Goal.com Special: Top 10 Lost Talents Of The Decade

At the beginning of the decade they were expected to take the highway to superstardom. Instead, their careers went absolutely nowhere. Some are even lucky we remembered their name to include in this list...

10. Marcel Ketelaer

Ketelaer was one of the hottest names in German football 10 years ago. After some very impressive performances for Borussia Monchengladbach and the U-21 national team, he was snapped up by Hamburg in the summer of 2000 for more than DM 5 million. A highly technical and industrious midfielder, he made things happen around him. Ketelaer scored on his Hamburg debut, and inspired a great comeback in his first European game, coming on at half-time in a 4-4 draw with Juventus.

Later, however, it all went wrong. Ketelaer lost his place in the HSV line-up, was loaned back to his mother club Gladbach, and continued on a disastrous spell in Nuremberg. When he signed for second division minnows Ahlen in 2005, his career was over before it really started. Ketelaer played his football in Austria in the last four years. Now, having been released by Rapid Wien, he is looking for a new club at the age of 33.

9. Marat Izmailov

Izmailov's star rose in no time; the youngster made his way from the Lokomotiv Moscow reserves to the national team ranks in less than six months, and by 2001 he was considered the brightest Russian prospect. He was chosen as the best young player of the year, was included in the World Cup squad in 2002, and was the driving force behind Lokomotiv's title triumph in the same year.

A brilliant playmaker, he was blessed with great technical abilities and a very keen eye for goal. Sadly, Izmailov’s career was marred by constant injuries, and he never managed to complete a full season. By 2005 he was no longer certain of a starting place, and lost his self-confidence. Izmailov’s last game for Russia was in 2006, and a year later he moved to Sporting Lisbon in order to rescue his career. He didn’t stay fit in Portugal either, and at the age of 27, he is light years behind Andrei Arshavin, the player he was once thought to be superior to.

8. Richard Knopper

Remember ever hearing of him? At the beginning of the century, Knopper was the brightest talent at Ajax, touted to be the successor to Dennis Bergkamp and the direct heir to Jari Litmanen, whose play he was trying to emulate. A deep-lying playmaker of great vision, Knopper had an uncanny ability to send the ball to the top corner from great distances, and was undoubtedly one of the most promising players in Europe in 2000.

Disaster struck later that year, as an injury forced him to miss almost the entire season, and new manager Co Adriaanse never put his faith in him after. After loan spells at Aris Saloniki and Heerenveen, he was sold to Vitesse, and since 2006 has been playing for Den Haag. More disappointingly, Knopper, now aged 33, doesn’t have a single international cap to his name. Given his undoubtedly outrageous talent, that’s a great shame.

7. Javier Portillo

When Portillo made his way to Real Madrid's first team in 2002 at the age of 20, he was unanimously declared to be the next Raul. The young striker scored at will as a substitute in his first season, netting five goals in 10 league games, and eight in the Copa del Rey. When he rose from the bench to warm up, the whole Bernabeu chanted his name. He was a Madrid idol in the making.

However, the sacking of coach, Vicente del Bosque, in the summer of 2003 practically killed the dream that was about to become a reality. Portillo scored just once in his second season, was loaned out to Fiorentina, then to Brugge, and was never wanted back. His self-confidence shattered beyond repair, Portillo became a bench player at Osasuna, almost unable to score and wasting all his chances. Last month me moved on loan to Hercules Alicante in the Segunda division. At the age of 27, his career looks as good as over.

6. Freddy Adu

Ghanaian-born American Adu was touted as one of the greatest prodigies ever. Numerous Italian clubs wanted him before he was 12. At 14, he became the youngest athlete in over 100 years to sign a professional contract at DC United. He scored his first MLS goal before he was 15, but the media circus might have killed Adu’s talent.

Overexposed to critics at the very young age, he was never going to meet unrealistic expectations, with some comparing him to Pele. The transfer to Benfica in 2007 never worked out, and when Adu was loaned to Monaco a year later, he was already a “has-been”. This season he started on loan to Belenenses, and barely featured in a very poor team ranked last in the Portuguese league. When the new coach made it clear in December that Adu was no longer wanted, the “next big thing” reached a new nadir, and one wonders if his career is finished... at the age of 20.

5. Fabian Carini

Carini is the eternal “great goalkeeping prospect”. The Uruguayan came to prominence in 1999, at the age of 19, helping his country to the Copa America final with some absolutely stunning displays, especially in penalty shoot-outs against Paraguay and Chile. He was immediately snapped up by Juventus, and waited on the bench for two years without getting a game. A successful spell at Standard Liege made Inter sign him in 2004, and Carini, still thought to be a 'keeper of great promise, spent three years at San Siro, with almost no game practice.

Even a loan stint at Cagliari didn’t help, and when Carini finally decided to move to a smaller team, it was too late. He lost everything he had promised, and was a substitute even at Spanish minnows Murcia. Now aged 30, he moved back to South America to play at Atletico Mineiro, probably never to return to Europe.

4. Stefano Fiore

Fiore never got a decent chance at a fabulous Parma side at the beginning of his career, but a move to Udinese in 1999 made him one of the most talked about players in Serie A. An elegant player of fantastic vision and pin-point passes, he was so highly rated that Dino Zoff changed the whole strategy of the Italian national team, pushed Francesco Totti into a more attacking position and benched Alessandro Del Piero, in order to find a place for the new-found jewel.

Fiore was in his prime at Euro 2000, scoring against Belgium, calling the shots in midfield and guiding Italy to the final. Then, in the summer of 2001, he decided to sign for Lazio who paid €20 million for his services. From there, it was all down hill. Alberto Zaccheroni played him out of position, new Azzurri boss Giovanni Trapattoni didn’t trust him, and a disastrous move to Valencia in 2004 cooked his goose. Fiore’s international career was over after Euro 2004, and loan spells back in Italy did little to make him regain his form. Now aged 34, he is playing in third division for Cosenza, wondering what went wrong on his way to becoming a superstar.

3. Francisco Pavon

The stopper’s place in the history is assured, his name famously becoming part of the “Zidanes y Pavones” philosophy of Florentino Perez during his first stint as Real Madrid president. “Zidanes” meant the galacticos bought for outrageous amounts of money, “Pavones” stood for local boys graduated from the Castilla academy. Young Paco Pavon, promoted to the first team in 2001, was supposed to be the new Fernando Hierro, and got almost unlimited credit at the beginning of his Bernabeu career. However, mistakes were occurring more and more often, and coaches started to lose confidence in his abilities. By 2004 he was on the bench, and a year later lost his course completely.

Real Zaragoza signed him in 2007, but even there he is not the first-choice option. When he does play, one wonders whether this error-prone defender was really a great white hope at Madrid just a few years ago.

2. El Hadji Diouf

Senegal's showing at the 2002 World Cup en route to the quarter-finals was nothing short of breathtaking, and its biggest star was a bold young striker. Silver quick, fearless, technically flawless, Diouf tormented the defensive ranks of the opponents and became an instant hit. At the age of 21, he was one of the hottest prodigies in the world, and Liverpool duly paid £10 million to Lens to bring the young genius to Anfield. That’s practically where Diouf’s career ended, as far as football is concerned.

The Senegalese was making much more unwanted headlines than he was scoring goals. In fact, he only netted three times in his first season in the Premier League, and none in his second. Rafa Benitez promptly got rid of him in 2004, and Diouf started wandering around. It’s hard to say if Bolton, Sunderland and now Blackburn really enjoyed having him in their ranks, eventhough he has been a cult figure. And what about that Senegal sensation? They never qualified for the World Cup since, with Diouf retiring from the national team last year aged 28. He might as well call it a day at club level.

1. Gaizka Mendieta

Mendieta was quite simply unstoppable at the beginning of the decade. A player who started his career at Valencia at left-back, he developed into an outstanding all-round midfielder thanks to Claudio Ranieri. Under Hector Cuper, he was the biggest star of a team that reached the Champions League final twice in succession. His magical passing and shooting, rare creativity and endless energy won him two UEFA Best Midfielder of the Season honours, and made some pundits to consider him a legitimate candidate to become the best player in the world.

Barcelona and Real Madrid did all they possibly could to get his signature, but Valencia sent him on his way to Lazio instead, with the Romans paying Los Che €48 million in 2001, making him the sixth most expensive player at the time. That’s where the story of Gaizka ended. He never settled in Italy, didn't play for Spain since 2002, had a hugely disappointing loan spell at Barca in 2002-2003, and was shipped to Middlesbrough in 2003. Two years after being destined to be the decade’s greatest player, he turned out to be an injury-prone also-ran at the Riverside. There were almost no headlines when he retired in 2008.

Michael Yokhin, Goal.com