Football is an unforgiving sport.
The best of the best achieve their status through the strength of their mentality, their focus, their dedication to fitness and their will to win as much as the talent they were born with.
Every year new names start to circulate the globe as the hype machine touts more potential superstars. Will they make it to the top? And if they do, how long can they stay there?
Many players possessing all the ability in the world have come and gone without reaching the periods of sustained success that their talent warranted. But they remain in our memories because of the moments of brilliance that they gave us.
Fans cast their minds back and say "he could have been one of the greatest." There is something appealing in their failure. They seem more human than footballers who fulfill their statistical expectations with robotic efficiency.
The following is a list of the top 10 footballers who embody the mystique of the burnout. Some of them were unable to keep themselves at the pinnacle of the game. Others were unable to reach it at all. They are all great players who delivered less than their talent promised.
Roma made Antonio Cassano the most expensive teenager in the world when they bought him in 2001. After an incredible introduction to Calcio two years earlier with a wonder goal against Inter, Cassano was expected to eventually inherit Francesco Totti's crown at Roma and lead Italy's next generation.
After early clashes with Fabio Capello, the golden boy from Bari began fulfilling those expectations. He formed a great partnership with Totti in a Roma side that played some of the best football in Europe in 2003-2004 and nearly won the title. Cassano then stood in for his mentor at Euro 2004 and was easily his country's best player.
Six years later, Cassano's haul of 18 goals in all competitions in 2003-2004 remains the best of his career, and he has only scored once more for Italy in a total of 15 caps. He is still among the best players in Italy, but his attitude and temperament have caused him to miss the better part of two full seasons, and Sampdoria were the only club willing to gamble on signing him in 2007.
He has done remarkably well there, scoring in double figures every season, assisting countless more goals, beating Serie A's top sides and eventually leading 'Doria into a Champions League spot. But he is 28 now, with no trophies or glory with the national side to his name. He runs a serious risk of never even participating in a World Cup, which is truly a shame.
Around the turn of the century, Gaizka Mendieta's star was burning bright. The Basque playmaker captained Valencia to back-to-back Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001, and was voted Europe's best midfielder for both seasons. He was also given regular creative duties for a Spain side that was still seeking an identity.
Mendieta possessed the technique and passing ability of a No. 10 with the work rate of a box to box midfielder. He scored fantastic goals, he tracked back to tackle, he found gaps in opposition defenses, and he drove his team onward as the undisputed leader. His skills had the managers of many top clubs on alert when it became clear that Valencia would have to sell their star due to a lack of funds.
Eventually, Lazio snapped him up for a cool 48 million pounds in 2001.
It proved to be a mistake from which Mendieta would never recover. He failed to adapt to the system at Lazio, and to Italian football in general, making only 20 appearances and scoring no goals. By the end of the season he had long since lost his place in the team.
Despite a brief resurgence at the 2002 World Cup and a subsequent loan transfer to Barcelona, Mendieta never again came close to rediscovering the form of his Valencia days. He ended up at Middlesbrough, where he made sporadic appearances for five seasons before finally hanging up the boots in 2008.
Robbie Fowler exploded onto the Premiership scene in spectacular fashion, scoring on his debut and bagging five a couple weeks later. Before Michael Owen came along, Liverpool had possibly a better prospect on their books.
Fowler was a complete footballer: technically sound and able to beat players, two-footed (with the advantage of being naturally left-footed), and able to score any type of goal. He scored over 30 goals for three straight seasons from 1994-1997.
A knee injury disrupted Fowler's '97/'98 season, and he never regained the untouchable status that he had previously held at Anfield. The emergence of Michael Owen made it that much harder for Fowler to get back in the first team.
Disputes with the Liverpool coaching staff and accusations of cocaine use did not enhance Fowler's reputation as a professional. Fans contend to this day that Fowler was the best English finisher of his generation, but Gerard Houllier benched the striker before selling him to Leeds due to concerns about Fowler's fitness and team ethic.
Liverpool fans still refer to Fowler simply as "God," due to his goal scoring exploits for the club. But Fowler never made a significant contribution for England. He was included in the squads for Euro '96, Euro 2000, and the 2002 World Cup, but never established himself as a regular first-teamer and only made 26 appearances. For a player who once looked likely to inherit Alan Shearer's number 9 shirt, that is not enough.
In many ways, the achievements of Matt Le Tissier trump those of any other player on this list. He regularly scored 15-20 goals a season from midfield, while playing for Southampton for the entirety of his career.
Not just any goals, either; he scored some of the greatest goals in the history of English football. Le Tissier was one of the most talented Englishmen to ever play the game, with amazing close control and shooting ability. He was a footballing genius, capable of conjuring a goal out of absolutely nothing.
But Le Tiss, or "Le God," as the Southampton faithful referred to him, never made an impact on world football and is thus not widely known or acknowledged. English managers in the '90s viewed him as a luxury player, a midfielder who relied on moments of brilliance to make up for not tracking back to help in defense.
Le Tissier was also never the fittest athlete, which discouraged managers from picking him for England. He could have been the focal point of an England team that was starved of creativity and confidence in the early '90s, but instead only earned eight caps. He was not given many chances, but he also never impressed while playing for the senior England side.
Le Tissier remains a legend in Southampton. He is respected throughout England for sacrificing trophies and glory to remain loyal to his team. But he might have been a household name all over the world if things had gone differently.
The Sporting Lisbon side of 2001/2002 boasted two very promising young wingers: Cristiano Ronaldo and Ricardo Quaresma.
The teenagers both broke into the first team, but it was Quaresma who demonstrated more composure and match-winning abilities over the course of that season and the next. He appeared to be the perfect heir to Luis Figo, except that he was faster than his predecessor.
With exceptional pace, wonderful dribbling ability and great shooting technique, Quaresma was the brightest prospect on Sporting's roster.
Due to a combination of bad attitude and lack of support from his managers, Quaresma's career has gone in the opposite direction of his one-time teammate Ronaldo's. Arriving with much optimism at Barcelona in 2003, "The Mustang" was given limited opportunities in a side that featured the rising Ronaldinho and the great Marc Overmars in creative wide positions.
Quaresma displayed bad judgement by criticizing manager Frank Rijkaard, and then saw his season and hopes of playing at Euro 2004 ruined by a broken leg.
Barcelona deemed him surplus to requirements, and shipped him off to Porto the next season. Quaresma picked up right where he had left off in the Superliga, and was the league's best player for four seasons before another big money transfer to Inter Milan. He showed early promise at Inter, but promptly disappeared from the squad as Jose Mourinho abandoned the use of wingers. Quaresma's managers at big clubs and at international level have been very reluctant to give him any playing time.
Their reasoning cannot be known for certain, but the player does tend to overindulge at times with stepovers and tricks. There appear to be serious doubts about his teamwork and commitment in training.
Whatever the reason, the dream of seeing Quaresma and Ronaldo tearing the opposition to shreds for Portugal is fading fast.
There have been many players burdened with the expectations of being labelled the "new Maradona" after they have donned the fabled number 10 shirt for Argentina. Lionel Messi may draw the most accurate parallels in terms of success, but Ariel Ortega ran the great man closest when it came to mentality. There was an iconic sense of self-destruction about Maradona's playing career, and Ortega has matched him in many ways.
"El Burrito" served as El Diego's deputy at the 1994 World Cup, and was thrust into action once Maradona was expelled from the competition for doping. The young successor performed brilliantly with his teammates against Romania, but ended up losing a wild match. Ortega nonetheless established himself as Argentina's playmaker of the future.
Ortega's performances for Argentina, however, always overshadowed his play for European clubs. He bounced around from Valencia to Sampdoria to Parma from 1997-2000, only managing to show glimpses of the genius that was regularly displayed at France '98 and World Cup qualifiers. He also offered an early indication of his questionable mentality at the '98 World Cup when he got himself sent off for headbutting Edwin Van der Saar, sabotaging his country's campaign in the process.
Ortega liked nothing more than taking on defenders, sometimes going back to beat the same man two or three times instead of continuing on towards goal. European clubs lost patience with him and he returned to River Plate, where his style was valued by managers and worshipped by fans.
Domestic success was followed by an incredibly disappointing performance at the 2002 World Cup, from which Ortega never recovered. He transferred to Fenerbahce for one last crack at European football; he lasted half a season before breaking contract and refusing to return to the club. FIFA suspended him and Ortega was out of football for over a year. He eventually returned to play in the Argentine league, but his best days were long gone and he never achieved the lofty global status once predicted for him.
Ortega recently admitted to being an alcoholic. He was an incredibly talented footballer who struggled with attitude, ego and addiction. Just like Maradona.
Another English striker who makes the list is fellow underachiever Robbie Fowler's one-time strike parter Stan Collymore.
"Stan the Man" had everything a world class striker could need: strength, speed, positioning, and an ability to score from any angle with either foot. He became well-known in England after beating an entire defense before looping a shot in from outside the box while playing for Nottingham Forest. It was just one of the 41 goals he scored for them in 65 games. Collymore's consistency and potential sealed a then-record transfer to Liverpool in 1995.
Collymore's best years continued at Liverpool, where he formed a fearsome partnership with Fowler and kept up his habit of scoring remarkable goals at a high frequency.
But it was also during his time at Anfield that Collymore began to display signs of his severe mental fragility. He alienated himself from teammates and coaches and became outcast from the "Spice Boys" group that existed at the club.
It got to the point where his own teammates stopped celebrating when he scored, and the Liverpool brass decided he had become a distraction and sold him to Aston Villa after just two seasons.
Thus began the nomadic final years of Collymore's career, when he played for Villa, Fulham, Leicester City, Bradford City, and Oviedo from 1997-2001. He only scored 14 total goals during that time, a period which was interrupted by tabloid scandals and his own treatment for Clinical Depression.
Collymore had long since ceased giving England managers reasons to pick him, and failed to add to the three caps he had earned by 1997. He had once shown signs of becoming a key player for his country, but instead retired at the age of 30 after a largely unfulfilled career.
Paul Gascoigne was possibly the most naturally talented English footballer ever. A true playmaker, he possessed amazing dribbling and passing skills, and a penchant for producing the unimaginable.
Unlike England's current players, he always wanted the ball in order to make every game his own. No one had more fun on the pitch than "Gazza" Unfortunately, it was the good times he had off the pitch that proved to be his downfall.
After breaking through in the English top flight with his hometown club, Newcastle, Gascoigne earned a big money move to Tottenham in 1988. He reached peak form in time for Italia '90, where he was a revelation and one of the tournament's best players. He returned the most popular player in England as "Gazzamania" swept the nation.
The following season he guided Spurs to the FA Cup Final, which was the turning point of his career. Clearly overexcited by the big occasion, Gazza tore his own knee ligaments when fouling Gary Charles with a horror challenge.
With a high profile transfer to Lazio already signed, the Roman club had to wait over a year for their new star to turn out.
Gascoigne's time in Serie A seemed doomed from the beginning. He made only 43 appearances during his three years at Lazio, the result of a bizarre string of serious injuries and tabloid incidents. Nevertheless, he remains a folk hero among the club's tifosi for the magical and humorous moments he provided for them.
Returning to Britain to play for Rangers in a bid to recapture his form in 1995, Gascoigne again achieved legendary status at the club with his brilliant performances and clownish behavior. His star shone at Euro '96, where he nearly helped England to their first trophy in thirty years. But Gazza's alcohol abuse started to catch up with him and his life spiraled out of control.
He was in the papers for all the wrong reasons in the run-up to France '98, and was controversially cut from the squad by Glenn Hoddle due to fitness concerns. It was a blow from which Gazza never recovered, and he did not play for his country again.
Paul Gascoigne certainly had a memorable career full of great moments and achievements, but with better guidance, a stable environment, and total focus on his football, he could have been one of the all-time greats of the sport.
Alvaro Recoba at his best was truly a sight to behold. The problem was that it was such a rare sight.
Recoba debuted for Inter as a largely unknown player in European football in 1997, but instantly made the headlines with a game-winning brace after coming on as a substitute. The quality of both goals was also an indication of things to come: one a rocket from thirty meters, the other a perfectly curled free kick.
Recoba charged at defenders like a bull, dribbling through tight spaces with remarkable ease. He had a playmaker's vision and passing ability, and unbelievable shot technique with his left foot. In addition, he was an undisputed master of free kicks. He seemed to only score amazing goals, and had a skills set that was comparable to the great Maradona's.
Unfortunately, Recoba's mentality let him down. Something always prevented him from getting on track and finding consistency. He was banned for four months during the fake passport scandal that swept Serie A, and picked up countless little injuries that suggested he did not keep himself fit enough.
Inter made him one of the highest paid players on Earth, but he spent most of his time at the club sitting on the bench. Coaches were reluctant to trust him and build a team around him. When he was given a decent run of games he never lasted a whole season and was unable to inspire the team to any trophies. He was the perfect embodiment of the dysfunction that engulfed Inter around the turn of the century.
Recoba provided unforgettable glimpses of his talent, but in the end he will be remembered more for what he did not accomplish.
It says all you need to know that a player who won the English title (twice), European Cup, and European Player of the Year is still football's biggest underachiever. George Best's talent could have won him so much more.
Best rocketed to superstardom as a 17-year-old for Manchester United and blazed his own trail in British football as a flair player. He remains one of the most elegant dribblers the world has ever seen, and fearlessly rode challenges with great balance in a time of brutal tackling.
Dubbed "The Fifth Beatle," Best peaked at the young age of 22, winning the European Cup and Balon D'or in 1968. His crowd-pleasing ways and rock star lifestyle made him one of football's first superstars. There was no one at that time to advise him on how to handle the height of fame he achieved. Best began enjoying his booze and women at the expense of his football career.
He continued carrying a United team that was going through transition, scoring over 20 goals for three straight seasons and lighting up Old Trafford with his magic. But the games and goals dried up in 1972, with George scoring just eight times in his final two seasons at United. He then, incredibly, walked away from the game in 1974 at the age of 27.
Best returned of course, making appearances for various British and American teams, but he never again reached the god-like level of his youth. Serious problems with alcoholism dogged him for the rest of his days.
Despite his problems and the fact that he never appeared at a World Cup, George Best is still recognized as one of the game's greatest ever players. Just imagine how much he could have achieved if he had been more dedicated to football and played a full career at the top.