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.
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.
But though 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.
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 14, 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 in October 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. He left after four months.
Henri Saivet was like the second coming for FM08 fans, but Newcastle’s raid for the midfielder in 2016 has not yet reaped dividends.
He has played eight times in total for the Magpies since moving to St James’ Park from Bordeaux in January 2016 and has been loaned out four times, most recently to Bursaspor in Turkey.
His time at Bordeaux, where he scored 21 goals in 178 appearances, looks likely to be the high mark of his career.
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 27 and has played for five clubs on loan compared to two on a permanent basis, which probably says something. His latest loan spell, at Lecce, has brought two goals from 13 appearances at the time of writing.
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 27, but there are already plenty of reasons to ask what could have been – he’s scored 12 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 for Chris Wilder’s Premier League Blades.
Another player who was highly rated across several games – and in real life – Youri Tielemans is still only 23 with plenty of time to fulfil 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, 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.
He has since moved to the MLS with San Jose Earthquakes, but now 25, 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 has been gradually improving year-on-year, enjoying a productive loan spell at Heerenveen in 2018-19 before getting his first chance in La Liga with Real Sociedad and grabbing it with both hands. The next step is the Real Madrid squad
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 promised much but delivered sadly little – one goal and three loans, to be precise.
Still just 23, he’s now looking to rekindle his career back in Brazil at Flamengo. His first season brought 43 goals in 59 games so there’s time yet for him to make his mark.
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 he was one of the few positives about their trophyless 2018-19 campaign.
He is developing nicely.
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 and even found himself on the bench under Maurizio Sarri.
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, and he is also the youngest ever goalscorer in the Champions League.
The Spaniard has already made 24 appearances in his debut season and looks set for a bright future at the Camp Nou.
By Luci Kelemen