In sport, every couple of years there is some sort of big hype over a childhood prodigy. Just this morning I was watching the Today Show and through bleary sleep filled eyes I watched a piece on a five-year-old tennis “star.” This particular kid is being taken by his parents form California to France in order to train in a more “holistic” environment. I wondered how often these childhood prodigies really pan out. What are the odds?
As my daily routine unfolded and I began to take a peak at the ever changing soccer world, I read a story on a nine-year-old soccer prodigy, Rhain Davis, who
recently signed for the mighty Manchester United. The story was even reported on Sports Center.
With so much pressure being placed on these child phenoms, I did a little research. Here is a more in-depth look at some of the highly publicized prodigies of the past, some who made it, some who crumpled under the pressure.
Ronaldo de Assís Moreira
Perhaps better known to all of us simply as Ronaldioho, he has been garnering high media attention since and early age. At just 13, Ronaldinho scored 23 goals in a single match, as his team overcame their opposition 23-0. Queue the hype machine. The story of Ronaldinho’s rise to prominence is probably one of the most well known, worldwide. Perhaps the pressure associated with the high profile wasn’t as taxing in Ronaldinho’s youth as football prodigies are a dime a dozen in Brazil (Brazil exports more players around the world than any other country–804 in 2005). Either way, the player serves as an example of a person identified for greatness at an early age who has gone on to succeed, winning the FIFA World Player of the Year award twice (2005, 2006).
Pike, in recent history, could be the most high profile youngster to “fail” to fulfill his high profile potential. According to reports, Pike, who at the age of seven began training at Ajax’s “Academy of Excellence,” buckled under the unending pressure from agents, the club, and the media. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 2000 and in 2003, quit soccer. The Guardian reported, in 2006, that Pike is now coaching youth soccer and studying for his Scottish FA coaching license.
It seems like everybody in the US has heard of this kid. It’s important to remember that he is still a kid even though, at age 18, it seems like he has been around forever. Adu, who signed a professional contract with DC United at the age of 14, spent four years in the MLS before his recent move to Portuguese club Benfica . Freddy has had to endure comparisons with Pele from the beginning of his MLS contract, along with reports from a blood thirsty media captivated by what many people say has been the young player’s failure. Recently, at the Fifa Under-20 World Cup, playing alongside people his own age, Adu took the tournament by storm, proving that although his MLS form seemed to be lacking, when placed in an environment with his pears, he can be dominant. The jury is still out on Adu and the world will be watching to see if he continues to develop at Benfica, a club with a reputation for blooding new talent.
Another success story, Cole is a product of West Ham United’s well known youth academy (Many now famous players have spent time at the West Ham academy, including Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdanand and Jermain Defoe) As a 16 year old, Cole was the subject of a 10 million pound transfer to Manchester United, although formal bid was never made. After an injury hit ’06-’07 season, look for Cole to reestablish himself both for Chelsea and the English national team.
After an impressive childhood “career,” Samba attracted the interests of several English clubs, finally agreeing to a “school boy” contract with Millwall F.C, a team currently playing in English League One. Samba, who moved to England from Ghana at the age of seven, continued to garner interest from the big clubs and Millwall is reported to have turned down direct bids from some of “big four” teams in England. What seemed a bright future, however, failed to pan out and after playing out his two year professional contract at Millwall without debuting for the first team, was released by the club. After a brief stint in Spain, Samba now plays for Plymouth Argyle F.C. in the English Championship. Although he continues to play at a high level, and is still relatively young at 21, Samba seems to have hit a glass ceiling.
So what does it take to make the grade? Does all this media attention make it more likely, or less likely for a youngster to make it to the highest level? These are difficult questions to answer. I know from my playing days that I seemed to play my best when nobody was watching (especially my coach). I can’t imagine being nine and having such high expectations to succeed.