Unfulfilled Potential. The Curious Case of Neymar, James, Wilshere, and Co.

November 1, 2019 By Ben Victor

Unfulfilled Potential. The Curious Case of Neymar, James, Wilshere, and Co.

The Hottest Football Prospects of 2009

It is never meant to happen like this. A much-touted young teenage footballer with enormous potential. The future at his hands feet. A future Ballon d’Or winner perhaps.

Then? Oblivion. The youngster, now turned Pro, disappears into some unknown mid-table club, or worse still, to some obscure league. All that potential vanished. This is the career of the likes of Jack Wilshere and Mario Balotelli, the rising young footballers of the year 2009.

So what really happened to these footballers. What killed the potential? What prevented the jump from promising to elite? A combination of injuries and overplaying at a young age for Gotze and Wilshere. The wrong career moves and the evolution of tactics are to blame in the case of Coutinho and James.

It is not easy to chart the career of a 17-year-old promising star. A tiny percentage of those touted actually do make the cut and emerge as superstar footballers.

The promising generation of 2009 is notable for one reason. This was the generation that, a decade later, was to take over from the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. However, things have not materialized in that manner. The top footballers blowing European leagues apart are still the likes of Lionel Messi (32), Cristiano Ronaldo (34) and Robert Lewandowski (31). The poster boy of the 2009 generation, Neymar Jr., has simply failed to live up to his much hype. Make no mistake, Neymar Jr. is still one of the top athletes. However, he risks being usurped by the upcoming generation of Kylian Mbappé.

Jack Wilshere

Jack Wilshere, “most gifted young English midfielder since Paul Scholes…”

Paul Hayward

When Jack Wilshere established himself in the Arsenal midfield at the age of 19, he was touted as the next Paul Scholes of Arsenal. The Guardian called him “most gifted young English midfielder since Paul Scholes…” Based on his potential, pundits predicted that Wilshere would play and captain Arsenal for decades to come. Wilshere was the Messiah to English football, “he midfielder we have been waiting for.”

Jack Wilshere outsmarts Xavi off the ball (Arsenal.com)

A trademark performance against Barcelona in 2011, a 2-1 win for Arsenal, remains the career highlight for the midfielder. The “next Arsenal and England” captain cemented his place in the Arsenal midfield in the 2010/2011 season with 49 appearances. The following season, an ankle injury would start a series of niggling injuries that continue to date. He now plies his trade at West Ham United, where he has been unable to string two consecutive appearances. One can only wonder what could have been.

James Rodriguez

In World Cup 2014, James Rodriguez won the Golden Boot, having scored 6 goals in 5 games. He also featured in the 2014 World Cup All-Star XI and Castrol Index Top 11. Real Madrid deemed his performance enough potential and signed him after the World Cup. Now, he is not a guaranteed starter in the Real Madrid team. A gifted attacking midfielder, who can also play wide, James’ career has stagnated from the 2014 heights. A move to Real Madrid is perhaps responsible for his career so far. Moreover, with Zidane playing favourites, and James not being one of the favourites, he is in a catch 22 situation.

Attempts to resuscitate a struggling career at Bayern Munich with a 2-seasons long loan did not bear much fruit. Bayern Munich did not deem his performances worthwhile over his two-season loan. Now, alongside Gareth Bale, they sit and wait for the crumbs to fall off Zinedine Zidane’s line-up, to get a look into the side. Ironically, another talented South American footballer who has failed to nail a spot in his team, Phillipe Coutinho, has made a move to Bayern. Will Coutinho succeed where James failed?

The rise of the 4-3-3 is increasingly being cemented as the new fad. A system in which our beloved creatives, seemingly can’t fit.

Kevin Omondi

The situation with James could also be a case of the evolution of the sport. The traditional playmaker role, the famed no.10, is disappearing. Modern football managers, the likes of Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Sarri, opt for more work rate and control in the midfield role. As Kevin Omondi notes in his critique of The Dying No. 10, “The game changes and the game has changed. The rise of the 4-3-3 is increasingly being cemented as the new fad. A system in which our beloved creatives, seemingly can’t fit.” Thus, James finds himself a victim of circumstances, like his fellow creative midfielders like Isco, Özil, and Coutinho.

James Rodriguez left foot chip against onrushing Kawashima
James scores against Japan in the 2014 World Cup (Getty Images)

Thiago Alcantara

Another stagnant career in Bayern Munich’s books is Spanish International, Thiago Alcantara. Once hailed as the successor to Andres Iniesta, the Italy-born Spanish citizen with Brazilian heritage’s, move from Barcelona to Bayern has not panned out the way many imagined. The player, much coveted by Pep Guardiola while at Bayern, has suffered persistent and niggling injuries that have prevented him from achieving fulfilling his potential. The injuries have prevented him from getting any sort of consistency. The next Iniesta has been unable to dominate midfields across Germany and Europe. Alcantara is the Crème de la crème of midfielders, but until he puts his fitness issues behind him, he will remain a talented footballer who never attained elite status. Such was the case with Robin van Persie, a lethal forward who achieved momentary elite status in the 2-3 seasons he remained injury-free in his professional career.

Neymar Jr.

Neymar Jr.’s career highlights came in Barcelona. There, alongside Luis Suarez and Messi, they formed the dreaded and lethal MSN that terrorized teams in Spain and Europe. The tantalizing 6-1 performance against PSG, where he scored two and assisted one, in the dying minutes of the game, is perhaps his top career highlight. However, Neymar felt he would never fulfill his stardom under the shadow of Messi. And when PSG came calling in 2017, he packed his bags and traded Catalunya for Paris.

Neymar’s career is frustrating, to say the least. An elite footballer who could be blowing teams apart, spends his season playing against mediocre opposition in France, the famed “French farmers.” When the big moments come calling, however, Neymar has been missing. In the 2014 World Cup, Neymar suffered a fractured vertebra as his team was bundled out in the quarter-finals of the competition. At PSG, where it was hoped he would be the savior in Europe, he hasn’t. In consecutive seasons, Neymar has not featured in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champion’s league, and his team has been knocked out on both occasions. Curiously, even in Ligue 1, Neymar is not the best dribbler in the league and featured nowhere in the list of top dribblers across Europe. Will Neymar ever fulfill his stardom at PSG? Nobody seems to think so anymore.

The Old and the New Generation

Other notable footballers in the golden generation of 2009 who have failed to live up to their potential include Ghana’s Jordan Ayew, German’s Mario Gotze, Argentina’s Erik Lamela, Italy’s “Why Always Me” bad boy Mario Balotelli, Wales’ Aaron Ramsey, among others. Time is running out, and the next generation of Kylian Mbappe’s and other potentials is knocking. In two or three seasons, the 2009 generation’s career will hit sundown. For some, there is time to salvage whatever little is left; for others, they have accepted their fate and will take the little they have. It was not supposed to be like this, but Lionel Messi remains the G.O.A.T, as Neymar faces farmers, week in week out.  

Lionel Messi photoshoot holding a young lamb illustrating his G.O.A.T status
Lionel Messi, the one True G.O.AT (BBC Sport)

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