When talent withers away

When talent withers away

The tales of Freddy Adu and Federico Macheda show that young players need to be nurtured well

When talent withers away

It was evidently easier to spot a child star in Hollywood 70 years ago than it is to help teenage shooting stars make the grade in professional soccer today.

Shirley Temple won a Juvenile Academy Award in 1935 for her performance in ‘Bright Eyes’ – and she had been born in 1928. Freddy Adu and Federico Macheda, apparently wonderfully prodigious talents when they were in their teens, are finding it a whole lot tougher to make the grade in the men’s game.

Both Adu and Macheda are gifted. Both were made rich before they achieved very much. And both are wondering this week who, if anyone, will take them on loan and give them a chance of finding a permanent place to apply their skills.

Adu, born in 1989, is the Ghanaian-American who became the youngest professional player in Major League Soccer history after he was drafted by Washington in 2004. At the same young age, Nike made him a millionaire thanks to an endorsement deal.

He is now 23, unwanted by his latest club, the Philadelphia Union, and available for hire to anyone anywhere who might think he still has a career in him.

Macheda is the Italian who was plucked by Manchester United away from Lazio, his boyhood team in Rome, when he was 16. That move, akin to piracy in the way that United exploited the fact that the Italian authorities barred boys younger than 18 from becoming tied to professional contracts, had spectacular early portents.

The boy Macheda – still so youthful, so unafraid of the big players on the big stage – took the place of the Portuguese player Nani in a game against Aston Villa in April 2009.

United was trailing, 2-1, at the time, but after another rather well-known star (Cristiano Ronaldo) had equalised, young Federico had his moment.

With an instinctive turn, a powerful drive and a completely unfettered aim, he curled the ball into the goal from outside the penalty area.

No fluke

It was no fluke. Alex Ferguson, United’s veteran manager, turned to Macheda again and again in tight matches that season. His freshness and fearlessness helped, as did the fact that opponents knew less about how to stop Federico than Dimitar Berbatov or even Ryan Giggs.

The boy, still 17, was taken on pre-season tour to the United States where he again excelled.

His family had moved from Rome to the suburbs of Manchester, and they all could live comfortably off the contract that ensures Macheda will receive an income from United, one of the world’s most glamorous clubs, through 2014.

Alas, it is never easy to predict what will happen to youth. Injuries occur to growing limbs that are pushed too far, too fast, and a team like United will always sign new strikers rather than wait for broken ones to mend. Ferguson currently has at his disposal Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Javier ''Chicharito’' Hernandez.

That is a mighty quartet for anyone to break into, never mind a onetime teenage sensation whose first team opportunities became rarer and rarer.

Macheda has turned 21, still no great age in a player. He has been loaned to Sampdoria in Italy and to Queens Park Rangers in London. This week he is expected to go out on loan again, to Elche in the Spanish second division.

There, we leave him; a bright and dedicated young hope, coming to the realisation that the sport is a big business in which talent is only the first thing that can make or break a career.
The rest are perseverance, good health and good fortune, along with the judgment of coaches who cannot wait while maturity takes its ups and downs.

For all of that, but under an even more intensified public glare, take Adu. When he was just 8, he was already known to be a fantastically gifted child playing among men in the Ghanaian city of Tema. It was a well-known hunting ground for pro soccer scouts from the European leagues, particularly Belgium.

Precocious ball skills

Adu’s mother won a green card to live and work in the United States, and took her two young sons to Maryland. It was not long – in fact it was indecently early in Adu’s life – when his precocious ball skills became noted, and paid for, by Nike.

The boy was a brand. He might be the one who leads America to a brand-new future in the global game. He was fast-tracked, commercialised, fed the dream and accelerated into a man’s world before he knew it.

Becoming a brand before you have made the grade in the pro sport is as hard on a boy as it must be to turn down. It is just as hard to stop the publicity bandwagon once it is rolling.

Adu, it was said, would be America’s Pele. And the Brazilian great, who himself had played in his twilight years for the New York Cosmos, was flown in to consecrate that dream with a hug and a kiss on the wonder kid’s cheek.

To Adu’s credit, he seemed to cope serenely with the Shirley Temple treatment of stardom at a young age.

He appeared to bask in the publicity stunts.

As he matured, he from time to time displayed the aptitude to manage his changing physique, along with the money thrown at his Nike-clad feet. Still, the expectations were too great. Even for Lionel Messi, soccer is a team game that requires years of trust in colleagues.

For Clint Dempsey, arguably America’s best player at 29, it is still a huge challenge to maintain a place in the Tottenham Hotspur lineup in London. Adu has become a nomad in search of stability.  He has been shunted from the United States to Portugal, France, Greece and Turkey, often on short-term deals.

Last Monday, Philadelphia Union, which holds his rights, effectively issued a statement saying he was washed up there, and anyone willing to relieve the Union of its $500,000 contractual obligation could have him anytime they wanted.
No credible future employer had called for Adu till now.

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