FOOTBALL IS LITTERED WITH PLAYERS that have failed to live up to the expectations placed upon their young shoulders. Players that play their careers in a type of footballing purgatory.
The rise of computer games such as FIFA and Football Manager have worked strongly against these types of players. The stresses of being in the public eye, deaths in the family, marriage, childbirth and social media all play a part in the development of players, and it’s these things games can’t factor in. Often overhyped in these simulators, players want realism but they don’t want the ups and downs that a young, inconsistent player would give you. Instead, they demand instant results. If these players fail to match their in-game stats they’re viewed as failures in the real world no matter what career they manage to forge.
There is an increasing number of these players today. The rogue ‘wonderkids’ that encountered too much too soon. But can they really be considered failures?
One such player who falls into this category – at the moment, anyway – is Alexandre Pato (cover photo). ‘The Duck’ marked his Internacional debut with a goal inside a minute. Both club and country had high hopes for this clinical forward. Aged 17 he broke Pelé’s long-standing record as the youngest goalscorer in FIFA organised tournament.
A few months later, the allure of Europe was too much and he was on the move for £15 million to Italian giants AC MIlan. Upon his arrival he was given the iconic number 7 shirt and took to Serie A like the proverbial duck to water. Nine goals in 20 starts in his debut season was followed by 18, 14 and 16 in his next three.
The Brazilian striker was also effective in the Champions League. He is still remembered for scoring a goal in the Camp Nou after just 24 seconds, one he made by himself and finished in such an unnerving manner.
Injuries played a huge part in Pato’s career in Italy petering out. He only managed to score 15 league goals once in his entire career. It was still a shock for many fans that in January 2013 the AC Milan striker was sold to Corinthians for £10 million. On his day he’s an ice-cold assassin in the opposition’s penalty area, but he was so far from his peak form that the Rossoneri accepted a 50 percent loss on his talent. During his time in Milan, he amassed 57 league goals in 117 appearances – healthy stats that sadly don’t reflect his troubles.
The Brazilian league was supposedly on the rise when Pato signed for Corinthians. Clubs were almost able to match their European counterparts in terms of wages offered and Pato was seen as a real coup. It wasn’t to be though, and after a year at Corinthians he was loaned to São Paulo, with Jádson heading in the opposite direction. He’s had a renaissance with São Paulo and has been linked with big money moves to Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Chelsea, but this isn’t what was expected from a player likened to Kaká, Romário and Ronaldo in his early years.
Another player who would find himself at home here is Ricardo Quaresma. Former Liverpool assistant manager Phil Thompson had this to say on Quaresma when he came through the ranks: “Portugal had two starlets: Quaresma and Ronaldo who played right and left wing for the under-21s. I saw them play and both were very good. It was a toss-up as to who was the best.”
The Lisbon-born winger was, in his early years, considered to be as good as, if not better than, Cristiano Ronaldo. The reality, however, is that one has had a career that’s seen him go blow for blow with Lionel Messi as the world’s best player, whereas the other has toiled with the pressure of playing for a big club and establishing himself as a regular starter.
At the age of just 20, Quaresma transferred to Barcelona for £5 million, with Fábio Rochemback going in the opposite direction on loan. Twenty-two appearances and a single goal in his debut season wasn’t the return the Catalan club expected – but it wasn’t the reason for his sale. The 21-year-old controversially announced he wouldn’t play for Barça again whilst Frank Rijkaard was in charge, such was his dislike for the manager. Soon after, he was used as part of the deal that took Deco from Porto to Catalunya.
His time at Porto started off as a frosty affair. The often selfish, greedy winger soon turned into a fan favourite and Mr Dependable for the club. After three seasons with the Portuguese giants he was on the move again, this time to Inter Milan – another big club. It brought more pressure and, once again, it didn’t go as planned.
José Mourinho was quick to make his feeling about Quaresma known: “He is a great talent, but the joy I have at seeing the way Ibrahimović works for and with the team I do not yet have with Quaresma. He will have to learn, otherwise he won’t play, and I am sure he’ll change and become more tactically disciplined. He likes kicking the ball with the outside of his foot, but if you ask me about him in a few months’ time, we’ll be talking about a different Quaresma.”
True to his word he didn’t play him. Much like Juan Mata and Kevin De Bruyne at Chelsea, if José thinks a player isn’t doing what’s expected then they won’t play.
A disappointing loan to Chelsea was his next stop – a torrid spell in which he made just four appearances. His nightmare came to an end when Turkish side Beşiktaş signed him. Heralded as a real coup for the Turkish side, the relationship eventually went sour when his selfish personality was once against apparent. An outburst after being substituted led to a suspension in Turkey before he moved to Al Ahli for a year. A return to Porto was short lived but successful in patches and Quaresma now finds himself back at Beşiktaş for a second spell. The former starlet really is the definition of a ‘what might have been’ player.
Look up unfulfilled talent and you’ll probably see a picture of Adriano. In today’s market how much would a 2004 Adriano cost? Nicknamed ‘The Emperor’, the Brazilian force of nature terrorised and ruled over Italian football for two glorious seasons.
At the age of 19 Inter Milan signed him for £10 million before loaning him to Fiorentina for a season – and then using him in a deal with Parma to bring Fabio Cannavaro to Milan. It was at Parma that he really rose to prominence. With 23 Serie A goals in 36 games, he struck up a fearsome partnership with Adrian Mutu, which led to Inter spending another £20 million to have him back playing in blue and black for the 2004-05 season. From July 2004 to June 2005 Adriano scored 40 goals for club and country. He was unplayable, unstoppable and utterly irrepressible.
He had the pace to get away from the quickest of full-backs, the strength to bully the best Serie A centre-backs, the skill to rival the much more diminutive Brazilians in history and unmatched power in his left foot. He was once the most feared striker in Europe. Adriano had it all in abundance, and that was half of his problem.
After his father died, his commitment to football wavered and it was that troublesome combination that was the downfall of a player who to this day could be leading the Brazilian line alongside Neymar. He was that good.
After Inter he played for five clubs in six years. Four Brazilian giants and Roma all tried to get him back on track but it inevitably failed, despite him scoring 34 goals in 51 games for Flamengo. The hunger and desire just wasn’t there anymore. Adriano’s tale, above most others, is the most tragic ‘what if’ story in modern football history.
Yet another Brazilian whose career could be likened to those above is Diego Ribas. He, alongside Robinho and Elano, were the three players that fired Santos back into relevance after falling into obscurity. His Santos side won the Brasileiro title when he was aged just 16 – and big things were expected from him.
By 18 he was on the move to Europe to join the continental champions at the time, Porto. He was the heir to the recently vacated Deco role. His first season was full of encouraging signs but his second saw him fall out of favour with manager Co Adriaanse and put up for sale.
German club Werder Bremen offered him an escape route and he grabbed it with both hands. He helped Bremen win the German Super Cup in his first game with the club, won the Player of the Season award organised by Kicker and voted for by fans in his debut season, and assisted Mesut Özil’s winning goal in the DFB-Pokal victory against Bayer Leverkusen in his final season at the club.
It was this form that convinced Italian giants Juventus to pay €25 million to sign the talented Brazilian to take over from the legendary Alessandro Del Piero as the Turin club’s iconic number 10. Upon his arrival in Turin, Zico admitted that he could see something of himself in the then 24-year-old playmaker: “For the role he plays and the way he takes free-kicks, it is true that we are a bit alike.”
Serie A icon José Altafini went a step further and felt that Zico was actually flattering himself. “Diego is faster and he plays all over the pitch.” Former Juventus striker Pietro Anastasi argued that the Santos academy product was unique, an amalgamation of three of the finest number 10s ever to play the game: “He reminds me of Zinedine Zidane with a mix of Roberto Baggio and Michel Platini.”
All of this hoo-ha surrounded his arrival but just a year later Juventus sold him for €14 million to German club Wolfsburg. A turbulent time with the Wolves followed where he was fined the whopping grand total of €600,000 for disciplinary issues.
A loan to Atlético Madrid culminated in him winning the Europa League before returning to Wolfsburg to finish as their top scorer and then joining Atleti on a permanent deal. Less than a year after moving to the Vicente Calderón he was on the move yet again, this time to Turkey to turn out for Fenerbahçe. He remains in Istanbul but his patchy performances and lack of discipline have held him back from making a true impact at the club. Now 30, his best days are surely already behind him.
Yet another player notorious for failing to live up to expectation is Javier Saviola. He helped River Plate to the 1999 Apertura and 2000 Clausura Championships and won the 1999 South American Footballer of the Year award. At the age of 18 he was regarded as the apparent heir to Diego Maradona and broke the aforementioned Maradona’s record by becoming the youngest player to win the domestic Golden Boot award.
In 2001, aged just 19, Barcelona paid £15 million for him. His first season with the Catalan giants started positively as he finished as the fourth highest goalscorer in La Liga with 17 strikes. His next two league seasons at Barcelona yielded 13 and 14 goals respectively before he found himself out of favour.
Loans to Monaco and Sevilla saw him fail to reach double figures in the league before he signed for Real Madrid on a free. Two seasons with Madrid saw him bag just five goals and in the summer of 2009 he was sold for £5 million move to Benfica. He did a solid job in Portugal without really excelling before making moves to Málaga, Olympiakos and Verona, before finally returning to River Plate.
Now 34, with just 39 Argentina caps to his name, Saviola most certainly failed to live up to the potential he had. In the case of the Buenos Aires native, there’s a real suggestion that managers played him out of position on the wing too often and he was unlucky to have left Barcelona when he did. That said, the fact don’t lie – Saviola came to Europe as the most promising young striker in the world for a record teenage fee but left with multiple question marks surrounding his impact in the game.
Not many players can beat records set by Lionel Messi and Raúl, but Bojan Krkić did just that. He was the youngest ever player to score in La Liga for Barcelona, beating the record set by Messi by eight-and-a-half months. He netted more goals in his debut season as a teenager to beat the record previously held by Raúl. He was also the first player born in the 1990s to play in the Champions League. He was supposed to be another Messi, especially when Frank Rijkaard called him a “treasure”. Pep Guardiola went even further: “There are only a few players who have a magical touch and Bojan is one of them.”
The teenage Bojan made 48 appearances for Barcelona in 2007-08, scoring 12 goals and recording six assists. The foundations were there for him to build on but nothing materialised. A move to Roma saw the lightweight Spaniard struggle to adapt to a new league at a young age. Loan moves to Milan and Ajax saw Bojan’s career look set for one of continuous mediocrity but, after a £1.8 million move to Premier League side Stoke, he’s gone about rebuilding his reputation. Talk of him moving to a bigger club seems to be in the papers on a regular basis.
The fact is, for now at least, he a La Masia record breaker who has strangely gone on to become the face of a modern, attacking Stoke City. Can he truly recover his potential and become one of the leading marksmen in world football? Time will tell.
A controversial inclusion when talking about failed wonderkids is Wayne Rooney. He recently broke England’s all-time goalscoring record set by Bobby Charlton and he’s set to break the Manchester United goalscoring record, so how can he be considered a failure?
He made his debut for Everton aged just 16, set the Premier League alight and for a time was the youngest goalscorer in English football history. He was raw and fresh – he had an unmatched desire and it was genuinely exciting to watch if you were English. Finally, we had a talent to rival that of the other powerful nations in the world.
He really announced himself to the world with that goal against Arsenal. He expertly plucked the ball out of the air, did a 180 degree turn after both Lauren and Sol Campbell afforded him far too much time and space before unleashing a curling effort in off the bar from 25 yards out, which left David Seaman clutching at thin air. Remember the name shouted John Motson. We did. This was a player who had neutrals on the edge of their seats and fans of his opponents grimacing at the screen.
A big money move was just around the corner and it was Manchester United that forked out £26 million in 2004. With an emphatic hat-trick on his debut, greatness beckoned.
Yet since then it’s always felt like he’s holding back. He scores goals regularly but he’s playing for a club that has dominated English football – he should be scoring. In his 14 years as a footballer he’s only scored 20 or more on four occasions. This a player that was tipped to be England’s answer to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo when all three burst onto the scene. He should be entering his peak at the age of 30 but instead there’s talk of him heading to a lesser league.
Rooney is indeed a controversial inclusion, but has he really fulfilled his enormous, undoubted potential? He’s certainly the most naturally gifted footballer in the English game since Paul Gascoigne.
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It’s almost impossible to judge these players as failures – such has been the careers that they’ve had. But for a short time, a fleeting moment in the long, perilous history of football, these players were considered to have the ability to rival the true greats from their nations.
Has the hype that went before these players overshadowed what later became relatively successful careers, or was it the players that decided to coast by on their reputations and lose the hunger for what could have been extraordinary careers?
Purgatory is a hard place to escape from once you’re in there. Pato, Quaresma, Adriano, Diego, Saviola, Bojan, and to a lesser extent, Rooney, will certainly testify to that.
By Sam McGuire. Follow @SamMcGuire90