They’re names that go from obscure to household staples in the course of a few matches: Erling Haaland. Jadon Sancho. Vinicius Jr. Alphonso Davies. Phil Foden. João Félix. Ansu Fati. These (and other) rising stars are offered hefty salaries, prestige, and the chance to become legends for some of the biggest clubs in the world. They dazzle spectators week in and week out, get paid more money each month than many non-athletes will see in a year, and yet some (like 17-year-old Fati) are currently not even old enough to vote.
What is so exciting about a wunderkind? Some are praised because they represent the spirit of a club, usually because they are homegrown players who graduated from club academies; Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Liverpool’s Trent Alexander Arnold are two such players. Others are brought in to usher in a new era in a club’s history. Overall, young players are scouted because they are the future of a club—the greats can’t play forever, no matter how much they’d like to. Young stars are fascinating to both fans and managers alike, as we are captivated by children doing things adults do. It seems like every week some article asks, “Could ____ be the next [legend]?” However, as swiftly as some of these prospects appear, they disappear from the spotlight just as quickly.
Some of the most interesting answers come from the question “what ever happened to…?”, especially in the world of sports. Players like Martin Ødegaard, Sergi Samper, Renato Sanches, and Moise Kean, whose highly anticipated future careers were discussed by media outlets, pundits, and fans for ages, now appear on more than one list of football “flops.” Despite the way young talents are sought after, many of them fail to live up to expectations. Why, though? These kids can clearly play, as their countless highlight reels confirm, so why is it so easy to find op-ed pieces on the reasoning behind yet another wunderkind’s disappointing spell at ___ club? One intuitive explanation is simply pressure. While these young players have spent the majority of their lives on the pitch competing at the highest level, most 12-year old academy players are not playing in front of thousands of fans on a weekly basis. It can be overwhelming for a player who, thrust suddenly into the ring with literal living legends, is expected to impress immediately and consistently. Then, when they don’t, they are dismissed by both fans and managers. Another explanation could be that they simply are not given the chance to adequately showcase their abilities and prove to the manager that the decision to sign them was justified. If even seasoned players have difficulty breaking into the first team, it is no surprise that young newcomers do not always have a spot in the starting eleven. Further, is it even a wunderkid’s fault if their career does not take off? Or should the clubs who poach and then immediately loan them out be held responsible?
Nike Football, no stranger to sponsoring young players on their rise to stardom, released a film in 2016 entitled “The Switch” where English ball-boy Charlie Lee has a chance encounter with Ronaldo and wakes up the next day to discover that he and his idol have switched lives. The film follows both players as they get used to their new lives: the camera documents Ronaldo-as-Charlie’s rise to the top of English football (he is signed by Manchester City and is later called up to the English national team) as well as Charlie-as-Ronaldo’s successful year (he is awarded the Ballon d’Or and trains with Portugal). The two come face to face a year later in match between Portugal and England where one commentator comments on the pair’s chemistry: “It’s like watching Ronaldo against Ronaldo.”
While this film uses an impossible scenario to encourage viewers to #SparkBrilliance, the trajectory of Charlie’s career is one that is expected of the majority of teen stars. However, I can’t help but wonder what happened next for Lee. Did he shine at City and go on to follow in Ronaldo’s footsteps in Madrid? Were his next few seasons spent on the bench and out of favor with management? Was the switch the spark he needed to kick off a successful career or was it just a blip in a promising but ultimately disappointing one? Either way, the next time you come across an article investigating some poor kid’s “flop” of a career, take it with a grain of salt—growing up is hard enough.