Youth development is guesswork
Of the top-50 young prospects in the world from 2007, only 13 are now stars
Many young prospects fail to adjust to the demands of the game at the senior level
Sometimes injuries can also play a huge factor in why a player fails to deliver
Three years ago, World Soccer magazine published a list of the 50 most exciting teenagers in the world. With the benefit of hindsight, of those named, you could say there are 13 who either achieved stardom or are on their way to it: Pato, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Fabio Coentrao, Marouane Fellaini, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Ivan Rakitic, Gregory van der Wiel and Theo Walcott.
Another nine have had ups and downs and, while they may never be household names, look poised to be solid players at decent teams. These include Anderson, Ever Banega, Lorenzo De Silvestri, Marek Suchy, Diego Buonanotte, Bojan Krkic, Daniel Opare, Nikolay Myhaylov, Renato Augusto and Micah Richards. Two Mexicans -- Giovani dos Santos and Carlos Vela -- are on the list and probably deserve their own category: plenty of caps and contributions to "El Tri" but very little impact at the club level.
But that accounts for just under half the list. What of the other? Some, despite still being young, are likely on their way to being washouts, sometimes through injury, sometimes through failure to make the grade. You'd put Argentine Gerardo Bruna, now 19, who came to Liverpool via Real Madrid, in that category, along with Sadick Adams, the Ghanaian who failed to stick both at Atletico Madrid then at Vojvodina. In addition, Dumitru Copil, once hailed as the new "Gheorghe Hagi," is on loan in the Romanian second division; Sergio Tejera, once of Chelsea, is at Mallorca B in the Spanish third division; and Andrea Russotto is struggling on loan at Crotone in Serie B.
Others are developing perhaps more slowly than was once thought. Brazilian defenders Breno and Fabio, 21 and 20, respectively, are on the fringes of the Bayern and Manchester United squads. Fran Merida (20) is looking to make his mark at Atletico Madrid after being shut out at Arsenal. Damian Ismodes (21) is back in Peru after failing to make an instant impact in Spain.
What all this suggests is that judging talent, even in the 17- to 19-year-old bracket, like World Soccer did, is fraught with peril. You can assess a player's physical gifts: speed, strength, agility, etc. You measure his technical ability on the ball. You can even judge the intangibles, from reading the game to having the personality to react to setbacks to sheer drive and hunger. But the simple fact is that you'll still have only a hazy idea of what they can achieve at the next level, when the opposition is that much quicker, stronger and smarter.
There are players who are wonderful, creative passers, but when opposing midfielders are a half step faster than they're used to, it can make all the difference. Or there are defenders who have all the physical and technical skills but who simply can't read a forward's run at the next level. And there are strikers who just can't find space against well-organized, veteran defenses.
That's just the playing side, of course. The off-the-pitch stuff takes its toll. The aforementioned Bruna, whom some once described as an heir to Lionel Messi, suffered a number of injuries that severely slowed his development.
Others simply fizzle out after a bright start, whether because of distractions at home or an inability to cope with the pressure. Consider Abdoul Razack Traore. Born in Ivory Coast to refugees from Burkina Faso, his talent was evident at a young age, which is why he was taken to Moroccan powerhouse Raja Casablanca and, from there, ended up at Rosenborg, in Norway, where he was an instant hit, a full-fledged starter on the wing at the age of 18. Yet he soon seemed to fade away and now, at 21, is trying to turn things around at Lechia Gdansk, in Poland.
Or how about Guilherme? In January 2009, when he left Brazil's Cruzeiro for Ukraine's Dynamo Kyiv, he had just turned 20 and had scored 28 goals over the previous two seasons. Since then, he has started just 12 leagues games for Dynamo and CSKA Moscow.
It's hard enough to predict success for youngsters like those above, who were assessed between their 17th and 20th birthdays. Imagine trying to judge kids at age 12, 10 or even 8, as scouts do regularly these days.
Former player and current TV analyst Alan Hansen, referring to Sir Alex Ferguson's choice to promote the likes of David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and the Neville (Gary and Phil) brothers from the youth side straight into Manchester United's first team, famously said, "You win nothing with kids." We now know just how wrong he was. But maybe that was the exception that proves the rule.