The world of football has welcomed a lot of great talent to the big stage in recent years – from Kylian Mbappe to Jadon Sancho. It’s always a pleasure to see young players breaking through as they add extra excitement to the game. However, for every Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo who make it to the top, there are many more predicted for stardom who fall well short of their potential. Some still go on to have decent careers, but they don’t end up as the world beaters we expected them to become. Others completely fall off the radar and simply fade away into obscurity.
Johnson made his debut at 18 for Manchester City and became the 20th Academy Graduate to progress from Platt Lane to the City first team. He quickly impressed everyone with strong performances and was dubbed the next Steven Gerrard. The midfielder was even the subject of a £12 million bid from Liverpool in the summer of 2008. Johnson was regarded as the jewel in the crown of City’s pre-Abu Dhabi youth set-up for his ability to run with the ball, operate box-to-box and goal-scoring ability. But, a series of injuries and mental illness prevented the talented midfielder from reaching his full ability. He ultimately retired from professional football at the age of 24 and now owns a real estate business.
The attacking midfielder was the youngest ever debutant for the Croatian national team and for a period was the most talked about wonderkid in Europe. At Dinamo Zagreb, Halilovic made his first-team debut at 16-years-old and quickly became a regular. His early exploits were enough to convince FC Barcelona to prise him away from Zagreb. However, the talented midfielder never made it at the Catalan club. A loan spell at Gijon, followed by a move to Hamburger SV and another loan spell at Las Palmas marked a significant downfall to his career. At only 22, it is hard to say that he won’t bounce back and become a world beater but right now it looks unlikely. Currently, he’s playing for AC Milan, where he spends most of the time on the bench.
At the age of 17 years 19 days, Bojan Krkic made his first-team debut and became Barcelona’s youngest ever debutant. The La Masia graduate scored 12 goals in his first season and impressed everyone with his skills and temperament. Playing as a Spanish youth international he experienced tremendous success, winning the European Championships with the under-17 team in 2007 and later the under-21 team in 2011. However, success at underage level didn’t transfer into the senior ranks and only managed a solitary cap for the senior team. The Spanish forward was touted as the next Messi but is now playing for Stoke City in the Championship. In a recent interview, Bojan cited that anxiety attacks prevented him from becoming world-class.
While in the Manchester United Academy, Sir Alex Ferguson described Ravel Morrison as the best player he had ever seen at that age. The Englishman signed on as a first-year scholar in 2009 and turned professional on his 17th birthday. Morrison was the main attraction in the academy which featured a certain Paul Pogba. Despite undoubted talent and ability, a troubled personal life and an unprofessional attitude halted his progress. Spells at West Ham, Cardiff, Queens Park Rangers also didn’t help his cause. In 2015, he left England to join Italian Serie A club Lazio, but failed to impress and is currently playing for Atlas in Mexican League. At 25, Morrison may still unlock his true potential, but it seems unlikely.
Following his Golden Ball-winning exploits at the World Youth Championships with Brazil, Inter Milan signed Caio Ribeiro for £6.6m, a world record fee for a teenager at the time. The youngster was a class apart from every player in the youth tournament where he scored 5 goals in 6 matches. However, that tournament became the highest point of his career as he failed to live up to expectations. Ribeiro only appeared for the Nerazzurri six times and after a short stint at Napoli, he returned to his homeland, playing for a number of Brazilian clubs but never managed to cement his place in any team.
Fabio Paim was regarded as one of the most promising young footballers in Portugal while he was still in the Sporting Lisbon academy. A young Cristiano Ronaldo said upon arriving at Manchester United, “if you think I’m good, just wait until you see Fabio Paim”. High praise indeed, considering Paim never made an appearance for Sporting. He was loaned out numerous times, most notably to Chelsea in 2008, but failed to impress even for the reserves. At the age of 28, he’s turned out for as much as 16 different teams but played just a handful of times. Recently, he signed with the reserves of Leixões S.C. in the obscure Porto Football Association.
Gai Assulin had a successful trial with Barcelona back in 2003 and worked his way up to the Barca B team. The Israeli attacking midfielder was a key player for Barca B when Pep Guardiola was still in charge. Once Pep got promoted, he also made his debut for the senior side in October 2009 in a cup game. In the summer of 2010, Assulin rejected a contract extension from Barcelona and left the club for Manchester City, but things didn’t work out as planned in England. During his time at City, Assulin failed to make a single appearance and returned to Spain in 2012, signing for Racing Santander. After that, he went back to Israel and is currently playing for Kairat in the Kazakhstan Premier League.
The Brazilian Keirrison is the fourth former Barcelona player to feature in the list so far. Barca signed Keirrison in 2009 in a deal potentially worth €14 million after he scored 21 Brazilian Serie A goals in a single season as a 19-year-old. The striker was prolific as a teenager in Brazil, scoring 32 goals in just 50 appearances for Coritiba and Palmeiras. He was quickly loaned out to Benfica to adapt to the European game. However, he failed to impress in Portugal and got sent back to Barcelona in the middle of the season. A loan spell in Italy with Fiorentina followed but it was still far from impressive. As a result, he hasn’t been featured in Europe since 2009/10. He moved back to Brazil and played for a number of clubs but hasn’t been able to replicate his early form. Keirrison currently plays for Londrina in the Brazilian second division.
The Bulgarian striker debuted for Lecce in the Italian Serie A at the age of 15 years and 11 months, becoming the youngest foreign player to make an appearance in the Italian top-flight. Valeri was known for his speed, agility, quick feet, and close control. He was viewed as one of the most talented players in Italy when he moved to Fiorentina from Lecce for a fee of £11.6m in January 2005. However, he failed to consistently perform at the highest level. Unsuccessful stints at clubs like Manchester City, Parma, Sporting CP is testament that he never lived up to the hype.
Micah Richards made his debut for Man City at the tender age of 17 and was widely considered the most promising defensive prospect in the Premier League at that time. Within a few seasons, he became an important part of the first team. Richards was nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year Award for his displays in the 06/07 season. He spent 10 seasons at Manchester City while making 179 appearances. However, towards the end of his stint in Manchester, his performances started to dip significantly. Richards moved to Aston Villa to revive his career but a knee injury stopped that. He’s still a Villa player but yet to play a single match in two years.