In soccer, like any sport, people develop at different rates. Some players are simply physically incapable of playing at the highest level until they are into their twenties, whilst others may have the physical aspect but lack the mental attributes during their formative years. The players on this list, for one reason or another, played at a low level or looked unimpressive as youngsters, but burst into life later in their careers.
Top class late bloomers are rare but not unheard of in soccer. If a player is going to make it at the highest level, they will normally have shown considerable promise as a teenager. This list includes World Cup and Champions League winners, some of whom did not break into a respectable level of competitive soccer until their mid 20s. It is a lesson to us all not to write off youngsters who struggle.
It is difficult to put your finger on just what makes a late bloomer bloom. As alluded to, sometimes it can be a physical or mental thing, but at other times it is purely that they find a team that plays to their strengths and all of a sudden they flourish and go from mediocre players to quality one's. Here are the top 15 late bloomers in soccer history:
15 Marco Materazzi
Marco Materazzi is a rather disliked figure in the world of soccer. He was everywhere in the 2006 World Cup final. Materazzi only found himself on the pitch due to an injury to Alessandro Nesta, but boy did he make his mark. He began the game by conceding a penalty, which was dispatched by Zinedine Zidane. He then leveled the score, before getting Zidane sent off when the Frenchman head butted him. Materazzi is one of the game's great late bloomers. He didn't make his Serie A debut until 1997, aged 24, and didn't make his international debut until the age of 28. He went on to win Serie A five times, as well as the Champions League and World Cup. He is now a manager in China.
14 Daryl Murphy
Probably the least illustrious name on this list, but don't let that detract from the achievements of Daryl Murphy's late blooming. The Irishman had scored a grand total of 11 goals in 72 games in professional soccer before the age of 30, a very poor record for a striker and surefire indication that he was used largely as a backup player. However, in the 2013-14 season he managed 13 goals in 45 games, showing an upturn in form, yet few could have predicted the season that followed. Last campaign, aged 32, Murphy scored a superb 27 goals in 45 games, more than he had in his entire 14 year career previously.
13 Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer started his career with Clausenengen, who are currently in the Norwegian fifth division. When Solskjaer signed for them they were in Norway's third tier, and were promoted to the second but never the top flight whilst he was at the club. Solskjaer didn't get a move to Norway's top flight until 1995, by which time he was already 22, but he made an instant impression at Molde, earning a move to Manchester United a year later. At Old Trafford, Solskjaer became a cult hero, earning himself a reputation as a super sub, nicknamed the 'Babyfaced Assasin'.
12 Les Ferdinand
Les Ferdinand did not make his Premier League debut until the age of 23, with QPR, and even then he only scored twice in nine games in his first season. He was 26 when he first scored 20 goals in a Premier League season, and had his best ever season at the age of 30. Despite being such a late bloomer, Ferdinand still managed 149 Premier League goals, making his the eighth highest goal scorer in Premier League history, ahead of the likes of Teddy Sheringham, Robbie Keane and Didier Drogba.
11 Rune Bratseth
Rune Bratseth began life with Nidelv in Norway's fourth division, and he played at that level until the age of 22. At 22 he joined Rosenberg, where he made a name for himself, before joining Werder Bremen in 1987, where he remained until his retirement in 1994. Bratseth played 230 times in the Bundesliga, wining the league twice and the European Cup Winners Cup once. He played 60 times for Norway, despite not making his debut until he was 25. He was later voted Norway's 'Golden Player' of the last 50 years. To go from the fourth tier at 22 to being named essentially his countries greatest ever player, that is some achievement.
10 Didier Drogba
Didier Drogba is today remembered as one of the finest players of his generation. Strong, quick, powerful, capable of hitting the ball with power and accuracy with either foot and exceptional in the air, he was one of Europe's top marksmen for the best part of a decade. Remarkably though, Drogba didn't really make any impact upon French football until the 2002-03 season with Guingamp, by which time he was 25 when the season came to a close. Drogba then moved to Marseille, where he had a hugely impressive season earning himself a move to Chelsea. With the Blues, Drogba was voted the club's greatest player of all-time, not bad for a striker who scored only 3 goals in a Ligue 1 season at the age of 24.
9 Rickie Lambert
Rickie Lambert was playing in League One (England's third tier) only four years ago, then aged 29. At 32, Lambert had been promoted twice, scored 27 goals in the Championship, 28 goals in the Premier League, been called up to the England squad, scored three goals for his country, been to a World Cup and been signed by Liverpool. Lambert's move to Liverpool hasn't quite worked out for him, but even at the age of 33, West Brom snapped up the striker this summer. For a player who spent 18 seasons in the lower league, the way Lambert exploded in the Premier League aged 30+ is quite incredible.
8 Oribe Peralta
Oribe Peralta started playing in 2002, and for almost a decade he was seen as a fairly average striker in Mexico. He had averaged less than a goal every five games prior to the 2011-12 season, and few could have predicted that he would smash in 28 goals in 40 games the following season to become the divisions top scorer. Peralta's impressive goal scoring form continued over the next two seasons, and, at the age of 30, he was signed by Mexico's top club, America, for $10 million, becoming the most expensive Mexican footballer of all time.
7 Antonio Di Natale
Italian players seem to age better than most. Di Natale is the second Italian to feature on this list, and there are two more to come. At the age of 37, Di Natale still plays for and captains Udinese, and is arguably still the club's best player. It is rare for a player to be better at 37 than 27, but that really is the case with Di Natale. He scored 7 goals in 33 games at the age of 27 and 14 goals in 33 games at the age of 37. Di Natale was a late bloomer in every sense of the term. He didn't start playing in Serie B until the age of 23 and made his Serie A debut aged 25. Di Natale has played all his best football since turning 30 in 2007. He scored 29 goals in 2009 and 28 goals in 2010, aged 32 and 33, with his best season prior to that hitting the tally of 17.
6 Chris Wondolowski
A familiar face to MLS fans, Chris Wondolowski, or 'Wondo' as he is often referred to, is perhaps the best example of a late bloomer in the American game. Wondo began playing in the MLS in 2005, and between 2005 and 2009 (aged 22-26) he managed just 7 goals in 53 games, a poor record by any striker's standards. In the 2010 season though, aged 27, Wondolowski hit 18 in 28 games. His finest season came in 2012, at the age of 29, when he led the scoring charts with 27 goals in 32 games. Now 32, Wondo continues to lead the San Jose Earthquakes line and has scored 11 in 21 so far in 2015. It is clear to see Wondolowski was a late bloomer, as he did not make his international debut for the USMNT until 2011, when he was already 28.
5 Ian Wright
At the age of 22, Ian Wright had resigned himself to having failed in his attempts to become a professional footballer. After failed trials at Brighton and Southend, he was playing non-league football for Greenwich Borough FC when a scout from Crystal Palace saw him playing and invited him for trials. Wright was given a contract and thus began his professional career in the second tier aged 22. He was 26 before he got his first taste of Premier League football and 28 before he was handed his England debut. It was also at the age of 28 that Wright signed for Arsenal, yet he still became the club's all-time record goal scorer, a record that Thierry Henry eventually took from him.
4 Miroslav Klose
Miroslav Klose overtook Ronaldo at the 2014 World Cup to become the top scorer at World Cup finals in history. Some were disappointed, feeling Ronaldo was the more graceful and gifted of the two, and they were probably right, but that doesn't make Klose any less deserving of the accolade. He is a poacher, in the truest sense of the word, and one of the last players of his type in the world. He is Germany's all-time record goal scorer, and his country have never lost a game in which he has scored in. He has been to four World Cups; scoring 16 goals and winning one. All this is quite staggering when one considers that Klose's professional career began at 21 and he only began to make an impact at 23.
3 Fabio Grosso
Fabio Grosso made his Serie A debut in 2001 at the age of 24, and in 2004, aged 27, he returned to Serie B. He was promoted from Serie B at the age of 28 though and returned to the top flight. It was at 28 that Grosso would really begin to announce himself within Italian football, far later than is the norm. He moved to Inter Milan at 29 and played for both Lyon and Juventus once into his 30s, an indication of his improvement with age. Grosso went on to win 48 caps for Italy, winning the World Cup in 2006, as well as winning titles in both Italy and France.
2 Dado Prso
At the age of 21 Dado Prso was playing football part-time while working as a car mechanic. At 23, he was playing in the third tier of French football. At 26, he had won the French title with Monaco. At 30, he scored four times in a single Champions League game and played in a Champions League final. That is some progression. The Croatian had thought his career may be over before it started having been released after medics told him he had an irregular heartbeat. He got his break with Monaco and made it count. Prso made his international debut at the age of 29, and went on to make 32 appearances for Croatia.
1 Luca Toni
Luca Toni is the king of the late bloomers, and there are no prizes for guessing that it would be an Italian to take top spot. Toni spent the first six years of his career darting around various lower league sides in Italy, playing in the second and third tier. He got his first taste of Serie A football at the age of 23 but found himself back in Serie B with Palermo at the age of 26. It was at this age that Toni really broke through, scoring 30 goals in Serie B as Palermo were promoted, and a further 20 in their first Serie A season, aged 28.
Toni subsequently joined Fiorentina, where he had his best season, scoring 31 goals, earning himself a move to Bayern Munich. Now aged 38, Toni scored an incredible 22 goals in 38 games in Serie A last season, making him the division's top scorer ahead of Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain, a quite incredible achievement at that age.