Being considered as one of the next great young footballers is certainly a badge of honour, but it can also be an unnecessary layer of pressure that can cause those young players to either rise to the occasion or fall through the cracks. Sadly, there are a number of examples of the latter, especially among those who have been compared to some of the game’s all-time greats at too early of a point in their career.
Whether it was because of attitude problems, or serious injuries at an early stage in their career, or just extended periods of poor form for whichever club they played for, these 10 footballers are a stark reminder that not everyone playing the beautiful game can live up to the monumental hype put on them as a youngster.
Certain players like Yoann Gourcuff, Giovani dos Santos, Nani and Alexandre Pato arguably still have time at the current stage in their careers to salvage something, so they’ve been left off this list. For those who did make it, they’ve either retired or it’s arguably too little too late for them. Being compared to certain players like Pele (as was the case for Freddy Adu and Robinho) and Diego Maradona (as was the case for Pablo Aimar) can cause unnecessarily high expectations to be placed on your shoulders, and not living up to such wild pressure is more or less a foregone conclusion. As sad as it might be, these players couldn’t quite make the most of their huge potential.
If anything, it’s advice to football pundits the world over that one should have a threshold for how highly they rate young players, if only to avoid inevitable disappointment. Here are 10 of the most hyped footballers of all time who didn’t live up to their potential, ranked in alphabetical order of their last name.
Sublimely talented, but maddeningly inconsistent and enigmatic, Adriano’s career has been one of the most frustrating to watch both on and off the pitch. After a very impressive start to his career in Brazil and then Italy with Parma and Inter, the striker’s love for nightlife and alcohol and his poor fitness would have a negative effect on his career in general, causing him to be left off the Brazilian national team and benched by then-Inter manager Roberto Mancini. His return to Brazil with Sao Paulo and Flamengo would be followed by a short-lived and unsuccessful stint with Roma before returning to his home country. He most recently signed with French Ligue 2 side Le Havre.
9 Freddy Adu
When you get comparisons at the age of 14 to arguably the greatest player of all time, chances are you’re doomed to have those expectations follow you around for the rest of your career – especially if your actual playing career falls monumentally short of that. For American forward Freddy Adu, his reputation as “the next Pele" has arguably been his undoing, even though he’s only 25. That said, the Ghanaian-born Adu has experienced a number of poor, short-lived stints at clubs like Benfica and the several clubs he was loaned to while with the Lisbon club, following a decent start with D.C. United in the MLS. His last club was Jagodina in Serbia, who he didn’t even play a league game for.
8 Pablo Aimar
Like Adu’s comparison to Pele, many Argentine youngsters have been given the gigantic tag of the “new Maradona” – many of whom don’t even come close to living up to it. One such example is Pablo Aimar: the playmaking midfielder signed with Valencia in Spain from River Plate in his early 20s for a fee of $27 million. Aimar's time with Los Che was blighted by injuries including a bout with meningitis and he would later sign with Real Zaragoza and Benfica, and most recently played club football in Malaysia. Aimar has apparently gone back to River Plate to train with the team, but injuries may hold him back from signing a contract.
7 Hatem Ben Arfa
A product of the famous Clairefontaine footballing academy in his native France, Hatem Ben Arfa built up a reputation at a young age for being one of the next great French talents – in fact, he was already seen as that when he was only 15. However, Ben Arfa’s attitude problems and spats with other players – often during training – and coaches has overshadowed any flashes of brilliance on the pitch. A short-lived stint at Hull City while on loan at Newcastle United has led to him being transferred to Nice in his home country – who he can’t even play for yet due to FIFA’s rule of only being allowed to play for two clubs maximum per season.
6 Sebastian Deisler
Unlike a number of other players on this list, Sebastian Deisler’s inability to live up to huge expectations is more a result of bad luck than anything else. Once branded as the “future of German football,” the winger played mostly for Hertha BSC Berlin and Bayern Munich in a career that was cut short thanks to a number of major knee injuries that caused him to be away from the pitch for extended periods of time. This, as well as bouts with depression that led to him being treated in an ambulance following a relapse, caused Deisler to eventually retire from football at only 27 years of age.
Starting off his career as a young dribbling maestro for Sao Paulo in his native Brazil, Denilson sealed an approximately $31.4 million move to Spanish side Real Betis in 1998 – a world transfer record at the time. His time at the club was up and down, and included the team being relegated to the Segunda Division in 2000 before returning to La Liga and making the Champions League in 2004-05. However, Denilson had fallen down the pecking order at this point, and would play a fairly short stint at French side Bordeaux before signing with clubs in Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Vietnam and Greece prior to his retirement.
4 Ricardo Quaresma
You could say Ricardo Quaresma’s finally starting to get his career somewhat back on track, with a successful season last year with Porto and just missing Portugal’s 2014 World Cup squad. However, the winger with quite an array of fancy footwork was once hailed as a talent with just as much promise as his countryman Cristiano Ronaldo has largely failed to live up to high expectations, as he’s been criticized for having attitude problems and purported selfishness on the pitch. To make matters worse, he was awarded the Bidone d’oro (Golden Trashcan) award for being the Serie A’s most disappointing player in 2008 while with Internazionale.
3 Jose Antonio Reyes
As someone who made his senior team debut with Sevilla at the age of only 16, to be followed by signing with Arsenal at age 20, you could say that much was expected of this Spanish winger’s future. Although he’s turned out to be a decent player, Jose Antonio Reyes hasn’t exactly been the offensive dynamo people hoped he would be, with his time at Arsenal being largely highlighted by homesickness and inconsistent play despite winning the league title with them in 2004. His career has since seen him don the kits of Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Benfica and Sevilla, who he’s been playing with since 2012.
Similar to Freddy Adu, Robinho’s skills were compared to those of Pele when he was barely into his teens. Unlike Adu, however, Robinho was considered the next Pele by the man himself. His form for Pele’s former club Santos was sensational, earning him a big money move to Real Madrid in 2005. He did fairly well with Los Galacticos despite needing time to make himself a regular, but his $48 million move to Manchester City was a definite setback for his career. Signing with the big-spending club despite wanting to sign with Chelsea, Robinho did well in his first season but injuries caused him to be an afterthought, eventually going back to Santos on loan. He then signed with Milan, which was also an up and down time for him, and is currently back on loan again with Santos.
1 Jonathan Woodgate
Largely thanks to injuries, Jonathan Woodgate wasn’t named very often to the English national team, but his performances with Leeds and Newcastle United were apparently enough for Real Madrid to scoop him up in 2004 for a fee of $20.2 million. However, his time at the Bernabeu was largely a failure, with his first game seeing him score an own goal and get sent off. He only played 14 games in total, with constant injury problems greatly limiting his ability to even set foot on the pitch. Woodgate would then go back to England, signing with Middlesbrough before transferring to Tottenham Hotspur, Stoke City, and then back to Middlesbrough, where the 35-year-old still plays.