What the heck happened to Gael Kakuta? Remembering Chelsea's “most gifted player of his generation”
The parallels were plentiful and painful for Gael Kakuta this summer.
As paperwork problems kept the 26-year-old out of Amiens’ season opener against PSG, the same problem also confined Neymar – seven months younger, similarly celebrated as a teenager, now many times more valuable – to the stands. No prizes for guessing which absence media attention was focused on.
Kakuta remains the boy wonder who never grew to superhero status
Yet it isn’t just Neymar, understandably keeping him in the shadows. While Kakuta’s return to European football went largely unnoticed, the futures of his one-time France youth team-mates Antoine Griezmann and Alexandre Lacazette filled airtime and emptied bank coffers.
Back in May, Marco Asensio – 2015 winner of the U19 Euros best player award that Kakuta had collected five years earlier – scored in Real Madrid’s Champions League final victory, already fast-tracked to the summit of the club game.
The rest of his elite class are graduating towards greatness. Kakuta remains the boy wonder who never grew to superhero status.
The dazzling prodigy
Whatever his underlying weaknesses as a footballer, they were well hidden almost a decade ago as he gleefully vandalised age-grade defences. With his shirt hanging long and loose off his slight frame, Kakuta turned composed opponents into tangles, leaving them trailing with swerves, dips and turf-singeing pace.
He had more tricks than Tony Hawk, but there was vision as well; the ability to thread balls to unmarked colleagues in open spaces as defenders descended on him. The attcking midfielder had the appetite and enthusiasm of a Labrador puppy; demanding the ball from team-mates; chasing those who had the temerity to take it from him.
It seemed like a perfect alloy of skills and sensibility – and sure enough, by the time Kakuta had served up the cross from which Lacazette nodded in France’s winner in the 2010 U19 European Championship final, he was already starting to realise his promise in Chelsea's first team.
Kakuta is the only one who could think he played well
After finishing as the youth team's top scorer and player of the year in his first season at Chelsea, combining well with Fabio Borini and Daniel Sturridge in the reserves, Kakuta made his first Champions League start in December 2009. That match was a disappointing 2-2 draw against Apoel Nicosia, but Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti declared that the then-18-year-old was the "only one who could think he played well”.
The following season, in 2010/11, Kakuta was one of the few positives in Chelsea's faltering title defence. He appeared 12 times in the first half of the season, with Ancelotti apologetic that the team's patchy form didn't allow him to develop more of the club's emerging talent.
A controversial move
Chelsea backed their belief in Kakuta with a new four-and-half year contract, and it seemed their dragnet approach to Europe’s best young talent had landed a prize catch.
The Blues had initially moved for Kakuta after their French scout Guy Hillion informed them in 2007 that he had found “the most gifted player of his generation”. The approach that followed could politely be described as lacking the finesse that the player himself was showing on the pitch.
Lens general manager Francis Collado claims he was told to “take the money and shut up” as Chelsea made their play for the 16-year-old. Eventually, Kakuta crossed the Channel without an agreement in place, and the end result was FIFA banning the Blues from making any signings for two transfer windows.
Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini, then presidents of FIFA and UEFA, sang from the same rap sheet, accusing Chelsea of "child slavery" and "child trafficking" respectively.
The upset was soon smoothed over when Lens dropped their complaint after reaching an understanding that satisfied them, in a beautifully French turn of phrase, "financially and technically". A payment of £2.6m was reportedly the balm applied to Lens' burning sense of injustice.