Adu, Lamptey & 20 teenage superstars who failed to fulfil their potential

Freddy Adu
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Ahead of the unveiling of the 2018 NxGn on Wednesday, Goal takes a look back at prodigiously gifted players who never lived up to the hype

  1. Adriano
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    Adriano was just 17 when he broke into the Flamengo first team in February 2000 and so impressive were his initial performances in the professional ranks that Inter paid €7 million for the striking sensation just over a year later. After impressive loan spells at Fiorentina and Parma, it appeared that Adriano would live up to his billing as Ronaldo's heir, for both club and country. However, despite playing a key role in Brazil's triumphs at the 2004 Copa America and 2005 Confederations Cup, The Emperor's career went off the rails due to his battles with depression and alcoholism, following the death of his father in 2004.
  2. Freddy Adu
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    Freddy Adu

    From being touted as 'The New Pele' at 14 to searching for a club at 28, perhaps no prodigy has suffered a more spectacular fall from grace than Freddy Adu. Capped by his country by the age of 16, superstardom beckoned when the forward moved to Benfica the following year. However, Adu failed dismally to prove his worth at the Estadio da Luz and he ultimately became the quintessential journeyman footballer, plying his trade in the likes of Serbia and Finland before being released by the Tampa Bay Rowdies in January 2017.
  3. Anderson


    Anderson believes that it is medals that make the man, recently pointing out that he has four Premier League titles to Steven Gerrard's none. However, whereas even the Brazilian concedes that the former Liverpool captain has a place in "football history", the former Porto man will never be remembered as anything other than a total waste of talent. Indeed, a player once described by legendary Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson as "something special" was eventually let go in 2015, when still only 26, due to his total lack of professionalism. He is now back in Brazil, on loan to Coritiba from Internacional.
  4. Valeri Bojinov
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    Valeri Bojinov

    The youngest non-Italian ever to play in Serie A, Valeri Bojinov just 15 when he made his debut for Lecce, in January 2002. So highly was the Bulgarian rated that he made his international bow at Euro 2004, leading to the striker being touted as Serie A's answer to England starlet Wayne Rooney. However, if Rooney eventually burned out after over a decade at the top, Bojinov never really got going. He was still only 19 when he joined Fiorentina in 2005 but his career, which also took in spells at Juventus and Manchester City, was blighted by injuries and altercations with team-mates and coaches. He is now plying his trade in Croatia with Rijeka.
  5. Antonio Cassano
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    Antonio Cassano

    "It's my fault if I haven't had a better career," Antonio Cassano admitted in 2013. "I haven't achieved 50 per cent of what I could have." He wasn't wrong. Cassano announced himself as a player of incredible natural ability at 17, with a stunning goal for his native Bari in a famous win over Inter. However, despite subsequent spells at Roma and Real Madrid, the Italian attacker never realised his potential, preferring instead to spend what should have been his peak years eating and womanising, and has now been without a club since last July. Underlining just how mixed up the now unattached attacker had got his priorities, ‘Fantantonio’ later said of his nocturnal habits in the Spanish capital, "Sex and then food; a perfect night."
  6. Macauley Chrisantus
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    Macauley Chrisantus

    Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and even Real Madrid were all said to have been interested in signing Macauley Chrisantus after he exploded onto the under-age scene by firing Nigeria to victory at the 2007 U-17 World Cup. Indeed, the striker had only been denied a Golden Shoe and Golden Ball double by a certain Toni Kroos. However, it's been all downhill ever since, with the forward having erred in joining Hamburg over one of Europe's elite. "I know very soon I will have the world calling my name again," he later declared - but that was nine years ago and he is presently plying his trade in the third tier of Spanish football with Real Murcia.
  7. Sebastian Deisler
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    Sebastian Deisler

    Former Borussia Monchengladbach boss Friedel Rausch famously said of Sebastian Deisler, "At some point, he will be mentioned in the same breath as Walter, Seeler and Beckenbauer." Unfortunately, Deisler's name is now only used in cautionary tales about putting too much pressure on young players. The gifted attacker was touted as the saviour of German football but, ultimately, he had to be saved himself, after being left exhausted and depressed by the rigours of the professional game. Looking back on the world he walked away from at 27, he confessed: "I felt like a sad clown."
  8. Denilson
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    A World Cup winner and once the most expensive player in the world – yet it is impossible to view Denilson's career as anything but an anti-climax. Indeed, big things were expected of the fleet-footed winger who had broken into the Sao Paulo team at 17 before joining Real Betis for a record-breaking £21.5m in 1998. However, it quickly became evident that the Brazilian was adept at step-overs but little else. He would spend time playing in Saudi Arabia, the United States, Vietnam and Greece before eventually retiring arguably still most famous for the part he played in a classic, airport-based ad the Brazil squad made before the 1998 World Cup!
  9. Diego


    Zico once admitted that he and Diego shared some striking similarities. “For the role he plays and the way he takes free-kicks, it is true that we are a bit alike," the footballing icon said of his fellow Brazilian. However, whereas Zico is renowned as one of the finest players to have ever worn the No.10 shirt for the Selecao, the same cannot be said of the latter. Diego could have been, though. He was a teenage sensation, exploding onto the scene as a 16-year-old with Santos but he flopped at both Porto and Juventus, and sparkled only sporadically at Werder Bremen and Atletico Madrid. Unfortunately, while the talent was there, the discipline was not.
  10. Royston Drenthe
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    Royston Drenthe

    Although Royston Drenthe still insists that he was unfairly labelled a "bad boy", trouble seemed to follow him around. After establishing himself as one of the most exciting youngsters in world football with his scintillating performances for Feyenoord and the Netherlands Under-21s, he then threatened to go on strike if his club did not allow him to join Real Madrid in 2007. However, despite a positive start to his career at the Santiago Bernabeu, he had run-ins with several coaches, including Jose Mourinho, and was eventually released in 2012. The aspiring rapper ultimately retired at the age of 29 to focus on his music career.
  11. Wayne Harrison
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    Wayne Harrison

    The most tragic tale on our list, the late Wayne Harrison's hopes of becoming a superstar were crushed by injury. The childhood Liverpool fan had become the most expensive teenager in British football history when he joined the Reds from Oldham in January 1985, aged 17. "You hear reports about a special player perhaps once in 20 years," the Merseysiders' manager Joe Fagan explained. "That's why we bought him." However, his time at Anfield was blighted by misfortune. He almost died after falling through a greenhouse before suffering a career-ending knee injury, in 1991, just when he was poised to break into Liverpool's first team. He had been working as a driver for a brewery in Stockport before he sadly passed away at just 46 from pancreatic problems.
  12. Michael Johnson
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    Michael Johnson

    Michael Johnson was the last local to represent Manchester City in a Mancunian derby, 11 years ago. It is an undoubted sign of the times but also indicative of just how quickly things went wrong for a midfielder described as "England's next big thing" by former Three Lions boss Sven-Goran Eriksson. Johnson was just 19 when he lined up against Manchester United but he would never do so again, with injuries and a huge sense of expectancy sending him spiralling into depression. "I don’t think I had the best skill sets to deal with it," admitted Johnson, who felt he had no choice but to quit the game after being released by City at just 24. 
  13. Bojan Krkic
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    Bojan Krkic

    The man who took Lionel Messi's place in the history books as the youngest player to have represented Barcelona in a Liga fixture, Bojan appeared destined for greatness after netting 10 goals during the 2007-08 campaign. The Alaves attacker was still only 17 at the time. Yet that looks like it is going to be as good as it gets for the forward, who has since been deemed surplus to requirements by not only Barca but also Roma, AC Milan, Ajax and even Stoke. Indeed, it is telling that an attacker once considered "a treasure" by Frank Rijkaard has not reached double figures over the course of a single season since that thrilling debut campaign in Catalunya.
  14. Nii Lamptey
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    Nii Lamptey

    Having escaped his abusive parents by being smuggled into Belgium to link up with Anderlecht, Nii Lamptey began to build a new life for himself in Europe. However, the gifted Ghanaian – who was dubbed Pele's successor by the Brazilian himself after leading the Black Starlets to victory at the 1991 Under-17 World Cup – was ruthlessly exploited by agents and money men, and suffered one personal tragedy after another, losing two children to the same lung disease. "I have been through hell, through so much pain," he later confessed, after setting up a football school to provide kids with the education he was never fortunate enough to have received.
  15. Federico Macheda
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    Federico Macheda

    Nobody was better placed to warn Marcus Rashford of the perils of having too much, too soon at Old Trafford than Federico Macheda, who looked set for superstardom after swinging the 2008-09 Premier League title race back in Manchester United's favour with his sensational late winner against Aston Villa. “Marcus needs to continue working hard, don’t grow a big head and be lucky with injuries,” the Italian said in 2016. Alex Ferguson didn't just think Macheda was "a fantastic talent" but also "a tough bastard". Unfortunately, it turned out that Macheda didn't have what it takes to succeed at the highest level and, after flopping at a succession of clubs, the 26-year-old is now playing in Serie B for Novara.
  16. Alexandre Pato
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    Alexandre Pato

    By 19, Alexandre Pato had already established himself as AC Milan's first-choice striker and been capped three times by Brazil. Now, at 28, 'The Duck' is in China, struggling to make a positive impression at Tianjin Quanjian and further away from the Selecao than ever before. Injuries undeniably robbed Pato of the pace he once used to terrorise defenders but his mental strength has also been repeatedly questioned, particularly during his disastrous stint at Corinthians. The very real fear now is that the striker's best days have long since passed.
  17. Jermaine Pennant
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    Jermaine Pennant

    Jermaine Pennant became the most expensive trainee in British football when Arsenal signed the then 15-year-old from Notts County for £2m in 1999 but Arsene Wenger eventually lost patience with the winger due to his poor time-keeping and party lifestyle. Indeed, when later asked what advice he would give his teenage self, Pennant joked: "Stay away from women!" However, Pennant also had problems with alcohol and served three months in jail for drink-driving during his time at Birmingham. Pennant briefly looked like salvaging his top-flight career at Liverpool, proving one of their best performers in the 2007 Champions League final, but his lack of discipline put paid to those hopes and he is now without a club after parting company with Billericay Town.
  18. Lars Ricken
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    Lars Ricken

    Lars Ricken was still only 17 when he put Borussia Dortmund 2-0 up at San Siro in a UEFA Cup clash with Inter in March 1994. It was already clear that the German attacker had it in him to be a man for the big occasion, so it came as no surprise to BVB fans when he sealed a first Champions League crown for their side with a stunning goal in the 1997 final against Juventus. Ricken seemed destined for great things but it never happened for him, with persistent injury problems resulting in a complete loss of confidence, eventually forcing him to retire before he had even turned 30.   
  19. Javier Saviola
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    Javier Saviola

    Javier Saviola had the world at his feet when he joined Barcelona in 1999. At 19, he had already achieved superstardom at River Plate by lifting two titles as well as being named South American Footballer of the Year. His Camp Nou career started brightly, too, but the arrival of Frank Rijkaard as coach signalled the end of his time in Catalunya and, as it transpired, the peak years of his career. Saviola did claim a Copa Libertadores medal after returning to River but, even by then, he was little more than a shadow of his former self. "Looking back, I do wish I'd played more," he said of his time in La Liga.
  20. Lee Sharpe
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    Lee Sharpe

    Before Ryan Giggs, there was Lee Sharpe, who burst into the Manchester United team as a teenager in the late 1980s and became a huge hit with the Old Trafford faithful thanks to his thrilling performances on the left wing. However, with his charisma and good looks, Sharpe quickly developed a taste for the trappings of fame. Despite the best efforts of Alex Ferguson, who once broke up a party at Sharpe's house that Giggs was also attending, the England international lost his way. Injuries didn't help but it is telling that Sharpe is best known to younger football fans for his appearances on 'Celebrity Wrestling', 'Love Island' and 'Dancing on Ice'.