Football’s forgotten wonderkids and where they are now – including ‘next Xavi’

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  • There is nothing quite as exhilarating for football fans as a new youngster breaking onto the scene and strutting their stuff.

    The feeling is amplified tenfold if that talent in particular is regarded a wonderkid – described by Collins dictionary as a young person whose excellence in his or her discipline is appropriate to someone older and more experienced.

    There have certainly been a lot of them over the last 15 or so years, with the emergence of YouTube and social media playing a key role in building up hype.

    Many have gone on to fulfil the lofty expectations placed on their shoulders, notable examples being Neymar, Vinicius Jr, Wayne Rooney, Kylian Mbappe and, of course, Lionel Messi.

    But there are many more who, for a multitude of different reasons, failed to deliver on their promise.

    From Manchester United rejects to talent stolen from under Barcelona’s nose, Daily Star Sport brings you a list of 12 forgotten wonderkids.

    1. Jack Rodwell

      Everton and England fans thought they had another Wayne Rooney on their hands after Jack Rodwell emerged from the academy and into the first team. But the midfielder’s Toffees career never quite got out of third gear.

      Injuries hampered his progress at Goodison Park, yet Rodwell was still able to secure a move to Manchester City in 2012. He was handed next to no game time for two miserable seasons before jumping ship to Sunderland.

      There, Rodwell faded into insignificance and struggled for minutes. Moves to Blackburn and Sheffield United followed and the former England international now plies his trade in Australia with Sydney FC.

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    2. Josh McEachran

      Chelsea’s long-term replacement for Frank Lampard appeared set when Josh McEachran came through the ranks. He debuted as a 17-year-old under Carlo Ancelotti in 2010, impressing the legendary Italian with his maturity and passing ability.

      But things unravelled when Ancelotti was sacked in favour of Andre Villas-Boas, who sent him out on loan. McEachran had five different loan moves before joining Brentford and later Birmingham City on permanent deals.

      The 30-year-old has played for MK Dons in League One since 2021.

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    3. Alexandre Pato

      Alexandre Pato was considered one of football’s hottest prospects during his time at AC Milan . The Internacional prodigy took Serie A by storm with his blistering pace, carrying the weight of the attack on his shoulders as a mere teenager among a team of certified legends.

      After scoring 51 in just 117 matches, injuries destroyed what could have been and the striker went on to have unsuccessful spells with Chelsea, Villarreal and Sao Paulo.

      He joined Orlando City in the MLS in 2021 and netted three goals in 14 appearances in the 2022 season. He has been without a club since the start of 2023.

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    1. Sergi Samper

      Sergi Samper was hailed as the ‘next Xavi’ and ‘Sergio Busquets’ heir’ when he was a young star flourishing in Barcelona’s academy. The Catalans were so adamant of his star prowess they rejected Arsenal’s advances back in 2011, instead offloading agemates Hector Bellerin and Jon Toral.

      But thanks to Busquets remaining an ever-present part of the Barcelona side, Samper was never really given a chance in the first team. He played just one La Liga game for his boyhood club in 2016 before being sent out on loan to Granada and Las Palmas.

      The Spaniard finally left the nest in 2019, but stunned long-time admirers by joining Vissel Kobe in Japan. Aged 28, he plays alongside Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta, though he has started just one game this season.

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    2. Ganso

      The start of Ganso’s career had parallels with that of Neymar, with the duo taking the Brasileiro Serie A by storm with Santos. The pair became teenage sensations thanks to their skills and telepathic chemistry, with Ganso dubbed as the ‘new Kaka’.

      But while Neymar went on to exceed all expectations by winning the Champions League and potentially becoming his country’s record goal-scorer, Ganso’s career peaked at Santos.

      He left Pele’s iconic club too late, finally getting his break at Sevilla in 2016. Ganso had three underwhelming seasons in Europe before returning to Brazil with Fluminense, where he currently pulls the strings in midfield aged 33.

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    3. Fran Merida

      Arsene Wenger thought he had signed another Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona when Arsenal secured Fran Merida’s signature in 2007. The 17-year-old was described as “an absolutely amazing player” by the Frenchman, signing an extension two years later.

      Wenger repeatedly gave Merida chances to shine but the physicality of English football proved too large a hurdle. The Spaniard was lured away by Atletico Madrid in 2010 with the promise of regular football.

      Moves to Braga in Portugal, Spanish second division side Hercules, Athletico Paranaense in Serie A, Huesca and Osasuna followed. The midfielder enjoyed his best spell at Osasuna before joining Espanyol and Chinese Super League side Tianjin Jinmen Tiger in 2022.

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    1. Giovani dos Santos

      Another Barcelona wonderkid who failed to live up to expectations was Giovani dos Santos. The Mexican came through La Masia shortly after Lionel Messi – but their career trajectories couldn’t be any more different.

      Barcelona became unconvinced with his progress and sold him to Tottenham in 2008 for £5m. The forward was never able to convert his natural ability to effective forward play in England and was loaned out to Ipswich Town, then Galatasaray and finally Racing Santander before being released by Spurs in 2012 – having failed to score a single goal for the club.

      He spent three seasons in La Liga, followed by a decent four-year spell at LA Galaxy. The 34-year-old last represented Mexican club America but has been a free agent since summer 2021.

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    2. Federico Macheda

      A 17-year-old Federico Macheda became an instant Manchester United hero when he came on in stoppage time to net a crucial Premier League winner against Aston Villa. He repeated the heroics just a week later against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, taking just 46 seconds to find the net after being brought on.

      It has been a long 14 years since then for the Italian, whose career never reached those lofty heights again. After signing a four-year contract, the forward was blighted by injuries the following season and had to endure six loan spells in four seasons.

      Macheda joined Cardiff City on a permanent deal in 2014, again netting on his debut. But his career gradually dwindled with moves to Nottingham Forest, Novara and Panathinaikos – and he currently plays his football on loan for Cypriot outfit APOEL.

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    3. Hachim Mastour

      Italian-born Moroccan Hachim Mastour was a magician with a ball. He signed for AC Milan’s academy as a teenager and became a YouTube hit thanks to his freestyling ability.

      Mastour, a second striker, was promoted to the first team in 2014 but did not come off the bench. Over the next few seasons, Mastour was found wanting physically and sent out on loan to Malaga and PEC Zwolle.

      Mastour, now 24, was on the books at Serie B side Reggina but was loaned out to AC Carpi, in Serie C, for the second half of the 2020/21 season. The Italian star joined Moroccan division two outfit Renaissance Zemamra in June 2022 after being without a club for 11 months.

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    1. Ravel Morrison

      Time and time again, former players have referred to Ravel Morrison as the best youngster they ever saw. Sir Alex Ferguson even once described the English midfielder as "the best kid you will ever see".

      But he left the club in 2012 having made no senior appearances in the league thanks to his off-field behaviour. After a journeyman career with clubs such as Lazio, West Ham, Birmingham City, and Sheffield United among others, Morrison found his way to Derby, playing under ex-clubmate Wayne Rooney.

      He made the move to America in 2022, where he was reunited with Rooney at DC United. Morrison was left out of the squad for the 2023 season but is still allowed to train with his teammates.

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    2. Freddy Adu

      In 2004, Freddy Adu was America’s answer to Lionel Messi. Dubbed "the next Pele" after making his professional debut at just 14-years-old, Adu looked to have the world at his feet with clubs across Europe eagerly tracking his progress.

      He went on trial with Manchester United in 2006 and shot to fame thanks to his incredible potential on Championship Manager 4. But work permit issues scuppered a potential move he was forced to wait another year until Benfica came calling.

      Sadly for the Ghanaian-born forward, his spell in Portugal was a disaster and a career as a journeyman across Monaco, Greece, Brazil, Serbia, Finland and Sweden followed. The 33-year-old has been without a club since February 2021.

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    3. Denilson

      Denilson arrived at Arsenal from Sao Paulo in 2006 with the hype train in full flow. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be for the youngster, who never truly adapted to the demands of the Premier League.

      He made more than 150 appearances for the Gunners before returning to Sao Paolo in 2015. Later spells followed in the Middle East and Malta with Sliema Wanderers, before Denilson finally hung up his boots in 2021, after just three months at Brasil Pelotas.

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