The 20 Most Overhyped Soccer Prospects in History
Bleacher Report brings you the 20 most overhyped football prospects that failed to live up to their reputation.
The one prerequisite for the article is that the player in question has to be retired.
“What if I told you that the four saddest words are 'he could have been,” was a quote used on ESPN 30 for 30’s Volume II trailer.
This is the ongoing theme in the article which shows you how fickle a footballer’s career path can be.
One moment, he’s destined for superstardom. The next moment, he’s looking back and wondering what went wrong.
Feel free to comment below with your own examples.
20. Sonny Pike
Sonny Pike might have been teammates with John Heitinga, Nigel de Jong, Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder during the Englishman's days at the Ajax youth academy.
Pike, the nephew of former Tottenham Hotspur striker Mark Falco, was ordained as the next George Best.
Sonny never made the pros.
In his own words (via James Dart at The Guardian):
I couldn't take it, and I got ill, really screwed up. I stopped going to training and stuff, because I was so screwed up I couldn't hack it. Looking back, it's amazing how low I was. Ajax completely forgot about me. That's why I packed it in. I guess it was during that period that I realised how much psychologists can help people.
What was the primary source of Pike's mental fragility? In a 1999 BBC news article, it stated that his rise to prominence created a rift in his parents' relationship.
His dad was football, football and football. Maybe, he was living vicariously through his son. The problem was that Pike's mum wanted normality and the clash of how to raise their son led to irreconcilable differences—a 22-year marriage down the drain.
It was a unenviable burden for a teenager, who was already struggling with his personal demons in trying to appease the high expectations people had placed in him.
19. Johan Vonlanthen
When Johan Vonlanthen joined PSV Eindhoven, his potential to be great was the same as Arjen Robben and Jordi Hoogstrate.
The Swiss Football Association couldn't believe that Colombian-born Vonlanthen had emerged out of nowhere—he was their godsend.
Switzerland went the extra distance to maximise his ability by giving him opportunities to prove his worth, regardless of his age.
There's an amusing anecdote he gives to FourFourTwo.com clarifying why Colombia didn't call him up to prevent him switching his allegiance to the Schweizer Nati:
My mother married a Swiss guy and moved there in 1990 and that’s why I relocated to Switzerland. I never thought that I would become a Swiss international. I don’t think anyone in Colombian football knew that I existed, especially with a second name like Vonlanthen.
Coincidentally around the same time, there was a tug-of-war between Poland and Germany over Lukas Podolski's services. He was in the Bundesliga system with Köln but Podolski is so Polish-sounding that there was no way that Germany could keep him under wraps.
Vonlanthen was 18 years and 137 days old when he scored against France at Euro 2004, becoming the youngest ever goal scorer at the Euros. He had just broken the record Wayne Rooney set four days earlier against the Swiss.
For 28-year-old Robben, it's not a matter of if, but when he'll throw in the towel.
18. Elvir Baljić
In 1999, Real Madrid added some serious firepower.
Signing a possible world-beater in Nicolas Anelka. Recruiting the mesmeric dribbler Perica Ognjenović and a genius in Steve McManaman.
Then there was Bosnian forward Elvir Baljić from Fenerbahçe, who cost the club €18 million, but ended up playing 11 La Liga games.
His career was debilitated by a cruciate ligament injury plus newly elected president Florentino Pérez wanted nothing to do with Baljić.
17. Nick Barmby
Nick Barmby was a technically adept player but was he going to scale the same heights as Roberto Baggio?
Of course not. Talk about a prediction out of left field from Pelé, which almost pips his comment about Nicky Butt being the best player at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
In defence of Pelé, Barmby was selected as a rising star during the 1993 FIFA World Youth Championship. The greatest player ever may have been swayed by Barmby's displays during that competition.
If you reexamine the players in the tournament, you'll find that it was a weak class in general compared to the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Adriano Gerlin, the 1993 FWYC Golden Ball recipient, turned out to be a journeyman.
Henry Zambrano, the top scorer of the tournament, found that scoring at senior level was significantly tougher.
Fabián O'Neill could never get it altogether.
Kevin Muscat was more known for his unsporting conduct than his footballing prowess.
In 2004, Jamie Jackson published an insightful piece for The Observer, which illustrated the struggles Barmby faced during his career—struggles that stopped him from even achieving half of what Baggio did:
Barmby, who played rugby league at Kelvin Hall school, has been prone to injuries since he was a teenager.
But, by the time Gerry Francis had replaced Ardiles as Spurs manager, Barmby was unsettled.
He signed for Middlesbrough that August...he and his wife, Mandy, also from Hull, were homesick.
He was attached to home. When he was at Liverpool and Everton he was chauffeur-driven over from Hull, which is strange because [although] Hull is and always will be his home, he'd had the falling-out with his mum and dad.
He was substituted by the Forest manager, Joe Kinnear. The pair clashed at half-time and Barmby jumped into his car and drove off. He had lasted less than a month.
16. Caio Ribeiro
Inter Milan had offloaded former European Golden Shoe holder Darko Pančev and enigmatic Dutch technician Dennis "Donkey" Bergkamp. Both had flopped at the Nerazzurri.
The donkey moniker is a reference to the Italian press slating Bergkamp's performances to the extent that he was called a donkey.
Yes, that was probably enough evidence for Stuart Pearce to write his now infamous column about why then-Arsenal manager Bruce Rioch had wasted his cash on Bergkamp.
Truth be told, Pearce wasn't saying anything out there like Pelé. What Pearce said was the equivalent of critiquing Villarreal's decision to sign Diego Forlán from Manchester United.
Inter had banked on three up-and-coming South Americans. 19-year-old Caio Ribeiro, 21-year-old Javier Zanetti and 22-year-old Roberto Carlos.
Caio was the can't-miss prospect and at the time, his upside was just as high as fellow teenage sensations Clarence Seedorf and Joseba Etxeberria.
Football aficionados swooned over Caio's magic during the 1995 FIFA World Youth Championship. Unsurprisingly, he was awarded the Golden Ball (via FIFA):
Most experts picked out Caio as the shining star. An elegant passer and goalscorer, Caio netted five times and made two vital assists on the way to the final. Around the penalty area he was always one step ahead, and his sublime technique did the rest.
The next season, Carlos was playing for Real Madrid and Inter sold Caio to Napoli.
Carlos retired as one of most memorable wing-backs to play the game whilst Caio never fulfilled his potential.
Seventeen years later, Zanetti is still playing for Inter.
15. Sergio Santamaría
Fifteen years later, No. 1 and 17 still look the same.
For whatever reason, Sergio Santamaría wore No. 2, even though he played as a deep-lying forward behind David.
The FIFA Study Group wrote:
Sergio, under contract to FC Barcelona, could be the next young Spanish player to make a name for himself with this famous club. His collection of trophies has started already with the Golden Ball for best player of the tournament.
Sergio managed to maintain his good form right throughout the tournament, while David's form dropped more and more towards the end, and in fact, he did not score any goals at all after the seven he got in the group stages.
Sergio was more of a varied all-round attacker. He often fell back into midfield and then went forward in an explosive run.
Like Roberto Trashorras, Sergio was a contributor to the Barça cantera, but he wasn't as comfortable in the top flight.
14. Wayne Harrison
In the space of five years, Wayne Harrison went from the most expensive teenager in England to accepting that his professional career had ended before it even started.
Twelve of his 23 operations were on his knee, but he also had hernia, groin and shoulder issues.
This quote to the Liverpool Echo gives the impression that he's taken a life-must-go-on approach: "The best way to look at it now is that I don't think anything can ever be as bad as it has been."
13. Billy Kenny
Prior to suffering shin splints, Billy Kenny would train, go home, rest his body and repeat. It was a monotonous routine that kept him away from trouble.
Once that habit was broken due to injury and him being excused from training, he started hanging around the wrong crowd.
When Wayne Rooney burst on the scene as an Everton prodigy, Kenny used his own sad story as a cautionary tale to warn Rooney (via Claire Collins at the Sunday People):
But when I couldn't train I was lost—I didn't know what to do with myself. I was lost, frustrated and bored.
I hadn't got drunk or even been on a proper night out before—I just trained and trained every day.
Going out became a release ... I also drank ten pints and got totally wrecked.
I was taking coke everywhere and anywhere I could ... in pubs, clubs and even in my bedroom at home.
When Mike Walker told me the news [being fired from the club] I was completely numb. I couldn't believe what they were saying and I didn't know where to turn.
Wayne needs to watch out for the vices that could ruin him. The wads of cash and new-found fame will bring temptations that he must be strong enough to resist.
If he doesn't, he'll end up like me—a failure.
Substance abuse prematurely ended Kenny's pro career when he was just 21 years old.
12. Gerard López
It seems Barcelona didn't learn from the Gerard López case, where he left the B team to become a star midfielder at Valencia, prompting Barça to buy him back at €22 million. History repeated itself when Cesc Fàbregas returned home for €29 million.
Gerard was an abysmal failure whereas Fàbregas has been world-class this season. He's scored five times and created nine goals in La Liga.
11. Peter Marinello
Arsenal's decision to break the British transfer fee record in 1928 to sign David Jack for £10,890 was spot-on. He went on to score 124 times in 208 games and was named the 49th greatest Gunner.
Forty-two years later, Peter Marinello came to Arsenal as the Gunners' answer to George Best. Not only did Marinello face constant media comparisons to Best, who won the Ballon d'Or two years earlier, Peter was the £100,000 man at the club.
The burden of the transfer fee lessened to some extent when Alan Ball was signed from Everton for £220,000.
Though, Marinello was easily seduced by the vices that came with being a wealthy young footballer.
He wanted out of Arsenal and it became a decision he later regretted.
10. Diego Latorre
Before Gabriel Batistuta linked up with Rui Costa at Fiorentina, Batigol worked well in tandem with Diego Latorre.
Ironically, Fiorentina were going to sign Latorre, until Batistuta's goals persuaded them to sign him.
Latorre, dubbed the new Maradona, ended up joining Fiorentina a year later, but he was on the outer looking in.
He played in Spain for a few years before returning to the Primera División. Meanwhile, Batistuta became one of the best players of his generation, whereas Latorre only played six games for the Argentine national team.
9. Stan Collymore
Stan Collymore blended skill with pure athleticism. He scored goals at will for Nottingham Forest, which convinced Liverpool to break the bank for him.
He was a perfectionist and the inability to score goals week in, week out for the Reds messed with his psyche.
The £8.5 million transfer fee was more of a detriment to him than Liverpool's bank account.
Depression isn't something that comes and goes. It's a mental illness, which can lead to tragic endings, and his mental fragility cost him the chance of being something special.
Mantorras had some electric moments in his first season with Benfica.
A knee injury limited him to nine games in the next two seasons. When he came back, it was quite clear that he lost that dynamism which made him so dangerous.
His knees were so frail that he could only play quarters to limit the risk of being injured again.
He embraced the role as an impact sub, scoring consistently off the bench, like equalising goals against Beira Mar and Vitoria Setubal.
7. Philippe Christanval
Philippe Christanval was the first defender to claim the Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year award. He had the physique, he had no troubles passing out from the back and was on his way to becoming an elite centre-back.
He went through a slump when he made a big move to Barcelona. Coupled with a few injuries, he lost confidence in himself.
Arsène Wenger, who has rescued countless floundering careers, opted not to sign Christanval, who retired at just 29 years old after no professional club were willing to offer him a contract he wanted.
6. Justin Fashanu
Justin Fashanu had the potential to live up to his £1 million transfer fee but Brian Clough's animosity towards Fashanu's sexuality ensured Justin's future at Nottingham Forest was bleak.
Roger Haywood, Fashanu's former business manager, wrote in the Daily Mail:
After Brian Clough criticised him at Nottingham Forest for going to 'gay clubs,' Justin was devastated and it crushed his confidence.
He was never bothered about racism, he just accepted it and showed people what a good footballer he was. But Clough's comments dispirited him.
When Justin publicly admitted he was gay, there was no support network in football, no one to stand shoulder to shoulder with him.
In 1998, Fashanu took his own life.
5. Sebastian Deisler
England had David Beckham. Germany had Sebastian Deisler.
Deisler was substantially more talented than Beckham, but David's resiliency is the reason why he's still playing professional football.
Deisler was challenged physically and mentally. His body just betrayed him time after time. The constant rehabbing, combined with being injured again and having to repeat the process, was too much for him.
His mind played tricks on him and he couldn't handle the pressure the media had heaped on him (via Marcus Christenson at The Observer): "I know that I am suffering from depression, that I am suffering from an illness. I need to be left in peace. When the time is right, I will say more."
Three years later, he retired and he was blunt about his mental state (via Raphael Honigstein at The Guardian): "I don't want this torture anymore."
Adaílton was the first player to reach 10 goals in one FIFA U-20 World Cup tournament. He was a goal machine, netting 24 goals in 19 games for the Brazilian U-20 team.
He was nowhere near as prolific for Parma or Paris Saint-Germain on loan.
He had a renaissance of sorts with Verona, but by then, it was evident that Adaílton wouldn't be the prolific goal scorer many had expected him to be.
3. Gianluigi Lentini
AC Milan's decision to sign Gianluigi Lentini for £13 million was like Inter Milan breaking the world transfer fee record to sign Bologna forward Harald Nielsen.
Both transfers didn't pan out.
Lentini never had a chance to prove his worth after a horrific car crash robbed him of his acceleration.
Nielsen began delving into non-football related areas like starting various companies and writing books.
Arsenal fans get frustrated watching Gervinho beat defenders with ease, yet because he's staring at the ground, he has no idea when to release the ball or not.
Denílson dribbled blind for his entire career. He was given so many chances by Brazil, 61 caps in all, but he was more entertainer than footballer.
Real Betis broke the world transfer fee record to sign him but after a season or so, deep down in their minds, they knew Denílson couldn't make the transition into an elite player, let alone a world-class player.
1. Nii Lamptey
Forget about Alessandro Del Piero or Juan Sebastián Verón. Nii Lamptey was the star at the 1991 FIFA U-17 World Championship.
Pelé jinxed Lamptey by saying the Ghanaian was the "next Pelé."
Seeking asylum in Europe, being ripped off by football agents, losing two of his children and being exiled from the national team crushed Lamptey.
Nick Neururer, a scout, said it best (via Brian Oliver at The Observer): "That year at PSV, sensational. But he could not cope. Too much, too young. Too many expectations, too much trouble with agents."
Looking into the Future
If we were to compile this same list under the same circumstances in two decades' time, which current players would you include? Please comment below with your list.
Here’s my top 20.
1. Lucas Moura: Unless he’s as productive as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, Lucas will be Denílson 2.0.
2. Freddy Adu: He was one of the MLS’ highest paid players before reaching the age of majority. Has yet to stay at a club for five seasons or more. Perfect example of an early bloomer.
3. Yann M'Vila: His holier-than-thou approach has left his career in limbo. Could find himself behind bars if his reckless behaviour continues.
4. Breno: A man-child of a defender but mental instability derailed his professional career.
5. Jorge Valdívia: 10/10 for technique, creativity and flair. Refusal to push himself to play in Europe will always leave us wondering of what could have been.
6. Bojan Krkić: Showed so much potential at Barcelona and then it was all over.
7. Ricardo Quaresma: Flopped at Barça, Inter Milan and Chelsea. Never changed his "big fish in a small pond" mentality.
8. Mario Balotelli: No one is bigger than the team. José Mourinho was right in branding Super Mario as uncoachable. Limitless ability but plays like a limited forward.
9. Lulinha: 15 goals in 10 games for the Brazilian U-17s. Was hyped up like Neymar but didn’t have the killer instinct that the Santos forward possesses.
10. Matías Fernández: His highlights at Colo-Colo were spectacular but he couldn’t replicate those plays in Europe.
11. Alberto Bueno: Didn’t cope well with rejection from Real Madrid after being told left, right and centre that he was the future of Spanish football.
12. Giovani dos Santos: Has the tangibles but lacks the intangibles.
13. Dominic Adiyiah: Did he fluke his way to winning the FIFA U-20 Golden Ball and Shoe?
14. Javier Portillo: Prolific for Real Madrid’s cantera but didn’t make the step up.
15. Kerlon: His seal dribble drew the ire of opposing players and consequently, led to various assaults on the field, which crippled his body.
16. Thomas Broich: Once included in the same sentence as Philipp Lahm, Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger. A combination of falling out of love with the game and the inability to consistently produce at the top level are reasons why Broich is making a living in Australia.
17. Danijel Aleksić: Head and shoulders above everyone at youth level. The players he dominated at that level overtook him in the pros.
18. Ravel Morrison: One of the most precocious players to come out of Moss Lane. Was such a liability off-the-field that Manchester United let him go.
19. Johnnier Montaño: Was already a Colombian international at just 16. Sucked in by the temptations.
20. Bruno Cheyrou: The new Zinedine Zidane? No way, no how.
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