One Season Wonder – Swiveling the double-edged sword of nurturing wonderkids

There are stories aplenty of stars shining bright and then fading away. We delve deep into how European football handles the one season wonder phenomenon.

“At first I was afraid, I was petrified… Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side… Then I spent so many nights thinking of how you did me wrong, and I grew strong, I learned how to get along…”

– Gloria Gaynor (I Will Survive)

These lyrics sum up the way they feel in the Principality of Monaco right about now. Wondering if they shall ever see another young and talented Frenchman tearing up the grass at the Stade Louis II. A breakthrough season for Kylian Mbappe was around the corner if you believed those who have known him long enough. A precocious talent, a mercurial presence on the field. But haven’t we seen it all before?

Talent (noun) – Natural aptitude or skill. The ability to do a particular job, mundane execution or routine, with exceptional speed or efficiency. On the field of play, in front of thousands of raucous fans? Talent is but one part of a repertoire for every footballer. And just like in life, talent can only take you so far on the pitch. In the end, more has to click. So much more has to be sacrificed, learned and in some cases, un-learned that the 10-year blitzkrieg that is a modern footballer’s career becomes the most significant aspect of their lives.

But in our world of flashbang grenades and equally blinding selfie lighting, perhaps we forget to romanticise more often. After all, how frequently do we see an incredible talent becoming the next big thing? And how many more who fall by the wayside? For every player who made it big, there are dozens in the world who peaked too soon, were thrust into a cauldron of hellish high-pressure too rapidly and carried the expectations of millions when in the spotlight. Every ‘new Messi’ and ‘new Ronaldo’ are not up to the mark.

David Bentley is probably the emperor of the kingdom of serious talents who fizzled away, a one season wonder
David Bentley is probably the emperor of the kingdom of serious talents who fizzled away, a one season wonder (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Being a one-season wonder is not restricted to the young. Established, fantastic individuals often dovetail from one club to another trying to fit in. Perhaps they don’t work in a system, or perhaps the pressure is too great. Just look at Robinho. An obviously talented player who donned the jersey of AC Milan and Madrid comes to Manchester City. A new era is born of clubs asking whatever they wish and rich oligarchs signing over blank cheques.

Signed for £32.5M and the first player under a new era ushered in by Sheikh Mansour, he played 31 games scoring 15 times. He brought style and some Brazilian flair to a staid league, did Robinho. But a year later through injury and factors beyond our understanding, he scored once. In ten appearances. Sure, to call him a one-season wonder is harsh. After all, Robinho has over 227 goals in 666 appearances across his career. But after that romance, it’s been downhill most of the way through.

This is something that can never be perfectly judged. How a player will perform in a different league, with a different team. Adaptation is the bane of all species that roam this earth. But, some have evolved into consistent humanoids that can perform everywhere. The prime example – Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Netherlands, Italy, Spain, France and England. Wherever he goes, he puts on a show and performs. He sells shirts, he creates headlines, good and bad. He’s the dream for any manager.

And there’s your headline statement – consistency. Gosh darn, its so difficult to be consistent I only write one article every few months because heck it’s a difficult job. And then there’s these guys – the Ousmane Dembeles, the Kylian Mbappes and the Naby Keitas of European football. Players who, in most countries, aren’t allowed to enter a bar, legally at least. And here they are, night after night, scripting fairy-tales with their own two feet. We need to let the romance stew. Let them move in, have their fights and their disagreements. And then, only then, can they truly build greatness. And like Francesco Totti, stick around. Because when the going gets tough, the tough become legends of modern football.

Letting your paycheck and your medal cabinet rule your mind and soul is something no old-school player would even think of. These were the sons of the soil. Born around football clubs or in the streets of a football-mad city, they dreamed of one day just getting a patch of grass from the turf. Some of those stalwarts reached their peak and moved on, cast by the wayside.

Michael Owen springs to mind. For years untouchable at Liverpool, he made the decision to swap red for the all-white of glorious Real Madrid. As a Galactico, he never fit the bigger picture. In spite of having the best minutes-to-goal ratio in a team that boasted of Zinedine Zidane, Raul, Morientes, Figo and Beckham, Owen was a sore thumb in a latex glove. Twelve months later he moved on to Newcastle United. For fans of the Tyneside club, he was an impossible dream, and in Madrid he was an impostor. A player they never wanted but thrust upon them by shirt sales, politics and a raging madman in charge of transfer dealings.

If you are looking for an example of a player who stuck to his guns, look no further than Steven Gerrard (as beautifully woven together here), who could have conquered the world. But, born in Merseyside, he resisted temptation. He could have been better rewarded with medals elsewhere, but Gerrard didn’t care. He stayed loyal. He developed from a teen sensation into the best thing to happen to Liverpool since Kenny Dalglish being player-manager. To this day, they sing his praises. To this day, he’s their captain.

Suspend disbelief for a moment. In a perfect reality, fairy-tales could be everyday occurrences. A string of events, inextricably linked to form the perfect chain at the perfect time. Fantasy football stuff right here. The only problem? Balance. The world needs balance. For every unshakeable, old-school loyal footballer another ten on the scene can switch clubs more often than Kim Kardashian switches shoes. Or Bill Cosby switches your drink at a party.

As a footballer, your existence is beyond the ordinary. A peak of two maybe three years is possible on talent alone. But hard work, sacrifice and dedication are required to rule the roost for a decade or more. Del Piero did it. Totti did it. Messi and Ronaldo are doing it while simultaneously rewriting history. And that’s why today’s footballers are swallowed whole by the conundrum that every man faces for himself. Whether to cash in today, or stick around for the buzz of a dream built from the ground up. As I said earlier, what selfie-addicted, dabbing, mohawk-totting teen would choose common sense and loyalty over a payday?

Paul Pogba’s transfer to Manchester United in one picture. Terrific player, even better PR prospect.

With the average shirt nearly twice as expensive as 15 years ago, deals powered by star names and one-season wonders are in tune. Pogba to Manchester United is a prime example. World-record transfer that was unnecessary when the team needed rebuilding instead. Sure, Pogba has a long way to go, but the pressure of being a 100m euro player is you are expected to provide insane numbers going forward and defending.

You are expected to play every game like it’s a final and that takes its toll. Physically, mentally and psychologically. One of the most hardened men in the game mentally, Cristiano Ronaldo still confesses that the Bernabeu Boo Boys rile him up. And this, a man who has won everything for his club and is their record goal scorer. So imagine what happens to the mind of a young lad, of a tender age of 18, 19 or 20 when his agent tells him, ‘You’re not loved here. Let’s cash in and move on.’ Only to find himself at risk of warming the bench at a top-tier club, destroying the players confidence in themselves and in their inherent talents. As a teenager, what do you do? Do you trust the blood-sucking agent to do what’s best for you as a professional? Or do you stay put in spite of his or her advice, dig in your heels and hope to become one of the game’s legends?

Even when a club known for nurturing talents like Ajax and Barcelona have a superstar on their hands, they know it. So as a young man do you head out on your own? Cesc Fabregas saw it as a young lad at Barcelona. Forever in the shadow of Xavi, the playmaker extraordinaire saw no choice but to leave. And when the time came, he did all in his power to move back home. To complete his fairytale. The only problem was the King wasn’t quite dead yet. Cue the exit of the Prince Charming from the Fabled Land and his apprentice Thiago Alcantara has followed suit as well. Now at Chelsea and Bayern Munich respectively, both have grown leaps and bounds away from the high-pressure arena of the Nou Camp.

In the end, it’s all in the head. Whether you stay put and build your reputation as clubs circle – as Xavi and later Messi did for FC Barcelona. And this is where strength of character plays a big part. Whether you are shy and reserved to the media or tough as nails and brash, your personality matters as a footballer. It could shape your future and that of those around you, and that mental toughness comes from seeing both the good times and the bad in the span of a professional lifetime that lasts a mere decade.  Nothing prevents a man from changing other than himself, and sometimes change is necessary to evolve as a professional at the highest level.

Such is the case of Florent Malouda. Back in 2003, the deadly duo of Didier Drogba and Florent Malouda plied their trade with Guingamp in France, operating off each other like a pair of criminals, robbing opponents of space and time on the ball. Together, they conquered – first France and later reunited at Chelsea as different men. Their personalities moulded by their journey to Stamford Bridge, Drogba arrived as a head strong forward capable of leading not just the attacking line but a dressing room wallowing in self-doubt. On the other end of the spectrum, Malouda, a player who always spoke his mind and knew his worth had evolved. Foupfoup as he was affectionately referred to, was a technically gifted player who could dribble, tackle, run, cross and finish with either foot. At his peak, Malouda was built to play professional football and was the gem of a Lyon side that conquered all before them in France.

He told French publication L’Equipe once, ‘What matters is the team. Since my arrival in metropolitan France, I’ve erased some of my character traits to avoid being rejected by people and the system. This has happened to the point that I am reproached for being nonchalant.” This shows the genius of Malouda, and how aware he was of the world around him as a professional footballer. When Lyon were ready to sell him on, several clubs including Real Madrid came calling. But Foupfoup knew that the Merengues were famous for stockpiling talent that is forgotten in the depths of the Santiago Bernabeu. He joined Chelsea and wrote himself into the history of Stamford Bridge as an integral member of its most decorated and heralded squad in the modern era.

In terms of a case to study closely, one that stands out in recent times is that of Gianluigi Donnarumma. With his head firmly on his shoulders, Donnarumma was expected to renew at AC Milan and build towards an invincible future. He was a legend in the making. Then, he pulled out of a deal with AC Milan at the nth hour, causing a round robin of speculation, horrible press for the player and even fake cash being thrown at him during a match. Now, Donnarumma has taken back his words, apologised wherever needed and kissed the proverbial Don’s ring. He will stay put, leading the charge of a fresh looking Rossoneri that look to challenge for titles. And he still has time on his side. Young, fresh-faced and ready to fight for his future and fame.

Will there be another Totti?

There’s something inherently romantic about sticking your neck out in the name of loyalty and wanting to build something bigger than the name on the back of the jersey. Having the fans sing your praises at one place that always feels like home is commendable. And what is so wrong about wanting to cash in on one good season, laying the groundwork for a paycheck and trophy haul that gets fatter every year? Perhaps your star burned too bright, too soon. Too much altitude took Icarus out of the game. What match are we mere mortals? And if you do jump the gun, and make it big, what’s to keep you from falling from grace? In the end, decision making is smoke and daggers to all but those with a level head on their shoulders when playing this beautiful game.

In the end, the choice is yours.

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Taronish Elavia

Supports FC Barcelona, sells lies in the form of advertising. Occasionally writes poetry, always makes people smile.