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.
Football Manager is a phenomenon. It has grown far beyond a simple video game series, spawning a quite frankly incredible amount of real-life implications from a stand-up routine to divorce cases, not to mention the transfer-related plans for actual clubs.
In fact, it’s becoming more and more reasonable to use the game’s data to unearth some diamonds in the rough.
Wonderkid – that’s 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 twenty and have the highest possible potential.
As we all know, potential isn’t always fulfilled, but the developers behind the Football Manager series actually 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 Tévez, Philipp Lahm, Wesley Sneijder, Javier Mascherano and Vincent Kompany – it’s safe to say they all lived up their wonderkid billing.
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 when it comes to the real deal.
Although we’re focusing on the Football Manager era of 2005 onwards, 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 broke Owen’s schoolboy goalscoring record for St Joseph’s Academy – an eye-popping 132 strikes in 32 games –before being signed by Millwall at the age of thirteen.
He was linked with a wide variety of England’s top clubs, with Liverpool in pole position for his signing, but the Reds couldn’t reach an agreement with The Lions despite a £2million offer.
He eventually ended up at Cádiz, and then a series of injuries and unfortunate career moves (which included the tail end of Ian Holloway’s stint at Plymouth) meant he had to retire relatively early on, calling it a day in 2015 due to a broken ankle. He was only thirty years old at the time.
Arguably the biggest cult hero in #CM history.Available on the cheap,Samba would evolve into one of the best players available#IRL He had a decorated career playing in the likes of England,Spain & Norway.He also scored a goal for Gambia along the way@samgerfc pic.twitter.com/6ntaML1Dsl
— FMPlayers #FM19 (@FMPlayers) March 1, 2018
You all knew this one was coming – it’s forbidden by law to discuss FM wonderkids without at least mentioning Freddy Adu’s astonishing story.
He was labelled as “the next Pelé” after starting his professional career at the age of fourteen, scoring four times at the 2003 U17 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.
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 on October 20, 2017 after spending three months without a club.
Who remembers Kerlon? The seal dribbler? pic.twitter.com/vFT8Ww3Ryh
— The Blue Prophet (@TheBlueProphet) December 9, 2017
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.
Henri Saivet looked like the second coming of Thierry Henry for FM08 fans, but Newcastle’s raid for the midfielder in 2016 has not yet reaped dividends.
He has played six times in total for the Magpies since moving to St James’ Park from Bordeaux in January 2016 and is currently on loan at Sivasspor in Turkey.
Slightly higher up in the footballing pyramid, Newcastle’s raid for Saivet didn’t exactly turn out great as made only four appearances before going on a series of loan stints.
The season before last, he was handed a surprise start against West Ham, scoring in a 3-2 victory, before being frozen out yet again and joining Sivasspor on another short loan deal. He’s still on Newcastle’s books, not on loan anywhere at present.
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 in 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 which has been good but certainly not as good as was hoped.
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 26, having made turned his loan to Sassuolo, his fourth stint away from Fiorentina, into a permanent deal in 2018.
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.
He only scored a single goal for the Gunners before being released on a free in 2017. He’s still only 26, but there are already plenty of reasons to ask what could have been – he’s scored nine times in two seasons at Toulouse.
John Fleck is slowly but surely realising his true FM potential, 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 realm, he stayed in Scotland until 2012 before jumping over to Coventry City and eventually to Sheffield United, where he’s established himself as an important player in Chris Wilder’s Premier League Blades.
Another player who was highly rated across several games – and in real life – Youri Tielemans is still only 20 with plenty of time to fulfil his potential.
He joined Monaco from Anderlecht in 2018, but struggled for opportunities at the French club. He’s since moved to Leicester City and been a real success in the Premier League, turning his loan deal permanent in the summer of 2019.
Youri Tielemans on his return to Leicester 💬 pic.twitter.com/VOyxvuDiDN
— Leicester City (@LCFC) July 8, 2019
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. At 23, maybe he won’t develop into one of the world’s best strikers after all.
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 had his best loan spell yet at Heerenveen last season, and big things are expected of him at Real Sociedad in 2019-20.
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 blooters.
— George Rinaldi (@GeorgeRinaldi) February 4, 2018
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 has clearly stalled judging by the two consecutive loan moves he was involved with since.
Still just 22, he’s now looking to rekindle his career back in Brazil at Flamengo. It’s going well, with 11 goals from 11 appearances so far this season.
With thousands upon thousands of talented youngsters featured every year in the FM databases, this list could conceivably go on forever.
In the latest edition, it’s another Brazilian, Vinicius Junior, who has 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 he was supposedly courted by Barcelona and Manchester United as well.
He looked electric in his debut season with Madrid, which was cut short with a muscle injury suffered in the Spring. The Brazilian teenager was one of the few positives about their trophyless 2018-19 campaign, and having looked sharp on his return from injury in pre-season, could well be set for big things this season.
By Luci Kelemen