In soccer, perhaps more than in any other major sport, the potential for greatness can be recognized from a very young age. Not every wunderkind goes on to become a superstar but most every superstar bore the expectations of future excellence from as far back as their early teen years.
A player on the track to stardom, then, has plenty of time to dream about his career trajectory. Maybe he hopes to star for his hometown club at a precociously young age, then to move on to something bigger to establish his game at a higher level, before finally reaching the pinnacle of the sport by playing for Real Madrid. Maybe he expects to so impress the soccer world at his first club that he can jump straight from there to Bayern Munich. Maybe he was able to wow scouts as a teen and has already been brought into Barcelona’s youth setup, where he plans to spend the rest of his career as a local, homegrown legend.
The specific journey may vary, the destination is almost always the same, but what some players lucky enough to see their fantasy become reality fail to realize is that when you get to Bayern or Barça or Madrid can be as important as whether you make it at all.
Earlier today, 21-year-old Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovačić was introduced by Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez as the club’s newest signing. Kovačić’s addition to what is already an obscenely deep Madrid squad is of a piece with their philosophy of late. Pérez has (largely) drifted away from his Galácticos policy of buying up the established stars of the game and instead has focused on bringing in the most promising younger players right at the age where you expect their growth curves to arrow north. Isco, James Rodríguez, Toni Kroos, Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio, Martin Ødegaard: these are all players Madrid bought before their 25th birthdays and whose age and abilities should spur Real Madrid’s success both in the short and long terms. Kovačić, in age and potential, fits right along with them.
Kovačić is already an elite dribbler. His most deadly skill set at this point is picking up the ball in the middle of the park and turning, bouncing, slashing his way through defenses. The former Dynamo Zagreb and Inter man couples his ability to deftly flick the ball between his feet with a knack for popping out passes to teammates that squeeze through the tightest of windows from the most obtuse of angles. Kovačić has everything you look for in an attack-minded midfielder: vision, touch, agility, dribbling, and the ability to knock in a few goals of his own.
The problem is whether this Real Madrid team is the best place for him to whet those abilities. As tantalizing a prospect as he is, Kovačić is nowhere near a finished product. He found himself in and out of favor at Inter last season, with manager Roberto Mancini unsure where best to utilize his most gifted player (central midfield? attacking? deeper? on the wing?) and whether the inevitable moments of breath-taking brilliance were worth the long stretches of anonymity. As of now, Kovačić is the type of player who can win a game with a burst or two of inspiration, not the type that dominates one from start to finish. He needs minutes on the field to find his best position and to learn how to become more consistent and influential. He won’t get that in Madrid.
It’s hard to pencil in more than a handful of appearances for Kovačić in the near future. The positions he’d see the most time at with Real Madrid are already absolutely stacked. These are his competitors for any of the three central midfield spots in Rafa Benítez’s likely 4-2-3-1 formation: Gareth Bale, James, Isco, Kroos, Luka Modrić, Casemiro, Lucas Silva, and Asier Illarramendi. He’s not very good defensively, so it would be difficult to partner him alongside must-starts Kroos and Modrić as a holding midfielder. He doesn’t create enough drive Madrid’s attacking engine from the No. 10 position either, so it’s hard to see him starting there over Bale, James, or Isco. At best, he’ll nab a handful of minutes here and there as a late sub or spot starter against weak teams in the domestic competitions, forced to bide his time and hope that age and transfers will open up more opportunities going forward.
As we’ve seen countless times, it’s hard to earn significant minutes as a work-in-progress at the biggest clubs. Kovačić need look no further than his Inter teammate of last year, Xherdan Shaqiri, once the hottest name in European soccer. He awed first Switzerland, then the world as a teen at Basel, meeting grown men on the pitch and blowing by them as if they were children. He spent three season with the Basel first team, winning the Swiss league three times and dominating some of the best players in the world in Champions League appearances. The short, stocky winger who could dribble through a thicket of defenders then thump the ball into to top corners of the goal was coveted by all of Europe.
Bayern Munich purchased his services at 20 years old. The young Shaqiri justified the hype surrounding his name almost every time he entered a game for Bayern. He fit seamlessly into that German dreadnaught whenever his number was called. With each passing year, fans wondered whether this would be the season when Bayern would throw itself fully into the Shaqiri era.
Unfortunately for Shaqiri, that time never came. While he excelled when he did make it onto the field, he never got the minutes he needed to either demonstrate the totality of his talents, hone those talents at the crucial age when they most need developing, nor even to demonstrate if he wasn’t quite as good as we all thought. Behind existing greats like Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry, and Thomas Müller, he couldn’t break into the starting lineup. Too good to be loaned out, too promising to be sold, yet not good enough to be a regular. He was trapped in no-man’s-land.
This past January Shaqiri finally pushed for a move away, going to Inter with hopes of finding more playing time. That experiment didn’t quite work out either, so the man once thought to be the future catalyst of Bundesliga and Champions League trophies made his way to Stoke City, where, best-case scenario, he fights them into the Europa League.
It’s always difficult weighing money, prestige, playing time, and career-management as a young starlet trying to make his way in the game. More so than in American sports, the trajectory of a player’s career is in his own hands. And sometimes that entails taking a step backward to take two steps forward.
Adama Traoré has the potential to be a superstar. The 19-year-old former Barcelona winger was considered one of if not the most promising talent in the world’s most revered academy. He is Catalan born and raised, had been with the club since he was 8 years old, and possesses the kind of speed and dribbling ability that fits so well with this current iteration of Barça. Both he and the club have given all that up to send him to Premier League bottom feeder Aston Villa.
Traoré had featured for the past couple seasons in the Barcelona B team in Spain’s second tier. Thanks to shoddy management and questionable player development practices, the B team had a terrible season last year, ending the campaign relegated to the third division, and more damningly, failing to improve the abilities of its young players. Traoré was too good to slum it in the third division, yet not nearly ready to compete for time with the first team. He and the club had to make a decision whether to ship him out on loan somewhere and hope that the club would invest the time and effort necessary to develop him knowing full well he was only a one or two season rental, or to find him a new employer that could offer him what he needed to improve.
The ultimate decision was to sell him to Aston Villa. Traoré turned down interest from bigger clubs like Liverpool, believing that more than anything he needed to play and that minutes would be easier to find with Villa than Liverpool. Barça included a buy-back clause in the transfer, enabling them to bring Traoré back home should he grow into the player everyone hopes and expects. It was a smart move for all involved.
All three of these players once had the world at their feet as mere teenagers. All three were able to realize their dream of playing for the biggest clubs in the world, though in at least two of the cases real life didn’t align with the fantasy. Shaqiri has probably lost any chance he has of becoming the player he might’ve been; Kovačić might be in the process of limiting his ultimate potential; and if it all comes together for Traoré, it will be on a much smaller platform than he imagined.
Traoré’s choice might be the wisest, though. Maybe he’s giving up his dream of being the next one-club star for one of the most famous teams in the world, but unlike Shaqiri and quite possibly Kovačić, he has given himself the best chance to be the best he can be, wherever that may lead him.
Top photo via AP