2003: Rafael van der Vaart (Ajax)
In 2008 he was snapped up by Real Madrid for €13m, spent two trophyless seasons in the Spanish capital and then moved to Tottenham, where he was a popular figure for two campaigns before re-joining Hamburg
Van der Vaart was earmarked for greatness from very early on in his career. Having honed his skills on the streets of Amsterdam close to the trailer park he grew up in, he was scooped up by Ajax aged 10 and moulded into the technically excellent player who would leave them 12 years later for Hamburg.
The Dutchman was a first-team regular by the age of 17 and won the Eredivisie twice, in 2002 and 2004, establishing himself as a goalscoring midfielder with 14 league strikes in 2001/02 and another 18 the following campaign (from an injury-curtailed total of just 41 appearances altogether).
Those injuries took their toll. Van der Vaart’s stock fell before his surprising 2005 switch to Hamburg – much to Johan Cruyff’s disgust, among others – but his move to northern Germany was a wise one. In 2008 he was snapped up by Real Madrid for €13m, spent two trophyless seasons in the Spanish capital and then moved to Tottenham, where he was a popular figure for two campaigns before re-joining Hamburg.
That was the beginning of the end: Van der Vaart’s stock was falling in line with his club’s, and they followed up a seventh-place finish in 2013 by twice almost getting relegated. A move to Real Betis was even worse – he barely featured and left the La Liga strugglers after a year. He’s now in Denmark with FC Midtjylland after being linked with Reading during the summer.
2004: Wayne Rooney (Man United)
Major tournament success with England has always been elusive, though, despite Rooney breaking the all-time scoring record in 2015 and becoming his country’s most-capped outfielder in September 2016
Oh, for these days again Wazza.
Having followed up two seasons in Everton’s first team with an excellent Euro 2004 for England, it was only a matter of time before the country’s golden boy moved on to bigger things. Newcastle wanted him; Manchester United got him for a shade over £25m – at the time a record for a player under 20.
Under Fergie’s wing he achieved a Premier League-best haul of 11 goals in his debut campaign, then duly followed that with 10 more seasons of double figures (including two above the 25-mark), firing United to five title wins and a Champions League trinket in the process.
Major tournament success with England has always been elusive, though, despite Rooney breaking the all-time scoring record in 2015 and becoming his country’s most-capped outfielder in September 2016.
Both of those latter achievements have only masked a worryingly slide, however: Rooney hasn’t been quite right since the late Fergie years but has surely hit his nadir now, aged 30. Having played so poorly for so long and been recently dropped by Jose Mourinho, this time the decline looks terminal.
2005: Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
Messi at this point wasn’t the free-scoring freak of today, but his dribbling skills dropped jaws and he was already considered among the world’s best when he was barely out of his teens
“I’d never seen anything like it from a teenager,” cooed Fabio Capello after watching world football’s new boy wonder dismantle his experienced Juventus side in a summer 2005 pre-season friendly in Barcelona. “At the end of the game, I went up to Frank Rijkaard and asked to loan him for the season, because they already had three non-EU players [Messi was due to receive his Spanish passport the following month]. He just laughed and said: ‘No chance’.”
He’d finally arrived properly. Barça already knew what they had in the pint-sized prodigy, of course, but now everyone else was seeing it too. Messi at this point wasn’t the free-scoring freak of today, but his dribbling skills dropped jaws and he was already considered among the world’s best when he was barely out of his teens.
“Best in the world? I’m not even the best at Barça,” chuckled Brazilian great Ronaldinho to FFT in late 2005 – but he really wasn’t joking. The buck-toothed trickster’s brilliance was mesmeric but frustratingly fleeting, unlike Messi who's lasted the course and somehow got better with age.
Eight La Liga titles with Barcelona and another four in the Champions League only tell a portion of the story of a player who's scored 461 goals in 539 games for his only club. At 29 he’s still just as frightening.
2006: Cesc Fabregas (Arsenal)
Chucked into Arsenal’s first team at 16 three years earlier, Fabregas became a regular in Arsene Wenger’s side from the following season onwards, playing alongside the seasoned likes of Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira.
The Spaniard arguably goes down as Wenger’s greatest student to date; a player who was forced to take on a great weight of responsibility after Vieira’s departure to Juventus in 2005 and duly responded with consistently impressive performances. By the time of his Golden Boy win in 2006, aged 19, he was already over three-quarters of the way to 100 appearances in the Premier League.
But the trophies never came. Fabregas had lifted the FA Cup in 2005 but didn’t get to taste success with Arsenal again, so duly returned home to Barcelona in 2011 to win La Liga (but not the Champions League) in 2013. His homecoming hardly went to plan, though, and a 2014 switch to Chelsea was right for all parties. Things haven’t really been the same since the first half of his debut season at Stamford Bridge.
Next: Better than Kleberson? (OK, fine)