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Football's wonderkids that never made it

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Everyone loves a wonderkid.

The footballing world spends much of its time on its hands and knees, digging around in the dirt of lower league youth football, desperately looking for the next ‘new’ Peles, Maradonas, Ronaldos and Messis. But what of the old ‘new’ Peles, Maradonas, Ronaldos and Messis? The ones which were pulled from the soil as orchids and blossomed into weeds? The ones whose names cause you to instinctively go “Oh yeah! Him!” and head to Google to find out if they’ve died? What happened to them?…

Freddy Adu

Where are they now? Tampa Bay Rowdies

The name that will come up first in every discussion of prodigal flops, Freddy Adu’s promise evaporated like a Mini Milk in a sauna. Bursting onto the scene in 2004 as a cherubic faced 14-year-old, darting about the MLS as a pint-sized professional, signing massive multi-million dollar deals with Nike, having trials with Manchester United, signing for Benfica for £2m in 2007, then subsequently signing for pretty much every club whose name shows up as a broken red link on Wikipedia. His lowest ebb probably came at the hands of Blackpool, who offered him a trial, made him appear in a promotional video for their social media pages talking about his failed promise, then decided against actually offering him a contract.

Sonny Pike

Where are they now? Working as an East End taxi driver

In 1996, at the tender age of 14, Sonny Pike – the most vaunted in England – was doing adverts for Coca-Cola and McDonald’s with legs which were insured for £1million - without having a played a single game. He was essentially the first David Beckham, if David Beckham reached his peak in Year 9. Part of the prestigious Ajax youth set-up from the age of seven, Pike opted for the unusual career move of signing for Leyton Orient. Tragically, the intense media interest caused a teenage Pike to have a mental breakdown and leave the game altogether aged 17.

Gael Kakuta

Where are they now? Hebei China Fortune

Gael Kakuta was a talent so good Chelsea essentially got themselves banned from signing anyone else just to nab. The legal wranglings around his acrimonious move from Lens to the Blues eventually saw Chelsea’s transfer ban repealed, but a double ankle fracture meant Kakuta never lived up to his billing as a player worth committing crime for, like a footballing femme fatale. The winger was loaned around Europe before leaving the continent completely for the Chinese Super League.

Giovani dos Santos

Where are they now? LA Galaxy

There was a time when dos Santos was making such big waves in Barcelona’s La Masia academy that he was virtually drowning out the hype of one Leo Messi. He broke into a Barca first team containing Ronaldinho, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry at just 18, but strangely decided to move to a pre-title contender Tottenham at the end of the season, where he failed to break into a side containing Adel Taarabt and Tom Huddlestone. After spending a season on loan at Ipswich, he then electrified World Cup 2010 with a star turn in the Mexico squad, but a return to La Liga saw him feature for mid-table sides Mallorca and Villarreal before he hotfooted it to the MLS last summer.

Cherno Samba

Where are they now? Retired

The original Championship Manager legend. Samba, the virtual boy wonder with near perfect finishing, speed and dribbling stats, could never reach the heights of his digital avatar in our cruel physical world, but that’s not to say he didn’t show glimpses. He smashed in 132 goals in just 32 games for the St Joseph’s Academy, Blackheath side as a 13-year-old, a tally that – even if you were playing a video game – would pretty much necessitate you cheat. He was snapped up by Millwall, who turned down a – then very substantial – £2m bid for a 17-year-old Samba in 2002. His career took a detour, and he ended up being turned down a contract at Conference sides Forest Green Rovers, Alfreton Town and Mansfield Town after trialling at all three in the same summer. He retired last year due to injury, aged just 29.

Kerlon

Where are they now? Villa Nova

It took Neymar turning out to be ‘actually good’ to stop Brazil’s reputation as quality producers of world class talent from completely waning. If you trace the decline in the country’s wonderkids along the conveyor belt, you’ll find Kerlon, smack bang before Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, bouncing a ball on his head. A young Kerlon had many strings to his bow: he had vision, he could finish, he took a brilliant free kick, and he had skills. And it was these skills which made him and broke him. See, Kerlon had a special move. In a game where pretty much all variants of ‘kicking’ have been done, Kerlon actually came up with something completely innovative: the ‘seal dribble’. Kerlon could run while bouncing the ball on his head over and over. The only way to get it off him would be to grow tall enough that your leg span could reach above his head, or else concede a foul by booting him. And the latter is basically what everyone went for. Having once nearly moved to Manchester United for £18mil, he developed a reputation for being ‘injury prone’ (probably not helped by opponents constantly trying to decapitate him) and spells at Inter, Chievo and Ajax gave way to Fujieda of the Japanese Third Division and Malta’s Sliema Wanderers. He has since returned to Brazil and is plying his trades in their lower leagues.

Francis Jeffers

Where are they now? Retired

If you’re an Arsenal fan, then you probably spend every transfer window sat refreshing various sites, watching every other club in the league make big money signings while yours remains entirely inactive, like the only chaste rabbit in mating season. The reason you’ve had to content yourself with Arsene Wenger declaring the squad has ‘lots of potential’ for over a decade instead of buying players is Francis Jeffers. Having been a ‘fox in the box’ boy wonder at Everton, Arsene Wenger was persuaded to part with £8mil in 2001 (loads, then, basically) for a player he thought would almost certainly be the next Alan Shearer, if Alan Shearer was fused with Ian Wright and spiced with Michael Owen’s precociousness. It was a massive financial gamble, but he’d assessed it and decided Jeffers was the deal of the century. He wasn’t. Four goals in three years later, and was shipped off to Everton, and then Charlton, and then Blackburn, and on and on until he found himself turning out for Accrington Stanley with 41 goals to show for a 14 year career. Francis Jeffers is basically the lover which spurned Arsene Wenger and caused him to dress in black and swear off sex forever. You hurt Arsene, Francis, and he can’t move on.  

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