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Top 10 Underachievers of the Decade

By | 22nd June 2009

roy-makaayFootball is a funny game – this is the sport where anything, and I mean anything, can happen completely out of the blue. For example, no one ever imagined that Brazilian star Ronaldinho, who was literally unstoppable not too long ago, would suddenly become as anonymous as he is nowadays.

Stories like those of Ronaldinho, however, are not as uncommon as some of us might think. My last article was devoted to underdogs and fittingly enough, this article is devoted to uncovering the stories of some of football’s greatest underachievers. For those who have listened to my segment during the Premiership Talk Podcast, the narration of this article in the form of a Top-10 countdown should be reminiscent.

Cutting to the chase, here are the ten footballers who, since the beginning of the new millennium, have underachieved quite a bit thanks to a variety of factors. If you are unfamiliar with any of the players, don’t be too harsh on yourself. After all, these guys did fade away well before living up to their potential.

(10) Marek Mintal (UEFA) – In the case of this Slovakian superstar, injuries could partly be blamed for a career that never took off. However, the turning point in Mintal’s career came well before he became prone to devastating injuries. After leading the Bundesliga with 24 goals for FC Nuremberg in the 2004-05 season, Mintal was linked to clubs as big as Liverpool FC. However, due to a failure to seal a major transfer at his peak, Mintal gradually faded away thanks to poor morale, a sense of monotony, and of course the aforementioned proneness to injuries.

(09) Ahn Jung-Hwan (ASIA) – For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ahn, he became synonymous with the word “sensation” as soon as his golden goal sent South Korea into the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002, at the expense of huge favorites Italy. Very unexpectedly, his Italian club (Perugia) cancelled his contract in an act of extreme unprofessionalism and bitterness. The unfortunate forward was never the same player again as he was forced to ply his trade in the Asian leagues for most of his career.

(08) Dwayne DeRosario (CONCACAF) – For this talismanic star of the Canadian National Team, the sky was the limit as he became the franchise star of the MLS before the beginning of the David Beckham era. Like Mintal, however, DeRosario failed to convert his stunning form into a high-profile transfer away from Houston Dynamo. To his credit, DeRosario at least moved back to his home state of Ontario to play for Toronto FC.

(07) Darren Ambrose (UEFA) – I still feel absolutely shocked when I see Darren Ambrose playing in the Championship. He is, indeed, quite the underachiever. In his first two seasons at Charlton Athletic, he was the stand-out performer and as an Arsenal fan, I wanted him to play for the Gunners – a youngster like him could develop into a great player under the supervision of Arsene Wenger. Unfortunately, Ambrose began underperforming right after hitting his peak form, which meant he could only move as far as Ipswich Town and Crystal Palace.

(06) Sebastian Deisler (UEFA) - If some of you have had the misfortune of never even seeing Deisler in action, then I am afraid you missed out big time. Deisler was no Cristiano Ronaldo when he played at his favored right-wing position. However, it is safe to say that there is no other Sebastian Deisler either. The former-Bayern Munich star provided some of the most pin-point crosses from extremely tough angles while demonstrating a dribbling ability that stood out in his native Germany. Days after his 27th birthday, however, Deisler succumbed to long-term injury issues as he announced his retirement from professional football.

(05) Landon Donovan (CONCACAF) - It never ceases to amaze me that Donovan is still playing in the MLS. After two brief stints at German clubs Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich, Donovan still remains a virtually unknown talent outside of the United States. He is inarguably one of the biggest stars that U.S. Soccer has ever seen. But unless he starts utilizing a lot of his untapped potential in a more challenging league, he will certainly go down as one of the greatest underachievers of our time.

(04) David Albelda (UEFA) – As a Spain international who won a silver medal with his country at the Olympics in 2000, Albelda is arguably one of the most underrated footballers in his country. Having also won several major competitions in his lifelong career at Valencia CF, then-Valencia captain Albelda’s strong character was tested severely when the incapable Ronald Koeman suddenly gave him the boot from the Los Che squad in the 2007-08 season. While Albelda bounced back last year to become a starter at Valencia, it is ridiculous that he was battling court cases over his contract when he should have actually been honored for all his great service.

(03) Jose Antonio Reyes (UEFA) - While it can be argued that Reyes is still playing at a top Portuguese Club in SL Benfica, there is no denying that his career has regressed gradually following his controversial move from Arsenal. The reason for his move from England – grim weather and social life - has been overused by so many footballers from nations with warmer climates. However, I considered this transfer explanation to be quite inadequate, as weather should not be the deciding factor when a player is hitting top form at a big club like Arsenal. While Reyes made good use of his loan move to Real Madrid by scoring twice in Real’s title-winning game of the 2006-07 season, he failed to convince the Madrid giants as they transferred him to cross-town rivals Atletico. Reyes even failed to hold his own at Madrid’s secondary club and as mentioned before, is now playing in the Portuguese League.

(02) Roy Makaay (UEFA) - This Dutch striker has always been a favorite of mine. When Makaay reached his prime, his clinical finishing was clearly overlooked as the likes of Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Michael Owen became the object of media’s affection. To his credit, Makaay quietly kept delivering for Bayern Munich as he scored about twenty goals a season on a consistent basis for almost his entire career. However, none of his displays even secured him a spot in the Dutch National Team. When his career draws to a close in the near future, I will be very disappointed to see him go down in the books as a clinical finisher who was never considered the prolific striker he actually was.

(01) Juan Roman Riquelme (CONMEBOL) – What exactly happened to Juan Roman Riquelme? This guy could create impossible plays in his sleep and as I write, it is a pity that so many of his well-wishers are having trouble sleeping as they figure out just why Riquelme never “made it”. Was it his lack of grooming as a professional footballer, or was it perhaps one of the most indifferent attitudes I have ever seen in my life? Riquelme never stood up for his place in the world of football. As soon as he reached his peak with Villarreal, the up and coming La Liga side ousted him for indiscipline. As he was sent packing to his native Argentina, many expected him to explain the situation in detail to the entire football world. Rather than clarifying matters, however, Riquelme quietly returned to play for the Boca Juniors and subsequently announced his international retirement. Honestly, I am one of the many fans who remain clueless as to why Riquelme never became the superstar he could have easily become!

I realize this has already been quite an exhaustive article so I will not go on for much longer. Before signing off, however, I would like my readers to note that as this article suggests, underachievement is sometimes not in control of the individual in question. Injuries and other unfortunate circumstances are often responsible for the harsh downfall of some of the greatest talent out there. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, underachievement is underachievement and hence the presence of each of the abovementioned players in this countdown.

Agree with Zain’s list? Have your say in the comments section below!

Reader Comments

The below views are those of our readers and do not reflect the opinions of Premiership Talk or its employees.
  1. . says:

    Sorry for interjecting myself in the middle of this conversation

    Riquelme is an incredibly talented player, sadly he just has a horrendous attitude. It's what got him out of Barcelona, Villareal, Argentina national team, and now Boca seems to be getting into that list (the team is split between the riquelme side and the palermo side). That being said, he definitely does not deserve the number one spot. Riquelme's best form was when he was playing at Villareal and, coincidentally, at that time Villareal jumped from the 15th league spot to a champions league spot. He also played admirably at the international level, both in the world cup and the copa america, where Argentina's great form (except in that disappointing final) was largely due to a Riquelme dependency. Even back at boca he made important contributions helping them win the first league title in what seemed like forever to 'la doce'.

    Finally, I have to take a last hit. Europe is where it's at? I'm sure the media makes it look that way, but South American teams are just as competitive as European ones. I'd argue that the Argentine and Brazilian first divisions are easily as competitive as the bundesliga, if not more. European players might have more star players, but the fact that South American teams have more Intercontinental Cups than European teams seems to suggest that stardom is not everything when it comes to football…

  2. Zain Alvi says:

    Thanks for the very insightful post, Jonathan. It's great to see someone debate even the number one entry in this countdown of underachievers. Since you brought up a number of valid arguments, I will try addressing each of them one by one.

    Pekerman's World Cup decision, as you mentioned, was a huge shock given Riquelme's form but then again, as we both can agree, Riquelme's attitude probably led to that decision in the first place. Unfortunately, even if you are the most skilled player in the world, you need the attitude to match it, otherwise you will underachieve wherever you are.

    That brings me to the next point, where you mentioned it is Euro-centric to label a footballer an "underachiever" for not becoming successful at an elite European Club. To be honest, we live in a world where European football is clearly "where it's at", so to speak. The UEFA Champions League is bigger than all other regions' CL combined and aside from a couple of huge rivalries outside of Europe, neutral fans have nothing much to follow. So of course, if a player as talented as Riquelme never makes it big at the mainstream level, I tend to think he should surely go down as a huge underachiever.

    Lastly, like I said, even if he became an instant success at Boca, that didn't help elevate his global status too much. Sure, in South America it's huge for Boca to one-up Riverplate, but outside of the region, it's not that big of a deal. That's mainly why no top European club took note of his return to form as everyone already knew about his capabilities – it's just that what he accomplished was not important enough to overlook his past attitude problems.

    Those are just my views on the subject, though. Like I said, you mentioned some very valid points and I appreciate your interest in the article.

  3. Not sure I really agree with Riquelme in there. I mean, sure, he has a stinking attitude (by all accounts) and left Europe in a huff, but that wasn't through lack of talent – it was largely his choice to go back to Boca. Upon returning he was instantly the pivotal force in Boca winning the Copa Libertadores and since then Boca have also won the league for the 1st time in 4 years. So really he's been very successful at Boca.

    Not to mention, had Jose Pekerman not stupidly subbed him against Germany in the World Cup 2006, they probably would have gone through and Riquelme would have solidified his status as one of the stars of the tournament.

    I mean, how do you define 'underachieving' anyway? It's a very Euro-centric perspective to suggest that just because a player doesnt' make it at an elite European club he is somehow an 'underachiever.'

    Interesting article though.

  4. Zain Alvi says:

    You're right, Dani…I am finally getting to see some South American names that I previiously couldn't think of…Aimar is certainly worthy of being on this list as well.

  5. Dani says:

    Speaking of Reyes, he's got a current teammate who could also be next to him on this list, Pablo Aimar. Had a few really good years with Valencia but his play these past few years has really fallen. Injuries have been a factor. Anyone notice a trend here with Benfica?

  6. Zain Alvi says:

    Sgc – Thanks for commenting – I definitely see your point there but then again, DeRosario has progressed so fast as a player that even when he peaked in his late 20's, he could've been picked up by a decent team abroad (Fulham, Portsmouth, Lazio, etc).

  7. Zain Alvi says:

    Brian – Thanks for the comment and I have to say, those two recommendations you provided were definitely worth mentioning, particularly Adriano. Perhaps I missed these guys on the list because they DID play for big clubs and at least enjoyed some time playing at the highest level. However, they are still underachievers and definitely should be on any list of underachieving soccer players from the last decade.

  8. Sgc says:

    DeRosario can't really be put on this list. He is not so much an "under achiever" as a late bloomer. When he was 21 he was playing semipro ball, a marked contrast to players like Donovan. It was not until he was 23 that he entered MLS, and not until about 27 that he was moved to central midfield and had his breakthrough (2005 MLS season). When he looked abroad, he was about as good as Julian de Guzman had been when he transferred, but crucially the latter was much younger (21 when he went to Hannover 96) and thus the club saw more options for further development.

  9. Brian says:

    Great list, Zain. Two recommendations, though: Juan Sebastian Veron and Adriano.

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