Football’s brightest wonderkids who flopped

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In a game where the obsession is to see youth stars rise to the top and fulfil their potential at the elite level of the game, the truth is that it’s not all that likely for the vast majority.

That leaves us in wonderkid limbo – talents hyped up to unreachable heights who then inevitably fail to meet the mark and fade into obscurity as a result. While there are the select few that thrive on the pressure, the ‘wonderkid’ tag for many can actually be a bit of a career destroyer.

90min looks back at 30 of the biggest ‘wonderkids’ to flop and fade away.

Kerlon was all skill / AFP/Getty Images

An attacking midfielder from Brazil, the hype over Kerlon was real when he was ripping it up in his homeland with his famous ‘seal dribble’ as a teenager.

Kerlon bagged eight goals from seven appearances at Under-17 national level and was picked up by Inter in 2008. By 2012, he was playing in the Japanese third and fourth tier, before moving onto America, Malta and back to Brazil, all below top flight level.

McEachran is now an EFL player / Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Truthfully, we could dedicate an entire list itself to Chelsea’s academy stars that didn’t crack on as expected.

McEachran was another who fell victim to the wonderkid curse. He made 22 first team appearances and represented England up to Under-21, but couldn’t break in full time and left in 2015 after a handful of loans, carving out a career in the EFL.

Bentley fell out of love with the game / PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

Impressing in the Arsenal youth set-up but failing to break in during their most dominant Premier League era, Bentley was England’s hottest prospect.

A tricky winger who could also play central and further forward, Bentley balled out at Blackburn and earned a £15m move to Tottenham in 2008, being handed a six-year deal. By 2014, he had retired aged 29, having fallen out of love with the game.

Ranger has never made it stick / Jacques Feeney/Getty Images

Growing up in the wrong circle put Ranger at a disadvantage from before his career had even started. Despite legal problems in his early days at Newcastle, Ranger thrived in the North East.

That had fizzled out by 2013, though, with countless more legal troubles and off the pitch drama bogging down his talent. Throughout the 2010s, plenty of clubs gambled on his talent, but nobody could help Ranger settle down and his career has come to a halt as a result.

Bothroyd found success on the other side of the world / Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

A product of the Arsenal academy, a young Bothroyd caught the eye of many in the early 2000s with his scoring exploits for Coventry.

He moved to Serie A in 2003 with Perugia, and was back in England by 2005. A successful run with Cardiff from 2008 to 2011 earned him one singular England cap in 2010, but he disappeared in 2014 when heading to play in Thailand. He’s remained a rather strange hit in Asian football ever since.

Kleberson was not a hit as expected / Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Following his performances as a midfield destroyer for Brazil as they won the 2002 World Cup, Sir Alex Ferguson brought Kleberson to United the following year, and it looked a serious coup.

That was until he got to England, posed next to Cristiano Ronaldo with the shirt, and everyone realised that he was actually well off the pace. Via a spell in Turkey, he was back in Brazil by 2007.

Adu was never making it with so much expectation / Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The infamous Freddy Adu. The 14-year-old being compared to Pele and being touted as the man that would save America’s football system.

Tallying up 15 teams across nine different countries, including everywhere from Brazil to Finland, Adu didn’t quite live up to the so obviously reasonable comparisons put on him as a child. Wonder why.

Fryers never made it at the top level / Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Spoiler; there’s a lot of English players in this list. It’s almost like there’s a problem with overhyping every young talent in the country from far too early.

Fryers impressed at youth level for Manchester United, but left in 2012 for free in search of first team football he thought he deserved. After a season in Belgium, Tottenham snapped up the left back. But after a season there, it was clear he wasn’t cut out for the top level.

Quincy turned to rap after football / Ben Radford/Getty Images

Starting at Ajax and then signing for a 2002 Arsenal side aged just 16 is a pretty decent start to what sounds like a promising career.

But Quincy failed to break in at the Gunners due to their side being so strong, and he left for Spartak Moscow in 2006. The winger returned to England on loan several times, but never looked like a top level player as he aged, and fizzled out into journeyman status, before retiring to become a rapper in 2020.

Assulin never made it / Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Trying out successfully for Barcelona in his youth, Assulin rose through the ranks with Barcelona B and broke into the first team briefly in 2009/10.

The Israeli left in 2010, however, moving to Manchester City but failing to break into the first team and leaving in 2012. He’s since been back to Spain and Israel in the lower tiers, and most recently played in Italy’s Serie D – a non-professional system.

Giovani had a revival in the States and in Mexico / Sergio Mejia/Getty Images

Another Barcelona product, Tottenham fans couldn’t believe their luck when they snapped up Giovani in 2008. The Mexican was one of the hottest prospects in world football.

Injury and inconsistency summed up his time in England, however, which saw him unsuccessfully loaned out several times before leaving in 2012. He’s since been a hit in MLS, but at a much lower level than anyone predicted he’d be playing at.

Ganso never got the move at the right time / Wagner Meier/Getty Images

If you didn’t have Ganso in your FIFA Ultimate Team back in the glory days of Brazilian sides, you were doing it all wrong.

The midfielder was ripping it up in his native Brazil with Santos and then Sao Paulo in the late 2000s and early 2010s, looking nailed on for that inevitable European move. It came too late, though, with Ganso moving to Sevilla in 2016 zapped of hype and failing to impress.

The man with the tricks / Gualter Fatia/Getty Images

Famed for his trivela technique – and not the fact that it masked his complete one footed-ness – Quaresma looked a shoo-in for the top.

A season with Barcelona didn’t work out, but from 2004 to 2008, Quaresma shone for Porto and earned a move to Inter. Again at the top, he couldn’t handle it. His best bits have since come in Turkey, which says all you need to know.

Babel was a hit on loan at Fulham / Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Usually drink, usually dance.

Working his way up through the Ajax system, Liverpool snapped up Babel in 2007, but the Dutchman failed to mould into a regular first team star as expected. Disciplinary problems marred his best years, but after a bright loan with Fulham, he’s seen out his senior years with Galatasaray and Ajax.

Vanden Borre has a strange career history / VI-Images/Getty Images

It’s hard to believe that someone capped 28 times at international level is a ‘flop’, but it’s also shocking knowing Vanden Borre got that many.

Training as an Anderlecht youth at the same time as Vincent Kompany, Vanden Borre was held in just as high a regard. But while the former became a Premier Legend, the latter was yo-yo’ing around Europe. He played in Congo in 2017 having only retired months before, then returned to Anderlecht in 2020 after a three year football absence.

Jeffers played at every level / Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

Debuting as a 16-year-old for Everton in 1997, Jeffers was bogged by injuries in Merseyside, but it didn’t stop him earning a 2001 move to Arsenal.

Injuries plagued Jeffers severely at Arsenal, meaning the young forward couldn’t get a look in or build up any game time. That stint ravaged his career and he left in 2004. He retired after a stint with Accrington Stanley in 2013, with one England cap – and one goal – to his name.

Macheda has found a home in Greece / BSR Agency/Getty Images

When Macheda was trusted to find a winner for United and keep their title hopes alive in 2009 – and delivered on that trust – his future looked bright.

The 17-year-old popped up out of nowhere and shot to stardom with his wonder debut goal. Truthfully, though, that was as good as it got and he failed to live up to the hype. He’s since found his level with Greek side Panathinaikos.

Afellay failed at Stoke / Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Balling out as a youth for PSV, Afellay’s talent was affirmed when Barcelona brought him to Camp Nou in 2011.

It became very quickly apparent, however, that Afellay wasn’t quite what they’d hoped compared to previous Dutch Barcelona alumni. He ended up at Stoke in 2015 and couldn’t hack it there; the true test of a footballer’s ability.

Pennant never lived up to the very high hype / Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

When a peak Arsenal spend a record £2m fee on a 15-year-old winger, there has to be something special going on there.

That was the hope in 1999, but the reality looked a lot different for Pennant. He didn’t break in at the Gunners, and after leaving in 2005, he played just about everywhere in England and even headed to India and Singapore in the 2010s. 15 clubs, 25 goals.

Great name, not so great footballer / Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

Threatening to take Feyenoord to court in order to push through his move to Real Madrid in 2007, Drenthe was committed.

Or not. The Dutchman flopped immediately at the top level and – after Everton thought he’d be handy on loan – moved to Russia, Turkey and Abu Dhabi before briefly switching football for music in 2016, before returning with Sparta Rotterdam in 2018. Shame, he had a proper footballer’s name.

Januzaj was meant to be the man to lead United into a new era / Stu Forster/Getty Images

A beacon of hope in a desolate and swept under the carpet 2013/14 season at Manchester United, Januzaj’s debut brace shot him to stardom.

The Belgian winger had a trick in his locker and ripped up youth levels. His debut promised United a bright future, but unfortunately he never kicked on after being given the number 11 shirt and left in 2017. The one that got away.

Saviola fizzled out after a quick start / Bagu Blanco/Getty Images

Heading to Barcelona from River Plate as a 19-year-old, Saviola bagged 17 goals in his debut season and looked set to become one of football’s greatest forwards.

That was as good as it got, though, and a three-year deal with Real Madrid in 2007 didn’t show any signs of a revival. Injuries were cruel to the Argentine, who ended up at Olympiacos in 2013.

Liverpool thought they had something special in Le Tallec / Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

Shining in the Le Havre academy, Liverpool thought they had snapped up the second coming of Zinedine Zidane in 2001 following Le Tallec’s performances at international youth level.

Spoiler – he wasn’t. He was back in France full time by 2008 after a handful of loans and continued to fall down the ladder as his career went on, retiring playing amateur football in 2021.

He wasn’t doing that often for Sunderland… / Michael Regan/Getty Images

Two bright seasons as a youngster for Everton was enough to convince Manchester City to spend £12m on Rodwell in 2012.

The English midfielder never really got a look in, though, and moved to Sunderland on a five-year deal in 2014. That contract was largely responsible for crippling the Black Cats as they fell down the football ladder in the late 2010s, as he insisted on seeing it out despite not playing.

Rossi was raved about but completely faded away / Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

Signing for United aged 17, Rossi’s 2005 Premier League debut saw him subbed on for Ruud van Nistelrooy and scoring in a 3-1 victory.

Injuries and competition meant Rossi never quite broke through at United and he left in 2007. A striker with bags of talent and promise, it still feels like a huge ‘what could’ve been’ among many United fans today.

Guti was happy to waste his potential as a squad player / Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

Truly Real Madrid through and through, Guti’s loyalty to Los Blancos is ultimately what led him into wasted potential territory.

Coming through the C and B teams, Guti debuted for the first team in 1995 and would win domestic and European honours galore until leaving in 2010. But that was only ever as a rotation arm; Guti would rather have played 30 minutes for Real than 90 for anyone else. What a shame.

The stars were meant to align for Bojan / Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Breaking a record set by Lionel Messi to become Barcelona’s youngest debutant, Bojan looked set in stone to be Barcelona’s next unworldly prodigy.

The Spaniard was a tricky forward with endless flair and impressed in his early days at Camp Nou. But as that fizzled out towards 2011 and loans began to fail, despite them re-signing him for a second spell, it became clear he wasn’t making it at the top. Bojan headed to Stoke in 2014, and that was it. He’s since been in America and Japan; alarmingly predictable.

Morrison has most recently linked up with Wayne Rooney at Derby County / Marc Atkins/Getty Images

The story we’ve heard a million times, it really would’ve been fascinating to see what would’ve happened had Morrison actually knuckled down somewhere.

Having failed to settle down away from the pitch, Morrison left United in 2012 despite being so highly rated. A bright spell with West Ham was followed up with just about every club taking a punt on him, but all to the same unsuccessful outcome as Morrison couldn’t settle in. What could’ve been.

Pato was bitterly unfortunate / Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Bursting onto the scene in one of Milan’s iconic squads, a teenage Pato had everything to kick onto becoming the best of the best.

An eye for goal, trademark flair, fearlessness and pace. But as injuries began to ravage him, the inconsistencies crept in and the potential was zapped. The 2009 Golden Boy was back in Brazil by 2013 and, barring a strange loan to Chelsea in 2016, has never come close to recapturing the form that introduced him to the world from 2007 to 2009.

Mastour was hot property / Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Another Milan prospect, Mastour’s wonderkid status robbed him of his most important development years.

The Moroccan made it into Milan’s first team as a 14-year-old and a two-year loan to Malaga seemed sensible. But Mastour never actually got consistent football throughout his late teens and instead had his confidence destroyed. Once filming ads with Neymar as a kid, he’s now playing in Serie C.

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