Portugal, Germany, China and Dubai before returning to Ghana, a broken man with a broken career.
What is so sad about Nii Lamptey’s career however is the battles that he had to deal with alongside the pressures of expectation from being named Pelé’s successor. Abusive parents who divorced at eight, he was beaten by his alcoholic father and moved to Muslim accommodation, converting from Christianity. He then had to sneak out of the country to obtain his first professional contract after his passport was confiscated by the Ghanaian FA in a bid to keep the squad together, who then made it difficult for him when he was selected for the national team (Lamptey believes witch doctors were punishing him for deserting the country). His agent cheated him out of thousands, if not millions, from contracts and signing on fees, while his marriage was frowned upon by his parents. The death of his father, an incident at the 1996 African Cup of Nations after his semi final sending off that all but sealed his exile from the national team, and the death of not one but two of his children all sums up a heartbreaking life Lamptey has had to suffer.
Nii Lamptey should have been a star. Individually he could have been up there with Pelé, Maradona, Di Stefano, Cruyff. And from a wider view, he could have helped spark African football. But unfortunately with all the difficulties he faced, it all crumbled down before him. From the man himself: «I know if people had left me alone, the way God created me and wanted me to be, for sure I should have been playing for Madrid… Sometimes I will be in my room and I will cry… that thing has been taken away from you. It’s really, really painful.»
So there you have it, the Football Writer’s top 10 unfulfilled talents in world football. Do you agree with the selections, or is there anyone in particular you feel I have missed out on?