Freddy Adu: rarely has the name of a player with caps for such clubs as Portuguese side Belenenses, Brazil’s Bahia and Serbian outfit Jagodina been met with such universal recognition. Rewind to shortly after the turn of the millennium and being familiar with the name Freddy Adu would have meant being familiar with the ethereal, prophetic image of a retired Pelé handing over his mantle to a particular Ghanaian successor; with Major League Soccer, and the world, seemingly at the mercy of his powers.
Now, however, the name Freddy Adu is rarely mentioned without a melancholic pondering of “whatever happened to” preceding it – unless of course his name is being referenced in fable-like fashion, warning of the pressures of mounting expectation upon the shoulders of young footballers.
In recent years Adu’s pursuit of sporting stardom has become something of an obsession among the ever-present media. With every new club he fails to make a lasting impact at, the more tragic the tale of the boy who never reached his potential becomes, and the faster the wheels on the headline-powered Freddy Adu sideshow spin. This fascination with his demise has made Adu the poster-boy for underachievement; typecast in every conversation as the archetype of wasted potential. But it seems that many of those who echo the consensus regarding Adu’s downward trajectory do so without having ever taken the time to understand how, or why, such events transpired.
Adu’s nomadism has seen him tread a unique path across four continents. Though long before he became a frequent flyer, Freddy Adu was simply an eight-year-old migrant from West Africa – leaving home with his mother in search of a better life in the Land of Opportunity. By 14, when most boys are attempting to juggle home life with school life, or ignoring both while trying to crack the enigma that is teenage dating, Freddy Adu was making the most of the opportunities afforded to him and his ability, and he made the decision to turn down any potential college scholarships in order to turn professional and join Major League Soccer.
In fact, having joined DC United – fresh out of the US Olympic Development Program – as the number one overall pick in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft, 14-year-old Adu hit the ground running, and assisting, and scoring. Promising performances during his first three seasons in America’s top division saw the youngster named in the MLS All-Star team twice, in 2004 and 2006, nominated for the FIFPro Young Player of the Year in 2005, and earned him a two-week trial at Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, the latter being somewhat scuppered by work permit issues, all before he was old enough to have a celebratory beer.
However, it appeared that an eager Freddy Adu, aggrandised by the nationwide love affair his adopted country had begun in lieu of speculation that this young prodigy, had been sent to deliver the USA to global domination at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Then-DC United boss Piotr Nowak’s patient tempering of his progress placed unnecessary roadblocks in the way of him achieving his dreams, and soon Adu was signing off on a one-way ticket out of the country’s capital, en route for Salt Lake City.
Adu, though, barely made it into double figures in terms of appearances for his new club before Portuguese giants Benfica came knocking. Having shone at the 2007 Under-20 World Cup, the Lisbon club wasted no time in securing their man’s signature, with a $2 million bid enough to prize the promising youngster from Real Salt Lake’s grasp, allowing Adu the opportunity to strut his stuff on the European stage aged just 18.
But it was around this time, with his appearances at the Estádio da Luz increasingly limited, that Adu first appeared to be out of his depth, with many believing the midfielder had allowed his progress to falter as a result of falling victim to his own hype. Rarely venturing onto the pitch to join the likes of Rui Costa and Ángel Di María in the Benfica starting line-up, Adu was shipped off to an array of increasingly obscure teams.
Sunny Monaco became home for six months during Adu’s first ever loan spell, but this came to an uninspiring end almost as quickly as it had begun, and Adu was back in Portugal for an ill-fated stint at Belenenses, before completing his impromptu three-year tour of Europe following brief spells at Aris in Greece, and Turkish team Rizespor.
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It wasn’t until his intercontinental travels had brought him back to America that a sense of belonging returned to Adu’s career, when, in 2011, he signed for old boss Piotr Nowak at Philadelphia Union. An ESPN interview published in November of that year heralded Adu’s return, insisting that he was “right on track” and reiterated that the 22-year-old Freddy had “all the time in the world” to make his mark on the footballing world.
But even the fairy-tale circumstances surrounding his MLS homecoming wasn’t to signal the end of Adu’s troubles, as his stay at Philadelphia lasted little more than two years, and only a brace of short-lived spells abroad, at Bahia in Brazil and Serbian club Jagodina, stood between Freddy Adu and the reality of being a free agent for the first time in his career.
As the media continue to happily perpetuate the familiar fall from grace storyline, you’d be forgiven for reading his story and seeing just another out-of-touch sports star having so-called problems. Try having real problems, right? But it is far easier to indulge Adu’s experiences and empathise with him as a human when listening to him give his own take on these events.
A brief window into this dispiriting cycle was permitted when tweets made by the player himself, having felt the need to set the record straight surrounding rumours about his future, confirmed that he was not prematurely released by Jagodina, as reported, but had instead simply reached the end of his allotted six-month contract with the club. What’s more, the 25-year-old even sought to reassure fans that he is still, in fact, a professional footballer, and not a nightclub promoter as many were coaxed into believing by various absurd online reports.
However, it was during a candid interview with English second-tier club Blackpool – with whom he trained throughout the first half of 2014 – that the human side of Adu was perhaps most visible. In response to the interviewer’s questions, Adu spoke honestly, with a level of self-awareness and maturity, and without regret, when addressing the decisions he made throughout his early career. Adu admitted:
“Maybe I wasn’t training as hard as I could have [which] hurt me and my development,” in response to questions regarding his fame, or infamy, and how it affected his career. He also seemed genuinely eager to put a positive spin on every period of his life, speaking in a reminiscent tone when confessing: “I haven’t always made the right decisions as far as choices of teams,” and seemed determined to learn from his failings in order to propel his career forward once more.
In retrospect, it is all too easy for onlookers to judge decisions made by Adu and give their two cents on what they think he should have done instead. Even when fronted with Adu’s prolific record-breaking in his early career – having become the youngest professional American athlete in over a century, the youngest-ever MLS debutant, and youngest-ever MLS goalscorer in embarking upon his debut campaign in 2004 – many may still pinpoint Adu’s decision to turn professional at such a young age as a wrong one, favouring patient physical and mental development over records broken.
The decision to circumvent college football and become a professional at just 14 wasn’t a decision that Adu made without careful consideration. However, when given the opportunity to earn millions of dollars for him and his single mother who was, at the time, working three jobs just to clothe and feed her ambitious son, it was all too easy to say yes.
Given the chance to do it again, the delight and pride with which Freddy Adu recounts these events makes it clear he wouldn’t change a thing. Besides, he is just another human being after all.
By Will Sharp. Follow @shillwarp