Freddy Adu and football’s obsession with fallen wonderkids

Words By Sean Cole Illustration by Philippe Fenner
February 19, 2018

Nothing has really worked out as planned for Freddy Adu. One of the latest chapters in a nomadic career, defined by frustration and false dawns, followed a similar theme. Back in July, a trial was announced with Polish club Sandecja Nowy Sacz. Their manager described the situation as a joke and said the decision was made without his knowledge. Once he realised, Adu chose to step away and avoid being used, like he has so many times before, as a marketing gimmick.

Last month he was linked with a move to Oskarshamns AIK in the Swedish third tier, another sign of his vastly diminished status. Since then he has been training with the Las Vegas Lights, a newly-established franchise set to play their first season in the United Soccer League this year. It’s a far cry from where Adu was supposed be at this stage. It can be difficult to think of him as a real, flesh and blood person, someone with feelings, goals and ambitions, rather than an amorphous concept, an experiment in the effects of too much fame and hype.

Most football fans will have heard of Adu, and tracked his progress from afar, but very few will have actually seen him play. In many ways he is now more a curiosity than a footballer, a global product that everyone was guilty of investing too much hope in. It’s so often the way. We’re transfixed by the stories of wonderkids who went awry. We almost long for their failure more than their success.

When he turned professional at the age of 14 – the youngest player ever to do so – Adu was already being called ‘the new Pele’. No pressure. He had been scoring at a rate of better than a goal a game for the USA’s Under-17s team despite being well below the age limit at the time. For a nation not overly enamoured with football, Adu was regularly talked about on TV, in the sports media and mainstream press. We were told he was destined for the top but things rarely go that smoothly.

Born in Ghana, he moved over to the USA with his family at the age of eight and was earmarked as the great hope of the American league and national team. In 2004, Adu was chosen by DC United as the number one pick in the MLS SuperDraft. His debut followed three months later, and a first ever senior goal within a fortnight. Isolating defenders, feinting to go one way and speeding off in another, his talent was clear to see. There were Nike deals and product endorsements aplenty. Everyone was keen to cash in on his potential.

Rather than going on to feature in discussions about the greatest player of all time, as we were promised he would, Adu has become an internet and computer game novelty instead. A Football Manager phenomenon and Wikipedia search term for people eager to keep tabs on what happened to a potential world-beater. Football fans regularly search for updates on his career and eclectic array of clubs. There have been 13 so far, in eight different countries, including Brazil, Serbia and Finland in recent years. It’s been a bizarre and unexpected journey.

The level of interest Adu still attracts isn’t in any way justified by his meagre on-field achievements. Across 14 years as a professional he has scored just 34 senior goals and won no major trophies on a team or individual level. And yet his popularity remains remarkably durable. Adu has over 380,000 Twitter followers and is perhaps the greatest symbol of football’s obsession with teenage prodigies who lost their way.

Adu simply wasn’t allowed to improve at his own rate, away from the harsh and unremitting glare of the spotlight. Agents, sponsors and an expectant public were desperate to see the boy wonder, whatever the cost.

Although the details vary in each instance, the overarching narrative is a familiar one. From Sonny Pike to Cherno Samba, there are countless examples and different degrees of failure, all with a common thread of poor decisions and unfulfilled potential. Our appetite for these stories is insatiable and the circumstances are ripe for them to proliferate. Preternaturally talented footballers are subjected to remarkable pressure and public scrutiny at ever younger ages. It’s a dangerous game, with participants set up to fail.

Many are built up way beyond their abilities and even those who go on to have great careers, like Wayne Rooney or Michael Owen, are somehow regarded as disappointments for not living up to our wildest expectations. In Rooney’s case, even becoming Manchester United and England’s highest ever goalscorer hasn’t spared him from criticism and the sense that he has somehow fallen short. His decline over recent years has been difficult to watch, but only in contrast to the remarkable standards he’d previously set.

This wasn’t the case with Adu. Pushed too hard, too soon, into an environment he was ill-equipped to deal with, he failed to make a proper transition to senior football. Playing with grown men from the age of 14 onwards, when his development would have been better served by a different approach, he hasn’t progressed. Adu simply wasn’t allowed to improve at his own rate, away from the harsh and unremitting glare of the spotlight. Agents, sponsors and an expectant public were desperate to see the boy wonder, whatever the cost.

That spark of ability remains, but alone it isn’t enough. Unsupported by serious, dedicated training in his craft and shunted between clubs in search of game time, Adu has stagnated. In retrospect, his big move to Benfica in 2008, and the array of unfulfilling loan moves that spawned, seems like a hollow publicity stunt – the sort that continues to blight him to this day. Now 28, when he should be in the very prime of his career, Adu is out of work. Portland Timbers also had him on trial but no contract offer was forthcoming. He didn’t play at all in 2017.

After his failed Polish venture last summer, Adu wrote a message to his fans saying: “This whole situation is unfortunate but I am glad that I noticed this earlier and came to this conclusion. Wherever I end up next is extremely important and needs to be a place where I will have a fair chance to play and have some stability. I have made bad decisions in the past, that’s undeniable, but I have learned from them and will not keep repeating them. I want to thank those who have supported me through thick and thin and I will keep grinding and fighting because I love this game too much.”

It was a heartfelt response to another knockback from somebody who has experienced more than their fair share. While it would be good to see him succeed at last, or at least find a place to settle, many are too deeply invested in his decline, and too wedded to the idea of the errant wonderkid, to hope that it happens. Nobody can doubt that Adu loves football but the game hasn’t been especially kind to him in return.

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