Where are they now? A wonderkid from every Football Manager game

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Yaya Sanogo playing for Arsenal in the FA Community Shield, London, Wembley, 10 August 2014.

Championship Manager and Football Manager have correctly predicted the future success of several superstars over the years – but not every player has lived up to their potential.

Wonderkid is the word that increases your heartbeat whenever it shows up next to one of your youth prospects, a player with the capability to become a Ballon d’Or winner provided you groom him properly.

Technically, the game gives the description to players that are below the age of 20 and have the highest possible potential.

As we all know, potential isn’t always fulfilled, but the developers behind the Football Manager series have a decent track record when it comes to the crystal ball: the 2005 edition’s so-called ‘golden generation’ featured such names as Carlos Tevez, Philipp Lahm, Wesley Sneijder, Javier Mascherano, and Vincent Kompany.

The same can’t be said for everyone, though. As it turns out, regularly scoring thirty-plus goals in the game doesn’t necessarily translate into greatness in real life. Who would have thought?

So here’s a wonderkid from every game, some of whom didn’t quite repeat their in-game careers in real life and others are going about reaching their potential in ways you might not have expected.

Cherno Samba

We’re focusing on the Football Manager era of 2005 onwards, but we have to start with the ultimate Championship Manager wonderkid.

In the game, Cherno Samba was your go-to striker if you wanted guaranteed success. We’re talking about 60+ goals per season.

In real life, he was signed by Millwall aged just 13 on the back of 132 goals in 32 games for his school team, was tipped to win the World Cup for England, and was wanted by the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United, such was his talent.

He would never make such a high-profile transfer, however, and eventually retired aged 30 having never played above the Championship.

Although Samba didn’t achieve in real life what he managed for many players on Champ Man, he told us his stats on the game were right and that he simply didn’t realise his potential – not that he has any regrets.

“It’s just the expectation that was put on me that it looks like a failed career, but I played in the Championship, I played in Spain, how many people can say that?” he told us on The Broken Metatarsal podcast.

We can confirm he’s a lovely, lovely man.

We’d also like to bring to your attention these customised Adidas Sambas with his name on that someone has made. That’s the good stuff.

Freddy Adu

It’s forbidden by law to discuss FM wonderkids without at least mentioning Freddy Adu’s astonishing story.

He was labelled as ‘the next Pele’ after starting his professional career at the age of 14, scoring four times at the 2003 Under-17 World Championship.

In the early versions of Football Manager, he was a real menace to society year-in, year-out, regularly topping the scoring charts and single-handedly carrying teams to Champions League glory.

He trialled for Manchester United in 2006, but it wasn’t to be. His career saw him play for 13 different teams in eight countries, never scoring more than 10 goals at any of them apart from his initial appearances at D.C. United – and even then he only scored 11 in 87 games.

After initially retiring at the brilliantly awfully named Las Vegas Lights FC in 2018, Adu later returned to professional football. At a team in the third-tier of Sweden. Who terminated his contract after a month because he wasn’t fit enough.

READ: The nine stages of Freddy Adu’s career: From wonderkid to wanderer

Kerlon

Everybody knows Kerlon because of his trademark ‘seal dribble’, but it’s fair to say more was expected of the Brazilian.

He may not have been able to perform his incredible act in FM, but his stats in the 2006 edition made him a world-beater on the virtual pitches.

In real life, however, he only made 51 appearances throughout his career after leaving Brazil in 2008. He retired in October 2017 after spending three months without a club.

Brazil's Kerlon does his seal dribble against Uruguay. Venezuela, 2005.

READ: Celebrating Kerlon, the seal dribble sensation who faded too soon

Anthony Vanden Borre

One of several players on this list who was rated as a wonderkid across several games, literally every FM nut will have signed Vanden Borre at some point.

Available to sign for around £1million as an 18-year-old at Anderlecht in FM07, Vanden Borre was guaranteed to become the best right-back in the game, but his biggest claim to fame, in reality, is probably being the player Chris Kamara didn’t realise had been sent off when commentating on a game in 2008.

And you’d probably forgotten even that was Vanden Borre. He was playing for Portsmouth that day and in 2017 signed for Congolese side TP Mazembe after reversing his decision to retire aged 29. He left after four months.

Remarkably, after three years without a club, Vanden Borre was re-signed by Anderlecht in 2020, reuniting with his former team-mate and fellow FM wonderkid Vincent Kompany. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he didn’t play a single game and he left at the end of the season.

Henri Saivet

Henri Saivet was like the second coming for FM08 fans, but Newcastle’s raid for the midfielder in 2016 never reaped dividends.

It was one of the strangest situations for a player in recent history. He only played eight times for the Magpies after moving to St James’ Park from Bordeaux in January 2016 and was loaned out four times, most recently to Bursaspor in Turkey in 2018-19.

He finally left in July 2021 when his contract ran out, after sitting and earning money for not playing. He wasn’t even registered in Newcastle’s Premier League squad.

At 31, he’s still without a club and his career might well be over.

Carlos Vela

Ranked as one of the world’s most exciting teenagers by World Soccer in 2007 and still a wonderkid in FM09, plenty who saw Carlos Vela at close quarters would agree the Football Manager scouts were absolutely right in their assessment.

Unfortunately, the Mexican only showed flashes of his ability after getting his big move to Arsenal and has gone on to have a career that has been good but certainly not as good as was hoped.

READ: The seven stages of Carlos Vela’s career: From Arsenal wonderkid to LA star

Khouma Babacar

If you were willing to be patient in FM10, you could sign Khouma Babacar as a 16-year-old from Fiorentina and eventually end up with the world’s best striker.

He’s now 27 and has played for five clubs on loan compared to three on a permanent basis, which probably says something.

The Senegalese international now plays for FC Copenhagen and has two goals and two assists in eight appearances. Not quite the best striker in the world, but certainly not a bad return for the 29-year-old.

Yaya Sanogo

In FM11, a certain Yaya Sanogo was a must-buy thanks to his fantastic finishing, but it’s safe to say he didn’t even come close to replicating his digital counterpart’s successes in real life, despite getting the chance to join Arsenal in 2013.

Indeed, he only scored a single goal for the Gunners before being released on a free in 2017.

He’s still only 29, but there are already plenty of reasons to ask what could have been – he was a free agent from July 2020 after scoring 16 goals in 72 appearances for Toulouse, but joined Huddersfield in February 2021… playing nine, scoring none and missing one penalty.

Now without a club once again, Sanogo recently explained why.

“Covid happened,” he said in February 2022.

“There’s a lot of players in this situation. Clubs have less money so they’re a bit more reticent – especially mid-season.

“I had contacts with certain clubs. Some didn’t interest me, others were thinking about it but didn’t follow up. It’s become very hard.”

John Fleck

It’s funny to think that John Fleck was once one of the players with the best potential in FM and one of its more heralded players, his reputation earned when he was a Rangers player who burst onto the simulation’s scene armed with Premier League-worthy stats at the age of 19.

In our universe, he stayed in Scotland until 2012 before jumping over to Coventry City and eventually to Sheffield United, where he established himself as an important player for Chris Wilder’s Premier League Blades.

Unfortunately for him, Sheffield United only stayed in the Premier League for two seasons, but he’s stuck with them in the Championship.

Youri Tielemans

Another player who was highly rated across several games – and in real life – Youri Tielemans is still only 24 with plenty of time to fulfill his potential.

He joined Monaco from Anderlecht in 2018 before moving to the Premier League with Leicester City, where he has been a real success, his loan deal becoming permanent in the summer of 2019.

A big move looks to be on the horizon this summer, and if his FA Cup-winning goal is anything to go by then he deserves it.

Carlos Fierro

A goalscoring machine in both FM13 and FM14, Carlos Fierro made his first transfer in real life at the end of 2017.

However, rather than move to one of Europe’s biggest clubs as Football Manager fans might have expected, Fierro remained in Mexico, joining Cruz Azul.

He moved to MLS with San Jose Earthquakes and then moved back to his home country with new Liga MX side Juarez. A solid career, but again, not quite the best striker in the world.

Martin Odegaard

Given Real Madrid signed Martin Odegaard as a 16-year-old in 2015, it’s fair to say the Football Manager scouts weren’t the only ones who saw the Norwegian’s potential.

He has been gradually improving year on year. At one point written off as a flop, he enjoyed productive loan spells with Heerenveen in 2018-19 and then Real Sociedad.

Madrid were happy to let him go to Arsenal on loan last season where he impressed, so the Gunners pulled the trigger on a £30million deal. That’s been a bargain, the Norwegian becoming a huge part of Mikel Arteta’s young side who he is expected to captain next season.

Just 23 years old, he’s only getting better.

Arsenal's Martin Odegaard during the match v Leicester at the Emirates Stadium, London. Sunday March 13, 2022.

READ: Call 999, Odegaard stole Bergkamp’s soul & is keeping it in his left sock

Ruben Neves

It didn’t matter which club you were managing in FM16, if you wanted a world-class defensive midfielder, you signed Ruben Neves.

Casual observers might assume the fact he is now at Wolves in real life means the Football Manager scouts got it wrong, but that isn’t necessarily the case.

The Portugal international has now established himself as a Premier League talent with Wolves, and he’s still regularly scoring belters, just because he can.

We’re not sure anything will ever top this, however.

Gabriel Barbosa

In 2017, it was a certain Gabriel Barbosa, also known as ‘Gabigol’, that had fans excited. Tipped to become the next Neymar by many, his 2016 move to Inter promised much but delivered sadly little – one goal and three loans, to be precise.

Still just 25, he’s rekindled his career back in Brazil at Flamengo. His first season brought 43 goals in 59 games, while he played a pivotal role in their Copa Libertadores triumph, turning the final against River Plate with two late goals.

He’s therefore still a brilliant pick-up in modern FM, giving you strength in depth up front for practically nothing. Whether he wants to make another such move in real life is still unknown.

Vinicius Junior

With thousands upon thousands of talented youngsters featured every year in the FM databases, this list could conceivably go on forever.

In the 2018 edition, it was another Brazilian, Vinicius Junior, with perhaps the highest potential out of all the young players in the game.

Real Madrid agreed to sign him for £38million from Flamengo when he turned 18, and this season he’s had a breakout campaign.

He’s becoming one of the club’s most important figures, and he doesn’t look like stopping anytime soon. Even if they do sign Kylian Mbappe, he won’t be going anywhere.

Vinicius Junior of Real Madrid in action during the La Liga Santander match between Real Madrid CF and Real Sociedad at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on March 5, 2022 in Madrid, Spain.

READ: Don’t f*ck with Vinicius Jr… he’ll crush your soul with nutmeg goals

Matthijs de Ligt

Matthijs de Ligt is the only defender on this list, but his stats on the 2019 edition made him a Football Manager favourite

The centre-back moved to Juventus for £67.5million after leading Ajax to a domestic double and the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2018-19.

He endured a difficult first few months in Italy, finding himself on the bench under Maurizio Sarri, but he became a regular again, first under Andrea Pirlo and now Massimiliano Allegri.

Ansu Fati

After making his first-team debut for Barcelona at 16, Ansu Fati was being talked up as the heir to Lionel Messi.

Fati overtook Messi and Bojan Krkic to become Barcelona’s youngest ever goalscorer in La Liga at just 16 years and 10 months old. He is also the youngest ever goalscorer in the Champions League.

He also became Spain’s youngest ever appearance maker since 1936 and their youngest ever goalscorer.

Injury has wreaked havoc on the youngster since November 2020, with the winger only playing 10 games this season. Still only 19, hopefully he can put the past behind him and become one of the best players in the world.

Illan Meslier

It’s been quite the couple seasons for Leeds United’s Meslier.

Given first-team opportunities at Leeds United during the promotion run-in, the youngster did more than enough to retain Marcelo Bielsa’s trust. He’s been Leeds’ starting goalkeeper in both their Premier League seasons and made the most saves of any shot-stopper in 2021-22.

Incredibly young for a goalkeeper at 22, his future seems bright; Leeds might not have to buy a goalkeeper for many years to come.

Karim Adeyemi

In FM22, affording the very best wonderkids is hard.

Erling Haaland? He seems destined for Manchester City or Bayern Munich every single save. Jude Bellingham? You better have £150million. Kylian Mbappe? Your wages won’t be good enough.

That’s where Adeyemi steps in. He’s been outrageous this season in Austria for RB Salzburg, putting away 16 in 25 league games as well as three in the Champions League. He was expected to leave last summer but nothing materialised, yet he didn’t let that deter him.

Plenty of FM managers already know how good he is however; he’s a cheap alternative to Haaland who rapidly develops into one of the world’s best strikers.

He’s destined for a big move this summer. Where to, however, is still up in the air. Liverpool? Dortmund? Bayern? All would be getting their hands on a potential star.


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