Imagine making your professional football debut, appearing in television commercials with Pelé who would then call you a genius and prodigy, being on the covers of magazines, and attracting the interest of Manchester United and other European sides.
All this at 14 years old.
That was the start of the tale of Freddy Adu, a name that may be lost to the ages in this day and age, but is definitely an often-quoted one when speaking about the dangers of overhyping young talent.
But how is it that a player signed by DC United in 2004 is so well-known? Well, you can thank the developers and researchers of popular video game/management simulator Football Manager (then Championship Manager) for introducing the concept of wonderkids to a generation of fans across the world.
Judged on a scale of 1-20, the game assigned a rating to various aspects of the technical, physical, and professional side of football, determined by a team of researchers that are in some ways as thorough as a professional scouting network set up by a European superclub. Have you ever wondered which town the goalkeeper of a mid-table Bosnian side was born in? Do you know what languages the physiotherapist at Rapid Wien speaks? Are you looking for a left-footed player based in Mexico who can play as a right-wing back? They have the answer.
Those who have never taken a look at the intricacies of the Football Manager franchise (and indeed video games in general) would be surprised to find how much time and effort and money goes into research and development, and how often the scouts involved in this series get it right. Lionel Messi and Gareth Bale had been heralded by fans of the series long before they rose to prominence outside of the simulation, but sometimes, they get it, so, so wrong.
By the time Adu was 18, the people in charge of Football Manager had begun to realize that the player that would play in three FIFA U20 World Cups (take a moment to think about that) might not be the world-beater that they originally envisioned. Either that, or they had begun to wise up to how mentally and psychologically, the teenager still had a lot of growing up to do - while some of his physical attributes showed a marked improvement over two years, his decision-making, influence, work rate, and teamwork were still far from the levels required for top-level football, an issue that was whispered within football circles - Adu had the flair and ability, but not the grit and resolve to make it.
And yet Adu left DC United to join Real Salt Lake when he was 18, before then forcing a move to Benfica after less than a dozen games. While he played in a Champions League qualifier, he was soon loaned to Monaco, and then fellow Portuguese side Belenenses, and then Aris in Greece and Çaykur Rizespor in the Turkish Second Division.
More of the same followed, and the non-virtual reality of what became of Freddy Adu is mythical in its depiction of how star burns out, or perhaps how it was never quite meant to shine as brightly as expected to begin with.
After that string of loan spells, Adu went from club to club - including having spells in Finland, Brazil, and Serbia - and discounting a two-year stint at Philadelphia Union, scored only 7 goals in a span of 7 league seasons across the world.
After a period in the North American Soccer League with the Tampa Bay Rowdies came a failed trial at Portland Timbers, before Adu joined USL Championship side Las Vegas Lights. Once the golden boy of American football (soccer), he had now signed for - and failed to impress - at two Division 2 sides in the country’s football pyramid.
No better feeling than giving back to the game that has given me so much!!! I love this game with every fiber of my existence! ⚽️⚽️⚽️ pic.twitter.com/jwoRDAGfaT— Freddy Adu (@FreddyAdu) June 18, 2019
Released by Las Vegas in 2018, and already 30, it would appear as if Freddy Adu’s journeyman career has sputtered to an end. It seems a long time ago now that a young boy was all but hand-picked by Pelé, starring in youth tournaments around the world, and later on the bench against AC Milan or Celtic.
Now, Adu assessing the technique and creativity of potential players, the stars of the future. He would do well, however, to steer clear of repeating the errors of the researchers who first spotted him over 15 years ago in overstating the potential of some of these youngsters. Either that or he would hope that they do not repeat the mistakes he made himself.
Trying to pass on some of the things I have learned over the years ⚽️⚽️⚽️ pic.twitter.com/ShrChXT7Jo— Freddy Adu (@FreddyAdu) November 18, 2019