It’s time to look back at some highly touted footballers whose careers, for one reason or another, didn’t quite pan out as expected. Below, we check in to see what became of these once-prodigious youngsters.
The poster child for wonderkids who failed to meet expectations, Ghanaian-born Adu penned a contract at the age of 14 and became the youngest player in the history of U.S. professional sports when he debuted for D.C. United in 2004. Adu’s notoriety at the time can’t be oversold.
Traded from D.C. United in 2006, the former U.S. international bounced from Real Salt Lake to a drab spell at Benfica that begot four loans, then back to MLS. Tenures in Brazil, Serbia, and Finland followed, with countless other fruitless trials preceding a return to the U.S. Adu last played in 2018 with the USL’s Las Vegas Lights.
When Arsenal paid a then-obscene £8 million to lure Jeffers from Everton in 2001, “Fox in the Box” Franny appeared a sure thing. A one-cap wonder with England’s senior side, Jeffers is still a joint-top scorer for the Under-21s (alongside Alan Shearer) with 13 goals in 16 appearances.
But injuries, poor form, and a slew of world-beaters ahead of him in Arsene Wenger’s peak Gunners squad saw Jeffers return to Everton on loan before he bounced around England. He was then off to Australia, Malta, and back to Australia before ending his career at Accrington Stanley in 2013.
A product of famed French talent incubator Le Havre, Sinama-Pongolle signed with Liverpool in 2001 following stellar displays at the Under-16 Euros and Under-17 World Cup. The forward appeared in 38 league matches, scoring four goals to go with a Champions League winner’s medal in 2004-05.
Sinama-Pongolle’s best return was a 22-goal spree over two seasons with Spaniards Recreativo, but a dire spell followed to prompt some globetrotting to Thailand and elsewhere. He’s currently with hometown Reunion Island side JS Saint-Pierroise, the outfit that produced Dimitri Payet and Djibril Cisse.
Anthony Le Tellec
Forecasted for stardom when he arrived at Anfield from Le Havre with cousin Sinama-Pongolle, Le Tallec played sporadically for Gerard Houllier before he was surprisingly recalled from loan at Saint-Etienne to start a Champions League quarterfinal against Juventus under Rafael Benitez.
The French forward made just 17 league appearances for the Reds before bouncing around French football’s top two tiers. He also had stops in Greece and Romania with Atromitos and Astra Giurgiu, respectively. Le Tallec is currently plying his trade in France with non-league Annecy.
After bagging goals like this one for Tranmere Rovers, Merseyside-born Jennings moved to Bayern Munich in 2011 to enlist with the reserve side. After suffering multiple knee ligament tears, Jennings was sold to Barnsley for £250,000 before making a single first-team appearance.
Four goals in 47 outings for the Tykes led to a loan-turned-permanent move to MK Dons, where Jennings featured just twice. He got a job at an Amazon warehouse after his eldest daughter was diagnosed with leukemia while he was without a club in 2017. Jennings has been with ninth-tier Runcorn Town since 2018.
Reared at hometown Lazio before joining Manchester United as a 16-year-old, Macheda made a first-team debut that was the stuff of dreams in April 2009. The striker turned his marker before firing a sublime, curling match-winner in the third minute of injury time against Aston Villa. Martin Tyler’s shriek is enduring.
Kiko made just 36 appearances over five terms with United before loans in Italy and Germany and three temporary stays in England. A move to Serie B side Novara offered Macheda a lifeline, and he bounced back to match a career-best 13 goals with Panathinaikos last season.
Another United prodigy who didn’t meet expectations, Morrison was touted by Alex Ferguson as “the best player he had seen at that age” when he lined up with Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba on the youth team. Morrison never played in the league for United and was offloaded to West Ham in 2012.
The midfielder was sold to Lazio in 2015 amid doubts about his attitude. Four outings later, Morrison was loaned to QPR before joining Mexicans Atlas and then Swedes Ostersunds. He played 12 minutes in the league after Sheffield United signed him in July, and the club loaned him to Middlesbrough in January.
Initially glued to Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Brazil bench, midfielder Kleberson made his World Cup debut in the 2002 quarters against England. A star was born, and the Red Devils nabbed him from Atletico Paranaense for £6.5 million after he played a principal role in the Selecao’s fifth World Cup conquest.
But Kleberson suffered an injury, played 20 times, and was sold to Besiktas. Two humdrum seasons there preceded a return to Brazil. In 2013, Bahia shipped Kleberson to the Philadelphia Union, and Adu came the other way. Indy Eleven and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers were next for the current Union academy coach.
Colombian-born Vonlanthen moved to Switzerland as a teen, broke through with Young Boys as a 16-year-old, and moved to a PSV side that had helped turn Ronaldo and Romario into footballing deities. Vonlanthen became the European Championship’s youngest-ever scorer when he tallied against France at the 2004 tournament.
Next came loans to Salzburg and FC Zurich, where the Seventh-Day Adventist became conflicted about playing on Saturdays. A return to Colombia with Itanui followed, and he retired there in 2012 with a knee injury. Vonlanthen ended that hiatus in 2013 with Grasshoppers, then retired again in 2018 at FC Wil.
A local boy tabbed to be Manchester City’s best player since the legendary Colin Bell and a future England captain, Johnson was a box-to-box midfield virtuoso whose ethereal solo effort against Derby County highlighted a breakout 2007-08 campaign. It all went downhill from there.
Johnson made just four appearances over the final five years of his City deal, as a serious knee injury blighted a once-promising career. After a pair of drunk driving charges and his release from City in 2012, Johnson revealed he’d been dealing with mental health issues for several years and said he’d “be grateful if I could now be left alone to live the rest of my life.”