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

Quick Reads

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Henri Saivet

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 between 2007 and 2016, looks likely to be the high mark of his career.

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 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.

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 two on a permanent basis, which probably says something. His latest loan spell, at Alanyaspor, has brought four goals and two red cards from 13 appearances.

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 27, but there are already plenty of reasons to ask what could have been – he’s now a free agent after scoring 16 goals in 72 appearances for Toulouse.

READ: Afonso Alves, Yaya Sanogo, misleading stats and the Eredivisie legacy

John Fleck

John Fleck is slowly but surely realising his true FM potential, 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 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.

Unfortunately for him, it increasingly looks as though their days in the top flight are numbered.

Youri Tielemans

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.

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 has since moved to the MLS with San Jose Earthquakes but, aged 26, maybe he won’t develop into one of the world’s best strikers after all.

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, 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.

He did so well that he was recalled from his two-year loan halfway through, but first-team opportunities back at his parent club this season have been few and far between.

READ: Alternative highlights of 19-20: Martin Odegaard’s Zidane-esque assist

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 blooters.

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 23, 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 to turn the final against River Plate around with two late goals. 

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 he was one of the few positives about their trophyless 2018-19 campaign as he continues to establish himself in the first team at the Bernabeu.

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 and even found himself on the bench under Maurizio Sarri but is now a regular under Andrea Pirlo.

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, and he is also the youngest ever goalscorer in the Champions League.

Earlier this season he became Spain’s youngest debutant since 1936 and youngest ever goalscorer. He also started the 2020-21 campaign like a house on fire for Barcelona with four goals in seven La Liga appearances before it was stunted by a serious knee injury.

Illan Meslier

It’s not been long since the latest edition of football manager was released, but it’s been quite the season for France Under-21 international goalkeeper Illan Meslier.

Given first-team opportunities at Leeds United during the promotion run-in last term, the youngster did more than enough to retain Marcelo Bielsa’s trust after former Real Madrid goalkeeper Kiko Casilla became available again after serving an eight-match ban for an FA charge of racism.

There’s been plenty of attention on Meslier, who has played every minute of Leeds’ first Premier League campaign in 16 years. Only West Brom have conceded more goals, but only Baggies keeper Sam Johnstone has made more saves.

By Luci Kelemen


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