Unfulfilled talent is one of the most frustrating aspects of sport for professional athletes, their coaches and managers, as well as the ownership that invests in these athletes significantly. Every athlete lives in fear of being unable to perform at the level of their competition, but they also live in fear of not being able to live up to their own expectations. When performances do not match previously set expectations, it can have devastating consequences for all parties involved. It can cost some opportunities to provide for their families, limit future employment, and, most devastatingly, lead to personal demise.
Football’s history is filled with players that showed glimpses of greatness early in their careers who went on to be nothing more than average professionals. These situations can happen for a variety of reasons. Perhaps a scout misidentified the level of talent that existed within a prospect. In other cases, injury can be to blame for stealing a player’s physical gifts. However, there are always those players whose mentality does not allow them to succeed, whether it is through self-sabotage or simply a lack of desire. All of these are common narratives in the tales of once promising players.
Many of the players on this list had the talent necessary to be world class footballers at their respective positions. Many had already tasted life as an elite footballer and allowed it to go to their head. Football and the media that covers the sport can be extremely fickle for players that struggle with consistency. When fans and clubs are demanding the absolute best from players, many times the pressure becomes too much for an individual to handle. Here are 20 individuals who were unable to make the most of their considerable talents. Some of these stories are due to lack of effort, while others are due to tragic situations that cut a promising career short.
20 Matthew Le Tissier
This selection is going to be controversial, but Matthew Le Tissier’s talents were wasted for underwhelming Southampton teams. His loyalty to the club caused him to miss out entirely on European football, despite him being crowned the 1990 PFA Young Player of the Year. Le Tissier was an incredibly talented forward with a thunderous right foot and astounding technical ability in an impressive 6’1’’ frame. “Le God,” as he is known on the south coast of England, was one of the greatest penalty takers in the history of the game. He was criminally overlooked by England managers throughout his career, finishing with only seven career appearances.
19 Lee Sharpe
Lee Sharpe had it all at the age of only 19. He was a regular member of the Manchester United first team, he earned his first call up to the English National Team, and was considered a promising talent. However, he seemed to fall out of favor with Sir Alex Ferguson, who disliked his post-match drinking, and was soon shipped off to Leeds. Injuries kept him to just 30 matches in three seasons with the club and truly stopped Sharpe from finding future success. Sharpe then bounced from Sampdoria to Bradford City to Portsmouth and further on down the league table before retiring in 2004.
18 Lee Feeney
Born in the small village of Kilkeel, Northern Ireland, Lee Feeney was a football prodigy for Ards before Northern Irish Premiership giants Linfield came calling. Feeney helped the club to the Irish League Cup in 1998 and was soon the target of a £100,000 move to Rangers. He made his debut with the club in January 1999 in a 4-0 win over Dundee United. After his debut, he was told by manager Alex McLeish that he would never make it with the club and returned to Linfield. Feeney sadly became involved in the local drinking culture and would tumble down teams from the Northern Irish Premiership to the Fourth Division. He remains a cautionary tale for young Irish footballers.
17 Gigi Meroni
In the day before primadonna footballers were common, Gianluigi Meroni was a fashionable trendsetter that was just as equally talented on the football pitch. He was transferred from Como to Genoa for a record fee for a 21-year-old, where he earned the nickname “The Butterfly.” Meroni once made headlines for shaving his beard, and his acceptance of hippie counterculture made him an Italian icon. He loved dribbling through opposing defenses and this made him an excellent left wing player, earning himself a spot in the Italian National Team and a place with Torino. Tragically, Meroni was struck by a car driven by a 19-year-old Torino fan as he was out celebrating a victory. In an ironic twist, that driver was Attilio Romero, who became the club’s president in 2000.
16 Charlie Davies
After featuring irregularly for the U.S. Men’s National Team during his early career, Charlie Davies’ career took off during the summer of 2009. He started off the summer by helping the USMNT to a stunning 2nd place finish at the Confederations Cup, where he scored a goal and helped the USMNT defeat Spain just prior to their amazing international run of three consecutive major tournament wins.
Davies’ life would change that October, when he was a passenger involved in a major car accident that claimed the life of another passenger. Davies suffered severe injuries including a lacerated bladder, multiple leg fractures, and brain trauma. Incredibly, Davies has recovered to a point that he is a consistent contributor to the New England Revolution, but he has never been able to regain the form he had before the accident.
15 Andrey Arshavin
It is hard to believe the cherub-like talent that is Andrey Arshavin is already 33 years old with the majority of his football career behind him. After playing nearly a decade with Zenit St. Petersburg, Andrei Arshavin had an incredible Euro 2008 Tournament that made him the transfer target for many top clubs around Europe. Arshavin ultimately settled with Arsenal, unknowingly settling for the mediocrity that the team has experienced in recent years. Following an unsuccessful qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup as the captain of Russia, Arshavin expressed his desire to no longer play football. Arsenal decided not to renew his contract, so he moved back to Zenit on a free transfer. He remains a professional, but has never reached the elite level of Ronaldo or Messi, to whom Arsene Wenger once compared his talents.
14 Duncan Edwards
The Munich Air Disaster remains one of the greatest tragedies in football’s history, when eight Manchester United players perished while traveling for a European Cup match. Edwards was one of the youngest players to ever play in the Football League First Division. In his short five years as a professional, he helped Manchester United win two First Division titles and earned a place with the English National Team as the youngest player since World War II. Even after sustaining very serious injuries in the plane crash, Edwards expressed his desire to recover for a match against Wolves. Doctors were stunned by his fight for life, but he ultimately succumbed to his injuries fifteen days after the crash at the age of 21. He remains one of football’s greatest lost talents.
13 Michael Owen
Michael Owen was an incredibly gifted footballer that dazzled Liverpool fans when he emerged at Anfield with his outstanding pace and finishing ability. Owen, the son of a footballer, was brought through Liverpool’s youth system and signed his first professional contract with them at the age of 17. After being included in England’s 1998 World Cup squad, he was an instant star following amazing substitute appearances. Possessing finishing instincts which were better than few players in history, he scored tons of goals for Liverpool, before leaving for the lure of the Galacticos, Real Madrid.
Following his transfer to Spain in 2004, he suffered a litany of injuries, which severely affected his ability to contribute. His finished his career with stints at Newcastle, Manchester United, and Stoke City, before retiring from the game in 2013. If not for the injuries, Owen could have been one of the greatest footballers of any generation. Even so, he remains one of the greats of the early 2000s.
12 Freddy Adu
Fourteen-year-old Freddy Adu was going to be the superstar that brought the United States out of the football dark age. He was believed by many scouts to be a generational talent when he became the youngest player to ever sign a contract in Major League Soccer history. He helped DC United win an MLS Cup before he was transferred to Real Salt Lake for the 2007 season. Soon, he had negotiated a deal to play with Benfica, which started a spree of loan deals and transfers that has seen him play for ten different clubs in eight countries. At this point, Adu is still only 25 years old and a journeyman footballer with a decent amount of national team appearances to his name. However, he is nowhere near the superstar he was expected to be, and that has disappointed many.
11 Adrian Mutu
One thing comes to mind when the name Adrian Mutu is mentioned, and that is his struggle with substance abuse. Mutu still managed to have a respectable career despite two lengthy suspensions after testing positive for cocaine. After Chelsea shelled out £21 million in order to secure his signature and a considerable amount in wages, the club sought to recover the money from Mutu resulting in lengthy legal proceedings. He later faced a nine-month ban for a positive doping test while playing for Fiorentina. Last year, he was denied a visa after showing up drunk to the Indian Embassy, which caused a deal to play in the Indian Super League to fall through.
10 Jordi Cruyff
It is impossible to imagine the pressure that Jordi Cruyff must have felt as a young player. As the son of the legendary Johan Cruyff, many expected Jordi to lead the next generation of Dutch talent to greatness. Jordi was a decent attacking midfielder as he came through Barcelona’s B and senior squads while his father was manager. Once his dad was sacked, Jordi was soon to follow and joined Manchester United. After suffering a knee injury, he bounced from club to club and even earned a few international appearances with both the Netherlands and Catalonia. Not a bad career, but nowhere near the mountain of expectation placed on him because of his ultra-talented father.
9 Matt Jensen
Matt Jensen was once thought of as one of the most promising young talents in England before his career was derailed by a serious motorcycle accident. Jensen impressed as a youngster with Carlisle United, which captured the attention of Crystal Palace, who paid £1 million for his signature. After scoring ten goals in his first season, he was snatched up by Blackburn Rovers for £4.1 million and scored 47 for the club in his first three seasons. In the summer of 2002, Jensen was involved in a motorcycle accident in Rome that resulted in him being in a coma for six days. Following the accident, Jensen struggled to cope with the pressures of Premier League football and had unsuccessful trials with many clubs. He now plays in the Conference North, for Chorley FC.
8 Francis Jeffers
Following an incredible career with the England U-21 team, where he scored 13 goals in only 16 matches, Francis Jeffers made his debut with the National Team in the same match where Wayne Rooney debuted. Jeffers even scored in that debut, continuing the trend of success he showed at Everton and then Arsenal. Ankle and shoulder injuries significantly affected his career, but his lack of desire to compete for a place at Arsenal along with his partying habits caused him to fall out of favor with Arsene Wenger. Since then he has played football with clubs at various levels, including stints with Charlton, Blackburn, Motherwell, Newcastle Jets, and most recently finishing with Accrdington Stanley in 2003.
7 Stan Collymore
In his first season of Premier League football, Stan Collymore scored 22 goals for Nottingham Forest and helped them to an improbable third place finish following their return to the division. Soon after, Liverpool came calling for the towering striker, and he formed a partnership with Robbie Keane. However, Collymore struggled with his work rate on the pitch and depression off the pitch, which resulted in several outbursts. Collymore typically celebrated his goals alone because many of his teammates did not care for him. He bounced from team to team before retiring to become one of the most outspoken football pundits in the world.
The son of a footballer for Botafogo, Denilson was raised in extreme poverty in Sao Paolo before earning his way onto Sao Paolo FC. After appearing mostly as a substitute for the club during their Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup titles, Arsenal signed the 19-year-old midfielder with just one year of experience. After being the Brazil’s captain at several youth levels, he never truly found his place at Arsenal despite featuring prominently for five seasons. In 2011, he returned to Sao Paolo on a loan deal, but soon thereafter his contract with Arsenal was terminated. Even though he is only 27, it is unlikely that he will ever feature for the Brazilian National Team.
5 Billy Kenny
Billy Kenny was another in a long line of Everton youth players to successfully make the senior squad with his debut in 1992. He earned man of the match in his first Merseyside Derby against Liverpool and was hailed as the “Goodison Gazza.” Sadly, he had significant struggles with alcohol and substance abuse, which came to a head with failed drug tests following a six-month layoff with shin splints. Kenny lost the desire to train and became addicted to cocaine, which led to his dismissal from Everton. Kenny was given a second chance with Oldham, but was dismissed after only four matches and retired from football at the age of 21.
4 Peter Knowles
After signing a deal at the age of 17 with the Wolverhampton Wanderers, Peter Knowles would quickly become one of the most beloved players in club history. He emerged as a talent during a Wolves season that would see them relegated and was a star in the Second Division the season after, helping them bounce back. Knowles wanted a transfer away from the club, but was denied several times. So, he chose to play for Los Angeles and Kansas City on loan deals during the summer. Knowles became a Jehovah’s Witness during his stint in Kansas City and soon indicated that he had lost his ambition. Eight matches into the 1969-70 season with Wolves, he chose to retire leaving his dream of representing England at the World Cup unfulfilled.
3 Ricardo Quaresma
Ricardo Quaresma is regarded by many pundits to be one of the biggest busts in recent football memory. Quaresma was once thought of as being a player in a similar mold to his compatriot, Cristiano Ronaldo. He has a full bag of tricks to dazzle opposing defenders, but never truly made an impact in the way he was supposed to despite featuring for teams like Barcelona, Inter, and Chelsea. He earned the “honor” of being crowned Serie A’s worst player with the Bidone d’Oro (golden trashcan) Award. His best stints were with Porto and Besiktas, but his constant transfers have made it difficult for him to find success.
2 Paul Gascoigne
Paul Gascoigne is now a cautionary tale of how success can combine with mental illness to result in the downfall of a great man. Gascoigne was an undeniably talented footballer, but struggled to compose himself at various points throughout his career. He helped England reach the semifinals of the 1990 World Cup, but was reduced to tears after earning a yellow card that would have kept him out of the final. England would lose that match, and it remains Gazza’s lasting legacy, despite many beautiful performances for Spurs, Rangers, and England’s Euro ’96 semifinal run. Gascoigne recently has had an all too public battle with alcoholism and mental illness which has tarnished his legacy. He remains one of the most tragic figures in world football.
Adriano Leite Ribeiro, simply known by many as Adriano, has the misfortune of being the only player in history to have earned three Bidone d’Oro Awards for Serie A’s worst player. Adriano’s struggles have been newspaper fodder for years with pundits speculating various methods of getting a performance out of the former Brazilian star. After debuting with the Brazilian National Team at the age of 18, he was seen as a “can’t miss” striking prospect, possessing size, speed, and a lethal finishing touch. However, struggles with fitness, homesickness, work rate, his weight, and possible involvement with drugs severely sidetracked his career. Now 33-years-old, Adriano is currently without a club and will likely never return to the form that earned him the nickname, “The Emperor.”