The sport of soccer is a cruel mistress. 200 nations of professional players spread across the beautiful game lends itself to intense competition, forcing a lot of athletes on the scrap heap when form begins to dip. There is no room for error and no space for sentiment. History is written by the victors, not the “could have’s” or “would have’s.”
We’ve looked at flops from all corners of the globe here at The Sportster. Whether it’s the MLS in America, the Bundesliga in Germany or the English Premier League in the UK, no nation is immune to a good old fashion flop.
Sometimes it will be a youth player promoted before their time or a big cash move that fails to live up to expectation. The skill of the modern day coach is not teaching a 27-year-old how to kick a ball into the top corner, it’s carefully managing a collection of big time egos in the same dressing room.
This is the great intangible that supporters forget to factor into the whole equation, because events off the field directly affect what happens on the pitch. Take one look at Angel Di Maria, Real Madrid’s best player the season prior to leaving for Old Trafford on astronomical wages. After his house was burgled he never mentally recovered at Manchester United. He’s now back to career best form tearing it up for PSG in the French League.
The majority of flops are players who simply aren’t up to scratch, but it’s the guys who fall by the wayside that frustrates the life out of fans. A life of potential unfulfilled is the worst to live, leaving behind a trail of regret and memories of opportunities missed.
Here are the top 20 soccer flops with unfulfilled potential.
Tiago Manuel Dias Correia, or “Bebe” for short. This Portuguese footballer stunned the world when Manchester United decided to splash $10.7 million on the player as a raw 20-year old in 2010. The flashy striker had the size and physique to make it in the tough environment of English football, but now the 25-year old is struggling to carry a name for himself as a first team player for La Liga strugglers Rayo Vallecano. Bring up the name “Bebe” at your peril at Old Trafford, because those fans are adamant that cash was blown.
19 Emmanuel Adebayor
Arguably the most high profile free agent in the soccer world right now, Emmanuel Adebayor’s story is one of ego getting in the way of potential. He had a record close to one goal per two games for the North London giants Arsenal, but used that season to leverage a lucrative move to Manchester City. The Citizens couldn’t wait to get rid of the Togolese striker, with history repeating itself at Tottenham. He continues to price himself out of more modest move and at 31 it’s pretty clear we were only treated to a glimpse of what Adebayor was capable of.
18 Pedro Leon
There was a moment when Pedro Leon had established himself with La Liga outfit Getafe and Real Madrid saw an opportunity to take the player to the next level. Unfortunately playing for the biggest club in the world carries enormous expectation and the reality was he couldn’t handle the pressure of competing for his position. Only 6 appearances when he was on the books for Real in 3 years saw Leon return straight away to Getafe where he still shows moments of class, but it’s a case of “if’s,” “but’s,” and “maybe’s.”
17 Adam Johnson
At one stage Adam Johnson was the big white hope for English football. As it stands, he’s struggling to maintain a place in a Sunderland team in the bottom 3 of the table and fighting charges of grooming an underage girl for sex. His goal for the Black Cats against arch rivals Newcastle might be a sign that the 28-year old will be given a chance on the right wing under new manager Sam Allardyce, but past events would suggest that Johnson’s form will dip once he gets comfortable under a new coach. Consistency has always been his problem and the sooner he gets his off-field problems sorted the better.
The kid had skills. As a holding midfielder for Arsenal over a 7-year spell the silky Brazilian showed deft touches and a natural ability to play the game at the top level. What he didn’t have was the mental fortitude or consistency to repay the faith invested in him by manager Arsene Wenger. At 27 Denilson Pereira Neves is currently plying his trade in the Middle East, a far cry from the English Premier League where he promised so much but delivered so little.
15 Aiden McGeady
Every so often Aiden McGeady would capture lightning in a bottle. His agility and freedom of movement on the football is delightful to watch and the 29-year old Irish international has some quality highlights to look back on when his career finishes. But when he was at Celtic, there was a moment when the fleet-footed winger could have gone on to be one of the greats of Irish football. Instead, he opted to take the big money on offer at Spartak Moscow in 2010 and his trajectory stalled, now ending up on the fringes of the Everton squad.
14 Freddy Adu
The name “Freddy Adu” leaves people scratching their heads and leaving egg on their face. He was supposed to be the next big thing of American soccer and with good reason. As a young teenager he would play well beyond his years at D.C. United and after a move from Real Salt Lake to Benfica in 2007, it was expected Adu would use the Portuguese club to catapult into the big leagues of European football. For whatever reason, the midfielder lost all confidence and ability before faltering down the pecking order. Probably the youngest journeyman in soccer with 12 clubs at 26-years of age, Freddy is at the Tampa Bay Rowdies at the time of writing.
13 Christopher Samba
The Congo colossus was a tower of strength for a Blackburn Rovers side sitting comfortably in the EPL. The 6ft 4 defender Christopher Samba had his stock incredibly high and was being linked with Champions League clubs looking for a big presence at the back. But relegation to the Championship saw the Rovers sell Samba to Russia and one horror spell on his return to QPR for only 10 games failed to show what he was capable of. If fate turned out differently there is no question Samba would have been regarded as one of the best defenders in the English game.
12 Gaston Ramirez
The Uruguayan national team are in rude health for footballers at the moment. With Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani leading the attack, the South American minnows have as good a side as they’ve ever had and creative playmaker Gaston Ramirez could be one of their stronger players. But his move to Southampton coincided with an unsuccessful loan switch to relegated Hull City, unable to find his place in a modestly sized team in England. At 24 he still has the goods to make the most out of his unique talent, yet the clock is ticking and he has to settle on his club career soon before it’s too late.
11 Harry Kewell
If only Australia’s golden boy still had the time Gaston Ramirez does now to resurrect his career. The current Watford youth manager enjoyed a stellar start to English football with Leeds United, paving the way for the club to enter the Champions League and thrill the EPL with sheer pace and stunning wing play. He cashed in on his fame to leave for rivals Liverpool where he played out 5 frustrating years plagued by injury. A string of more injuries and inconsistencies saw his career end in the A-League and the famous Socceroos star finished with a lot more left in the tank.
10 Joe Cole
People laugh at Steven Gerrard’s claim that Joe Cole was better than Lionel Messi but …. well that’s fair enough, it was a ridiculous claim. The comment did give us an insight into just how highly Cole was rated by his peers because Gerrard played with and against some of the best players to have ever graced the game. As a youngster at West Ham the diminutive attacking midfielder was one of a handful of terrific local juniors coming through the ranks, including Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard. His move to Chelsea in 2003 started brightly, but faded when Jose Mourinho entered the fold, criticizing his lack of work ethic off the ball. Joe Cole never recovered his confidence since.
9 Alexander Hleb
Belarus doesn’t produce many world class footballers for obvious reasons. But they thought they found a good one in Alexander Hleb, a creative midfielder with a magnificent touch and control on the ball under pressure. His highlights reel speaks for itself and during his Arsenal days it seemed there was no challenge too great for Alexander. What plagued the number 10 was an inability to put the ball in the back of the net, it was as though he was allergic to it. Since departing Barcelona he never settled and his talents with the ball were clearly wasted.
Following in the footsteps of the 2002 Brazilian World Champions of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho was always going to be a mammoth step for the next generation. The South Americans saw Robinho as the man to take the country forward, something which looks pretty farcical in hindsight. The enigmatic striker had a fantastic start with Santos before struggling at Real Madrid, Manchester City and AC Milan, failing to record more than a goal every other 4 games. A series of off-field issues and excessive partying meant we never got to see Robinho flourish at his best, ending up in China.
7 Tom Huddlestone
English midfielders who are comfortable on the ball and pick a pass under pressure are a rare breed. Coming up through the ranks at Derby County, Tom Huddlestone was identified by Tottenham Hotspur where he caught the eye of the England national selectors. Huddlestone’s ability to hit long passes and smash a dead ball made him a great asset, but he never progressed. Once Spurs sold him to Hull City, he couldn’t help the Tigers avoid relegation. A far better player than the Championship level he is at now, Tom Huddlestone should have been so much more.
6 Adel Taarabt
The story of Adel Taarabt is a cautious tale. Laziness and ego got in the way for the Moroccan midfielder, being called out in public by the then QPR coach Harry Redknapp for being 3 stone overweight. He was influential in leading Rangers back into the EPL but the clubs decision to buy a whole host of new recruits forced Taarabt on the outer. Benfica somehow decided that picking up the player on a free transfer this year was a wise call, so watch this space to see if he can regain former glories.
5 Mario Jardel
15 years ago Mario Jardel was the hottest property in world soccer. Spanning 3 clubs – FC Porto, Galatasaray and Sporting CP, Jardel had the incredible record of scoring a goal a game for almost 300 matches! That’s Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo numbers. Then, for some bizarre reason, the Brazilian striker fell off a cliff. Stints in England, Argentina, Cyprus and Australia amongst others returned next to nothing and it staggers the mind how a man in his prime can peak to such a high level before falling into a scrapheap so quickly.
4 Alexandre Pato
If Alex Pato and Robinho fulfilled their potential, Brazil would have kept their World Cup trophy firmly in the cabinet since 2002. Like his compatriot, huge things were expected from the striker and checking his career statistics, he’s actually achieved a level greater than most of his generation. Similar to a lot of other South Americans who love to party, his relationship with the daughter of the AC Milan owner strained relations and his dalliances with the ladies off the pitch contributed to clubs not taking him seriously. Now back in the Brazilian league, you can’t help but wonder what he could have been.
3 Abou Diaby
Injuries, damn injuries and statistics. This is the sad story of talented Frenchman Abou Diaby, a man gifted with all the skills and tricks of the game but unable to take the field due to chronic injury. Over 9 years with Arsenal football club, Diaby only managed 125 games – essentially the equivalent of 2 seasons of football in 9. Despite being hacked down to have his ankle broken by Dan Smith against Sunderland, coach Arsene Wenger would not give up on the player, giving him contract extension after extension. With 9 years of pain and false starts, Diaby eventually left for Marseille this year. He could have been the next Patrick Viera for Arsenal if fate didn’t intervene.
2 Massimo Taibi
It’s the moment that still has Massimo Taibi waking up in cold sweats in the middle of the night. The Italian goalkeeper realized his dream in 1999 moving to the biggest club in the world at the time, Manchester United. With a limited window to impress Sir Alex Ferguson, Taibi went in goal for a home game against Southampton. Then this happened. It’s the type of catch you’d expect your 90-year old grandmother to take. A glittering career before and after in Italy making great saves blew up in smoke, all because of that mistake.
1 Mario Balotelli
No one doubts Super Mario’s ability to play football. He’s proven it time and again with the Italian national team. He bossed Euro 2012 on his own, using his size, strength and finesse in front of goal to set the standard for the competition. Yet he remains the great enigma and mystery in the game. His AC Milan coach says he can’t run. He’s fallen out with Jose Mourinho, Roberto Mancini and Brendan Rodgers. No one knows how to handle Mario and at some stage the 25-year old will look back at his career with enormous regret because his attitude and unwillingness to contribute to the cause will only end in tears.
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