Narrowing down a list of prodigious soccer stars who have lost their way is no enviable task. Down through the years there have been quite a number of youngsters who have promised so much only for the reality of life to kick in...hard.
Wandering away from the path that seemed to suit them so well, some fail to produce the expected goods before they've ever really made it big, while others soar high for a short period before getting shot down before they can achieve much of note - in rare cases, even the most talented players can reach the peak, but crash out of orbit far too soon due to lifestyle issues, substance abuse, misfortune or just plain laziness.
It's a harsh realisation, but it's happened so many times, and it's likely to keep on happening as the beautiful game sometimes chooses to reveal it's uglier underbelly. Of course, it's not always so bad, as some stars can experience a prolonged dip out of the public eye before jolting back for a determined renaissance - it's just not that common, in truth.
Precocious starlets are often the most culpable parties in wasting their precious talent, and it's usually a combination of rebellion, nonchalance and disinterest that see them throwing away their gifts. Then again, there are other occasions when too much of an external intrusion on the lives and privacies of young players just looking to play a sport they love can cause all that planning, preparation and hard work to go awry at the worst possible time. So, it's not all about selfish stars throwing their toys out the pram.
So, let's take a look at 15 soccer prodigies who, for one reason or another, have lost their way. As ever, feel free to voice your personal views in the comments thread below if you feel we've over-looked someone we shouldn't have.
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15 Chris Eagles
Now almost 30 years of age and struggling to find regular game time, it's strange to think he once plied his trade with Manchester United, one of the richest clubs in world football. A nifty performer on his day, his penchant for stroking home outrageous goals from distance saw him earmarked as a potential big star for the future when Sir Alex Ferguson brought him in from Watford's youth academy.
His spell with the Red Devils could not have come at a more imperfect time as Cristiano Ronaldo, who went on to dominate in the position Eagles would most liked to have played, was coming into his own as one of the hottest prospects, and this saw Eagles enjoy just 17 appearances for the Premier League giants. A number of loan spells throughout his five years in Manchester eventually came to an end as he joined Burnley and then Bolton Wanderers on permanent contracts, but Eagles never managed to hit the heights so many anticipated he would.
14 Cherno Samba
Showing some great early promise in his formative years, the now retired footballer first caught the attention of scouts when he plundered a whopping 132 goals in 32 appearances for his local team. Call-ups to a variety of under-age international English sides that included the U17s and U20s saw Samba pave the way for a move to the senior side - but that never materialized and he was forced to make do with playing for his native Gambia as late as 2008.
Nowadays, when people hear his name, they think about the fact he was once a Championship Manager idol; a symbol of what his potential once hinted at before his decline into mediocrity. Nevertheless, though, the 30-year-old did manage to forge a career while he was still playing and he remains a figure of respect, currently aiming to get into coaching.
Labelled the best player to feature for Brazil at the U17 World Cup back in 2005 he was signed with much fanfare by Manchester United from Porto back in 2007. However, the now 27-year-old midfielder has taken quite a tumble from grace during the intervening years as he's gone from being one of the most exciting wonder-kids on the planet to being something of, well...a one-hit wonder.
A drawn-out, ultimately underwhelming, spell in England saw his reputation as a nightmare of defenders left in tatters, scoring just five times from 105 appearances. Shipped off to Brazilian outfit Internacional back in 2014, his form has yet to recover. Some of the low-lights so far have included using an oxygen mask after being substituted 36 minutes into a match, getting sent off as well as failing to score or assist in any of his appearances to date.
Coming off the back of a fantastic display with the Brazil U17 side during the 2005 World Championships, not unlike his fellow countryman Anderson, Denilson was pin-pointed as one to watch - but Arsenal, ever the investors in youth, decided to splash the cash on him as early as the summer of 2006. Then still a teenager, he was another green starlet to get caught in the headlights of the big league's bright lights.
In fairness to him, however, Denilson, stuck it out with the Gunners for five seasons before Arsene Wenger decided he had given the Brazilian flop more than enough time to have proven his worth and eventually shipped him off on loan to Sao Paolo. Now, he plays professionally with Al Wahda in the Arabian Gulf League. How the mighty have fallen.
11 Federico Macheda
Sporting the no.14 shirt at Cardiff City, at first glance Macheda is still in a pretty decent position. Playing football in a top league and still a fairly decent performer on his day, he's in a comfortable spot. The thing is, though, it all pales in comparison to how good his career could have been had things panned out a little differently for him at Manchester United.
A scintillating start with the Red Devils saw the 17-year-old quickly became a cult hero, scoring a number of key goals as he helped them hang on to win the league title in 2009. A change of managers coupled with a number of loan spells away saw him lose his place as a key member of the team and he failed to regain it. Still, though, he's only 23 so time is very much on his side.
10 Savio Nsereko
On board with 1860 Munich's youth academy to begin with, Nsereko found himself a great platform from which to spring, and although he made good head-way in the early part of his journey, the Ugandan starlet rarely shone as brightly as he could have done, with controversy and money ruining his career - at least for now.
Still only 26 years of age, there is time for the ex-West Ham United player to turn things around, but it's looking increasingly unlikely as it's difficult to see anyone noteworthy taking a gamble by bringing him on board as he's proven to be quite a tricky character.
Yet another player on our short-list touted by Pele to become his natural successor. With Santos, he earned rave reviews, playing some terrific football for them, all the while forcing Barcelona, Real Madrid and A.C Milan to wait their turn to offer him a contract. In short, he had Europe at his feet.
The Galacticos of the Spanish capital eventually made their move in the summer of 2006 with a multi-million pound offer, and although he won a league title with them as well as with Milan after he was sold there, we rarely saw the real-life wonder-kid show his face, and the fans waited and waited...and waited to see him dominate the game the way he was destined to. The wait was in vain and he's currently on the books with Guangzhou Evergrande in China - a world away from his old stomping grounds.
8 Robin Friday
In a time when football academies were, well...not quite as high-tech, sleek and shiny as they are now, young footballers with a passion for the game were forced to cut their teeth out on the streets or in their local parks, and that's exactly how Robin Friday got started before he was brought in by Crystal Palace as a young lad.
Eventually, he went on to become a Cardiff City and Reading legend, but he always had the reputation of a party animal. As well as this, though, he brought a real passion and determination to his game, but it was as a result of his indulgent lifestyle that he called time on his on-field career, dying 13 years later at the young age of only 38 after a suspected heroin overdose.
7 George O' Callaghan
A head-spinning rise as a teenager with Port Vale in England, following a chance encounter with the club while on holiday led to the youngster being offered a contract when he was just 15. Quickly, he began to get a feel of proceedings and was earmarked as one for the future by many thanks to his close-control exploits with the Valiants.
However, a life spent socializing with Robbie Williams and drinking with his teammates after matches in the early stages of his career meant that he soon found it difficult to play the best football possible. From there, he ended up yo-yoing back and forth between League of Ireland football and England, and he never evolved into the world-beater he could have become.
6 Alexandre Pato
Not quite as down-and-out as some of the other players on our list, but Alex Pato certainly took a nose-dive from the very pinnacle of the game. Once a star at A.C Milan who became the first Brazilian to win the Serie A Young Player of the Year Award as well as clinching the prestigious Golden Boy gong in the same year of 2009, he's currently on loan at Sao Paolo from Corinthians in his homeland of Brazil.
Back in 2011, he was terrorizing defenders - who could forget the manner in which he bolted past Barcelona's defence from the half-way line in the Champions League before belting the ball past the despairing 'keeper? That goal still ranks as one of the fastest ever scored in the competition, but it was years ago. Will he ever be that good again?
5 Nii Lamptey
Chosen by Pele as his natural successor when Lamptey was only 14 years of age during the U16 World Championships in Scotland , the pressure was on his young shoulders from the get-go. That said, he dealt with it pretty well for quite a number of years and by the time he had turned 20, he had already won an U17 World title with his native Ghana, had secured a professional contract with Aston Villa in the Premier League and was on his way to fulfilling the great Brazilian's prophecy.
Unfortunately, there were other issues Lamptey still had to contend with, such as fighting the inner demons planted during an abusive childhood as well as being led astray by selfish agents lacking any sort of moral compass. In truth, his football career never evolved into the fairytale it had shaped up to be as he bounced from club to club, but the now 40-year-old is currently striving hard to put that all behind him by founding the Glow-Lamp International School where he gives children the chance to make a better life for themselves.
4 Haruna Babangida
Snapped up by Ajax when he was just 13 years of age, the Nigerian right winger was tipped for big things in the mid 1990s and not just because he was the younger brother of the Super Eagles international star Tijani Babangida. No, Haruna had his own talents to grab people's attention and he was eventually signed by La Liga giants Barcelona having rejected Dinamo Kiev and Fiorentina in the process.
A skilled performer, he became one of La Blaugrana's youngest ever players when he made an appearance for them in pre-season, but despite the fact he was celebrated the world over for his virtual displays in the Pro Evolution Soccer game series, he failed to replicate that ingenuity in real life as a world of trophies and honours evaded him. He was last with Mosta FC in the Maltese Premier League.
3 Freddy Adu
Arguably the most famous case of 'where did it all go wrong?' comes in the form of Freddy Adu - and it's hard not to feel sorry for the American who has toiled his way from club to club, in an unenviable, and unsuccessful, globe-trotting attempt. Much like Lamptey and Robinho, the ex-USMNT player was hand-picked by Pele as his heir apparent (something that's not yet proven to be a good omen for anyone), but after a promising start in which he played in the MLS at just 14 years of age, it seems the praise was premature, and even misplaced.
Now, he's 26 and a player with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the NASL, a far cry from the vertigo-inducing pinnacles of the game he failed to scale effectively. Many have put forth their two cents' worth on why he didn't build on his potential, but a lot of it has boiled down to the fact that too much was expected of him too soon.
2 George Best
Ah yes, Georgie Best. A talismanic figure who became as famous for his extra-curricular activities as he did for the way he played with poise on the field, his is probably one of the most referenced cautionary tales there has ever been. Saddled with a debilitating alcoholism, the man who always knew how to crack a joke as well as undo the best of defences found himself washed-up and without direction by the time he had swapped Manchester United's famous kit for the lesser-known destination of Cork Celtic in 1976.
Having signed for United at the age of 15, he scored a plethora of goals for them - 178 in all of his 466 appearances - as well as winning the European Cup, but he left them at just 27 years of age, his departure well and truly marking the end of his sojourn as one of the world's best players as he trundled on to play for as many as 13 other clubs.
1 Sonny Pike
It was his dream, like so many young boys, to play football professionally but things just didn't pan out too well for the young guy despite earning trials with Ajax as well as gaining the attentions of Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Norwich City and so many more. Simply put, he was a child prodigy, who looked set to go on to achieve a lot in the sport.
Having suffered a breakdown in 2000 as a result of the immense stresses and strains placed on him by the industry from a young age, however, he soon bowed out of a future of playing in the game a number of years later. That said, he is currently involved in coaching on a casual basis, so it's refreshing to know he still has a role in the game.
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