Football wonderkids who crashed and burned

Federico Macheda
(Image credit: Getty Images)

There is nothing that excites football fans quite like the emergence of a gifted young player. When the wonderkid in question has exceptional quality, it is only natural that hype quickly builds.

But not every young talent lives up to that billing. Here are the most famous young football talents who crashed and burned.

 32. Ibrahim Ba

Ibrahim Ba

Ibrahim Ba (Image credit: Getty Images)

Snapped up by Le Havre before his 18th birthday, Ba joined AC Milan in 1997 and won the Serie A title two years later.

However, the midfielder missed out on France’s 1998 World Cup squad and it was all downhill from there. Ba spent a season with Bolton under Sam Allardyce, before disappointing stints in Turkey and Sweden.

 31. Sonny Pike

Sonny Pike

Sonny Pike (Image credit: Getty Images)

Compared to Diego Maradona and George Best at a very young age, the London-born Pike had a trial with Ajax and was wanted by Chelsea. He also appeared in television adverts and had his legs insured for £1m.

It was all too much, too young however. Pike was overwhelmed and quit the game at 18, having never played professionally.

30. Julius Aghahowa 

Julius Aghahowa

Julius Aghahowa (Image credit: Getty Images)

Aghahowa joined Shakhtar Donetsk as a teenager and made a fantastic early impact, scoring seven goals in 17 games as the club won the Ukrainian title in 2000/01. The Nigerian was seen as a future world-class striker in the making.

The goals had dried up by 2005, though, and he then failed to score in 20 games for Wigan.

29. Caio Ribeiro 

Caio Ribeiro

Caio Ribeiro (Image credit: Getty Images)

Caio Ribeiro was the talk of the town as a teenage talent at Sao Paulo, who sold him to Inter in 1995 for £6.6m - a then-record fee for a player under the age of 20.

But it was too much, too soon. Two years later and the Brazilian was back in South America having flopped at Inter and Napoli

28. Alen Halilovic

Alen Halilovic

Alen Halilovic (Image credit: Getty Images)

In 2014 Barcelona signed Halilovic from Dinamo Zagreb, for whom he had debuted at 16. A skilful attacking midfielder, the Croatian was seen as a future first-team star.

In fact, Halilovic left for Hamburg just two years later. By 24 he was playing in the Championship for Birmingham and then Reading, before a premature return to Croatia with Rijecka.

27. Marko Marin

Marko Marin

Marko Marin (Image credit: Getty Images)

Marin was part of a young Germany squad that impressed at the 2010 World Cup. But unlike Toni Kroos, Philipp Lahm, Thomas Muller and Bastian Schweinsteiger, he would not go on to lift the trophy four years later.

The attacker had dropped completely off the radar by then having failed to live up to the early hype.

26. Macauley Chrisantus 

Macauley Chrisantus

Macauley Chrisantus (Image credit: Getty Images)

The star of Nigeria’s Under-17 World Cup triumph in 2007, Chrisantus emerged as a target for Real Madrid and Chelsea. He actually ended up at Hamburg, but that junior World Cup proved to be the peak of his career.

Chrisantus became a journeyman striker, representing 17 clubs before his 33rd birthday.

25. Francis Jeffers

Francis Jeffers

Francis Jeffers (Image credit: Getty Images)

Twenty goals in 60 games for Everton persuaded Arsenal to pay £8m for Jeffers in 2001. Injuries disrupted his progress, though, and the Liverpudlian struggled to oust the likes of Thierry Henry and Sylvain Wiltord from the starting XI.

Jeffers, who ended up at Accrington Stanley, never scored more than five league goals a season after leaving Everton.

24. Keirrison

Keirrison

Keirrison (Image credit: Getty Images)

European clubs are always looking for the next big Brazilian talent, and Barcelona thought they had found the next cab off the rank when they bought Keirrison in 2009.

However, the forward never made an appearance for the Blaugrana first team. A year later, he was back home in Brazil. 

23. Gai Assulin

Gai Assulin

Gai Assulin (Image credit: Getty Images)

A Barcelona academy graduate, Assulin followed Yaya Toure to Manchester City in 2010. But unlike Toure, the Israeli winger did not become a household name at the Etihad Stadium.

Assulin went on to play in the second tier of Spanish football, before an unlikely stint in Kazakhstan in his late 20s.

22. Kerlon

Kerlon

Kerlon (Image credit: Getty Images)

Kerlon shot to prominence when clips of his seal dribble began appearing online around 2007, but the Brazilian was not just a circus act.

Snapped up by Inter in 2008, Kerlon was tipped to become a major star in Europe. But a series of knee injuries put paid to those hopes and the forward faded into obscurity.

21. Souleymane Coulibaly 

Soulemayne Coulibaly

 Souleymane Coulibaly  (Image credit: Getty Images)

Coulibaly won the Golden Boot at the Under-17 World Cup in 2011, earning a move to Tottenham. But the Ivorian never made a senior appearance for the club and ended up at lower-league sides in England and Italy.

By the age of 24 he was playing in Tunisia, having failed to make it big in Europe.

20. Sebastian Deisler 

Sebastian Deisler

Sebastian Deisler  (Image credit: Getty Images)

After spells with Borussia Monchengladbach and Hertha Berlin, Deisler seemed to have the world at his feet when he joined Bayern Munich in 2002.

However, injuries took their toll on the German, who suffered several knee ligament ruptures during his career. Those issues forced Deisler to retire at the age of 27.

19. Nick Powell

Nick Powell

Nick Powell (Image credit: Getty Images)

A product of the successful Crewe academy, Powell earned rave reviews for his performances in the League Two club’s promotion-winning campaign of 2011/12.

A move to Manchester United followed, but the attacking midfielder made just nine appearances in four years at Old Trafford. By 2023, he was back in League Two with Stockport.

18. Sergi Samper

Sergi Samper

Sergi Samper (Image credit: Getty Images)

When Sergi Samper broke into the first team in 2014, Barcelona thought they had unearthed the heir to Sergio Busquets. 

However, the holding midfielder only managed a single La Liga appearance for his hometown club. Sergi Samper subsequently spent four years with Vissel Kobe in Japan, before signing for FC Andorra in the second tier of Spanish football.

17. Paulo Henrique Ganso

Paulo Henrique Ganso

Paulo Henrique Ganso (Image credit: Getty Images)

When Neymar and Ganso came through together at Santos, there was much debate over who the better prospect was.

But whereas Neymar went on to play for Barcelona and PSG, and become Brazil’s all-time leading goalscorer, Ganso never made it big in Europe. Meanwhile his career with the Selecao ended after eight caps.

16. Josh McEachran

Josh McEachran

Josh McEachran (Image credit: Getty Images)

During his early years at Chelsea, McEachran was touted as a future England international. Some fans worried that signing Luka Modric (a target in 2011) would block McEachran’s path to the first team.

Instead, the midfielder subsequently dropped down the divisions after playing just 11 Premier League games for Chelsea.

15. Ibrahim Afellay

Ibrahim Afellay

Ibrahim Affelay (Image credit: Getty Images)

In 2011, Pep Guardiola and Barcelona decided that Afellay was the right man to keep Lionel Messi, David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez on their toes.

The Dutchman had excelled at PSV, but he struggled to settle at the Camp Nou and ended up moving to the less glamorous Stoke in 2015. 

14. Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson (Image credit: Getty Images)

In another universe, Johnson could have been the homegrown hero of Manchester City’s Premier League-title winning teams under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini.

The midfielder’s talent was clear for all to see, but he struggled with injuries, depression and anxiety. His last professional appearance was for Leicester at the age of just 23.

13. Nii Lamptey

Nii Lamptey

Nii Lamptey (Image credit: Getty Images)

Lamptey averaged roughly a goal every other game for Anderlecht and PSV, earning himself a reputation as one of the hottest properties in world football.

Yet he struggled in England with Aston Villa and Coventry, then bounced between clubs in Turkey, Portugal, Germany, China, the United Arab Emirates and his native Ghana.

12. Federico Macheda

Federico Macheda

Federico Macheda (Image credit: Getty Images)

A superb winning goal against Aston Villa in 2009 was supposed to set Macheda on the path to becoming a regular starter for Manchester United. 

But the Italian failed to make that leap and was instead sent out on loan five times between 2011 and 2014. Macheda later moved between Italy, Greece, Turkey and Cyprus.

11. Anthony Le Tallec

Anthony Le Tallec

Anthony Le Tallec (Image credit: Getty Images)

Liverpool thought they had struck gold when they landed Le Tallec, who had starred for France at the European Under-16 Championship and the FIFA U-17 World Cup.

However, the striker was unable to break into the Liverpool team, and he did not overly convince at Sunderland, Sochaux, Le Mans, Auxerre or Valenciennes either.

10. Denilson

Denilson

Denilson (Image credit: Getty Images)

Denilson became the world’s most expensive player when he joined Real Betis for £21.5m in 1998. Two years later, the club suffered a shock relegation from La Liga.

Denilson gradually fell out of favour after failing to live up to his potential. The Brazilian moved to Saudi Arabia aged 29, before spells in the United States, Vietnam and Greece.

9. Alexandre Pato

Alexandre Pato

Alexandre Pato (Image credit: Getty Images)

Pato’s time at Internacional was short and sharp, but he made such an impact that AC Milan signed him after just 27 outings for the Brazilian outfit.

Pato made a fine start to life in Italy, but the goals dried up amid a series of injury problems and he was never the same player again.

8. Bojan Krkic

Bojan Krkic

Bojan Krkic (Image credit: Getty Images)

When he debuted for Barcelona aged 17 years and 19 days, Bojan became their youngest ever player, breaking Lionel Messi’s record.

Bojan was tipped to follow in Messi’s footsteps, but he struggled to nail down a place in Barcelona’s XI and then failed to land long-term deals at Roma, AC Milan or Ajax, before joining Stoke. He retired aged 32.

7. Hachim Mastour

Hachim Mastour

Hachim Mastour (Image credit: Getty Images)

A target for Barcelona, Juventus, Real Madrid, Inter and Manchester City, the 14-year-old Mastour opted to join AC Milan in 2012.

A YouTube sensation, the Moroccan-Italian was described as a cross between Neymar and Wesley Sneijder. After dropping into Serie B and Serie C, Mastour joined second-tier Moroccan side Renaissance Zemamra in 2022.

6. Royston Drenthe

Royston Drenthe

Royston Drenthe (Image credit: Getty Images)

After 37 appearances for hometown club Feyenoord, Drenthe was acquired by Real Madrid aged 20. Things did not go to plan, though, and he was loaned out to Hercules and Everton.

The Dutchman later played for Reading and Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship, before signing for lower-league teams in the Netherlands and Spain.

5. Gael Kakuta

Gael Kakuta

Gael Kakuta (Image credit: Getty Images)

Chelsea were slapped with a fine and a transfer ban for tapping up Kakuta in 2007. Unfortunately for the Blues, the winger did not make their efforts worthwhile.

Described as a “star” by Michael Ballack, Kakuta only ever made six Premier League appearances for Chelsea. By his early 30s he was playing in France’s second division.

4. John Bostock

John Bostock

John Bostock (Image credit: Getty Images)

Amid links with Barcelona, Liverpool and Real Madrid, Bostock made his Crystal Palace debut aged 15. He ended up at Tottenham but did not break through, instead embarking on several loan spells.

Bostock spent time in Belgium, France and Turkey, then signed for non-league Notts County in 2022. “In hindsight I should have stayed at [Palace],” he admitted in 2018.

3. Ravel Morrison

Ravel Morrison

Ravel Morrison (Image credit: Getty Images)

According to Rio Ferdinand, Morrison was the most gifted young player Alex Ferguson had ever seen. But the troubled Englishman did not make the grade at Manchester United, and a subsequent spell with West Ham was short-lived.

Playing in Italy, Sweden, Mexico and the United States, Morrison never fulfilled his immense potential.

2. Adriano

Adriano

Adriano (Image credit: Getty Images)

In the early to mid-2000s, there were few more thrilling sights in football than watching Adriano in full flow. 

The ‘Emperor’ enjoyed four prolific seasons in Serie A with Parma and Inter, but things went south thereafter as Adriano battled depression, alcoholism and weight gain after the death of his father.

1. Freddy Adu

Freddy Adu

Freddy Adu (Image credit: Getty Images)

Described as the “next Pele” when he signed for DC United at the tender age of 14, Adu was always going to struggle to live up to the hype. 

The American had a trial with Manchester United and spent time with Benfica, but neither venture was successful. He ended up playing in Serbia, Finland and Sweden before retiring.

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