Published:September 30, 2017 1:42 am
Why are all Scottish goalkeepers nicknamed Dracula? They disintegrate at the sight of a cross.
Back when footballers from north of the border playing in England was the norm, it was the goalkeepers that, somewhat harshly, caught the flak, to the point that ‘Scottish goalkeeper’ became slang for being dodgy. But when James ‘Jim’ Will won the Golden Ball at the Fifa under-16 World Championship in 1989, it looked like the joke was over. Though the hosts lost the final to Saudi Arabia, Will — who conceded three goals in six games — was adjudged the player of the tournament, ahead of Portuguese winger Luis Figo and Australian stopper Mark Schwarzer. Fifa’s report remembers Will as “commanding in the air, agile on his line, good with his feet and a leader of men at the back, he looked the part.”
Coming off a stellar campaign, Will — who had signed with Arsenal earlier in the year — looked certain to break into Craig Brown’s side. Instead, he spent four seasons at the Highbury (one on loan at Sheffield United) without a sniff of the first team, left on a whim to play six games in Scottish second tier and quit to become a police constable, moonlighting for his village team Turriff United.
“The wrong career moves was one thing,” Will told writer Simon Kuper in 2004’s The Football Men. “A guy from north-east Scotland who was hundreds of miles away from anybody. However well a club looks after you, they can’t replace your family. I got a bit disillusioned with football. If one or two persons didn’t like you, it could affect your livelihood.”
Asked if he made the most of his talent, Will said, “I probably didn’t. It was a pity that at seventeen I didn’t have the head I have now. You take an awful lot for granted at that age. You don’t actually realise what is happening.”
Save for reports of a 2006 match where he let in nine goals, there are no traces of the 44-year-old on the web. Will also skipped the commemorative lunch in 2009 which reunited the World Cup finalists — some of whom are now postmen, businessmen and taxi drivers. On the surface, such obscurity seems unfathomable for essentially the best teen footballer of his time. But football is littered with young stars that have failed to live up to the expectations placed upon their shoulders.
While Will was left in the lurch by a top club, David Rodriguez-Fraile was a prospect groomed by another. Picked up by Real Madrid at the age of 14, David was a regular for the junior side and played for the reserves. At the 1997 U-17 World Cup, David won the Golden Boot for a Spanish side comprising future greats such as Xavi and Iker Casillas. Twenty years later, he works as a hedge fund manager in New York.
Before he could build on his performance in Egypt, David ruptured his knee and was sidelined for six months. A back injury upon return ended any remaining momentum and put him out of commission. The chronic pain became unbearable and David hung up his boots in 2001, at the age of 21. “I played for my country at various levels, I played in European Championships and a World Cup at youth level, and I played with some players who went on to be very famous,” David told PlanetFootball earlier this year. “…I just decided my body wasn’t allowing me to continue, I was in pain all the time. I have a passion for public marketing and decided to go down a different path.”
David graduated from the Harvard Business School in 2004 and worked for Goldman Sachs before starting his own hedge fund.
“You miss that kind of competition, the smell of the grass and being in the stadium, but there’s a lot of things I wouldn’t have now if I’d gone down that route,” said David, adding that “there were a lot of players, myself included, who were at a level that if things went their way had a chance to play at the top level.”
While David was the top scorer at the World Cup with seven goals, it was teammate Sergio Santamaria who got the Golden Ball over Ronaldinho, Gabriel Milito and Sebastian Deisler. Xavi, Casillas, Ronaldinho became icons for their clubs and Milito and Deisler received several international caps. Santamaria never represented Spain and was largely relegated to Barcelona’s reserves squad and later withered away in the Spanish lower divisions.
“Could I have worked through my pain issues and played at a lower level? Possibly. But everything happens for a reason,” said David. “You look back more when you’re younger, you know you have the ability and you want to enjoy it, but at least I knew I had a second option.”
Those who didn’t have a second option include the likes of 1993 Golden Ball winner Daniel Addo, 1999 Golden Boot winner Ishmael Addo, and Florent Sinama Pangolle — recipient of both awards in 2001; teenagers courted by top European clubs who were consigned to play out their careers in the lower echelons.
Then there’s Ghana’s Nii Lamptey, a case study often cited as a cautionary tale against hyping teenagers. Eyed by clubs from the age of eight, Lamptey played in Under-20 competitions at 13. Pele called him his natural successor at the aforementioned World Championships in Scotland and at 16, Lamptey was playing for Ghana. Thereafter, a string of failures in Europe and untoward circumstances left him unsigned back home, where he now runs a school.
However, while a great many Golden Ball winners were doomed to obscurity or footballing purgatory, some, like Cesc Fabregas, fulfilled their potential. After being named the best player at the 2003 U-17 World Cup, the Spaniard won the senior World Cup, two European Championships, Premier League and La Liga titles, getting the better of every odd possible.
A product of the Barcelona academy, Fabregas signed up for Arsenal at 16 with a lot of hype behind him. Like Jim WIll, he too found it tough to break into the first team before injuries to senior midfielders paved his way. The 30-year-old has remained relatively injury-free and plays for Premier League champions Chelsea.
Such success stories however are few and far in between. The teenagers who will line up to take their teams to glory in India may have time on their side. But the top talents will need to make good on any early promises made. Or else football will pass them by.