T he obstacles to success in the game are plentiful, but something what is even more fascinating are the players who make it, establish themselves as professionals and have all the ability in the world, then when perceived maturity is scheduled to make its landing in their life and push them even further, it doesn’t. So, why do some players seemingly have it all, but become part of articles like this one having seemingly not achieved as much as they were supposed to?
Football is a notoriously difficult profession to get into. When we consider the small percentage of players who actually make it to the professional level, the chances of carving out a career in the game are slim to none. The biggest barrier to overcome is ability; usually identifiable at a young age and a fine barometer for judging whether someone has what it takes.
Yet we have all shared the pitch with individuals who had all the ability in the world, but never made it to the professional stage. From personal experience I have been fortunate enough to share the pitch with some now established Premier League and international players, yet there were much more identifiable “talents” that I would have been far more confident would thrive at the elite level.
In essence, there are so many variables that will determine a player’s success. Ability takes someone so far, however we must also consider attitude, fitness, temperament, adaptability, listening skills, how coachable they are, and arguably the most important characteristic of all, dedication.
So many young talents fall by the wayside due to drink, drugs, relationships and sometimes a combination of all three. A footballer at the beginning of their career must sacrifice so much if they truly want to make it to the top, and that can be a daunting ask of a mid teenager whose childhood friends might be a bad influence on paper, yet in reality are massive mental stabilizers.
He picks the ball up in his own half… with no teammates in support. He dances past one Barcelona defender, accelerates forward and baring down on goal, slots it calmly underneath the goalkeeper. You might remember Alexander Pato scoring this type of goal in Camp Nou, but around three decades earlier, a relatively unknown little magician by the name of Jorge Alberto Gonzalez Barillas did the same thing...
Ask anyone who watched Cadiz play in the 1980’s who the best player in Spain was during that time, and they will tell you “El Magico” Gonzalez. He had the ability to be better than them all… only he didn’t care. There was a time when Pato was also considered a credible contender for “The next Pele” mantle but similarly he too did not possess the innate drive to push himself to the very top.
Gonzalez played for El Salvador at the 1982 World Cup and although vastly superior opponents humbled his country in each game, the breathtaking virtuoso performances of El Magico in spite of his less than stellar support cast caught the eye of several clubs around Europe who saw a star in the making.
A substantial offer came from Paris St Germain, but Gonzalez said the city did not suit his lifestyle. Other reputable clubs put equally tantalising offers on the table but Gonzalez shocked the football world by signing for Spanish also-rans Cadiz. His reasoning was simply that he had seen a picture of the beaches and nightlife there and decided that is where he wanted to live.
During his time in one of the most scenic locations of Andalusia, El Magico became just as well known for his partying lifestyle as his wizardry on the field. He could do anything with a ball attached to his foot; he just cared more for the bottles attached to his hand.
For a brief period, Serie A was the home of arguably the most fearsome striker since the original Ronaldo. Adriano looked like he had filled the void left by the declining ‘Fenom’ and was a genuine world class finisher who terrorised defences with strength, speed, glue like dribbling and a ferociously powerful shot that commanded the only 99 shot power rating on any edition of Pro Evolution Soccer.
Following the death of his father when he was 22, Adriano began to spiral out of control, as he turned to alcohol as it was “the only way I could be happy”. This prompted the intervention of Inter Milan legends Javier Zanetti and Ivan Cordoba, the latter of which told the Brazilian “ You are a combination of Zlatan and Ronaldo, do you realise you could be the best player ever.”
This was not simply hyperbole; Early Adriano performances were an indicator of future greatness, yet the tragic passing of his father was enough for him to throw it all away. Once one of the deadliest strikers in the world, Adriano barely kicked a ball in his 30’s and now spends most of his time with childhood friends who have ties to criminality. A prime example of what a traumatic life event can do to even the most talented of footballers.
In stark contrast the response of Cristiano Ronaldo following the death of his father and what he has gone on to achieve illustrates the fact that great footballers require an almost sociopathic drive to win at all costs … an impenetrable psyche which can withstand whatever life throws at you.
Adel Taarabt, on his day, was as talented with the ball at his feet as any player of the last 20 years. Despite his larger frame, he glided past players like they weren’t there, and had a bag of tricks that made him a weekly feature on Soccer AM’s showboat section. The same player who has 14 appearances with AC Milan under his belt was also labelled by Harry Redknapp as “The worst professional I have ever worked with”.
Overweight for most of his twenties, Taarabt simply never had the dedication to push himself further when it came to his fitness and more importantly, to be a better teammate. Ball-hoggers are relatively rare in the professional game yet every time Adel stepped out onto the park, for him it was about he and he only. A better temperament, a healthy fitness regime and an understanding of when and when not to go for the spectacular could have resulted in Taarabt becoming one of the hottest properties in Europe.
One of the reasons for a stalled career that was on an upward trajectory is how well a player can handle pressure. Pressure comes in several forms too… be it a glowing scouting review after several excellent performances in a top league at a young age, or a massive transfer fee which brings with it multi million pound signing on fees and a salary which provides a player with more cash in a week than the vast majority of people will make in several years.
“Believing the hype” is an accusation often thrown at some players who show early promise yet never fully realize their potential. A great recent example of this is Renato Sanches, who was dominating midfields in Portugal as a teenager, looking like the next big thing for his country and then since signing for Bayern Munich in a deal that could have been worth upwards of 70 million pounds.
He has since pretty much fallen off a cliff in terms of performances, even being labelled as one of the worst premier league midfielders ever following a hugely disappointing stint at Swansea. Sanches is now plying his trade with Lille, and isn’t exactly justifying his tag as their most expensive signing ever. Whether it was the hype or the transfer fees or a combination of both, Sanches is a prime example of how pressure can turn a future world beater (make no mistake about it, he really was) into a potential journeyman.
There is something almost unforgivable about those players who let things they could control influence their career in such a negative way. It still grates that we only got two years of Peak Ronaldinho, when we could have had a decade of it had he made better choices in his personal life, recently illustrated by his time spent in a prison in Paraguay. Failing to set new goals after reaching the summit can too prove fatal and is considered a key obstacle to ‘sustainable success’.
Drink, drugs, women, men, partying, chasing the celebrity lifestyle, bad attitude, bad fitness, lack of dedication, an inability to handle pressure. These are all barriers towards greatness that can be controlled by any individual. With the modern advancements in sports science and mental well- being, will we start to see some of these “vices” make less of an impact on a footballer’s potential? One thing is certain, that talent really can only take someone so far, it’s what we choose to do beyond that which will determine the legacy they leave.