Lionel Messi winning his sixth Ballon d’Or, Cristiano Ronaldo’s agent claiming that he should have more Ballon d’Ors, football creating another trophy for young'uns and the Premier League adding the Hall of Fame, has meant that the world’s adulation with awards and trophies has reached its pinnacle.
Mainly in football and especially thanks to the advent of social media, it’s been taken to another level. That’s not always a positive thing and a large portion of 2019, more than anything, proves that. However, what the advent of social media has brought about more than making the world smaller is the fact that it simply adds even more pressure to men who do nothing more than kicking a ball all over the field. But for grown men and women, the criticism and hate is something they can take and thrive with but the same can never be said about the younger players. It’s here that the real issue starts especially in the age of super footballers.
In an age where winning is no longer the exception but the norm and for a decade of fans losing their superheroes in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, anyone less than the best of the best is never going to be enough. Even for those who walked around supporting and watching the likes of Thierry Henry, Xavi, and Andres Iniesta, anything less than the best is never going to be enough because, now, that’s how high the bar is set. And for the second acts, the follow-ups and the next man up that kind of pressure is psychologically damaging and especially for a kid in his late teens and early twenties.
There are a few things more exciting in the world than watching a youngster get his due and then take it. But as Luka Jovic and Moise Kean are slowly realizing, the world can also be an unforgiving place for a footballer. The two men moved for unbridled amounts of sums of money across Europe but have struggled immensely to live up to their price tag. A price tag that they played zero part in setting alongside a wage system that they spent zero part in setting. But yet, when you google Jovic’s name, switch to news and scroll through, there’s not one sign of positiveness.
Instead, it’s a media-driven storm about the Serbian’s price-tag, a loan move for the “Real Madrid flop” and countless others. And yet, the 21-year-old has spent less than six months at Real Madrid and played a total of 770 minutes with eight starts. Turn towards Moise Kean and it’s more of the same, but the Italian’s situation hasn’t helped at all. Everton’s mismanagement of the young striker has been something else with one manager refusing to play him, the interim boss opting to treat him like cannon fodder which has left Don Carlo with the husk of a fantastic player with limitless potential.
“The next day I saw a headline: ‘Spain call up Bojan and Bojan says no.’ That headline kills me, it’s as if I don’t care."
Either way while both players have, in part, struggled with mismanagement the situation has been exacerbated by the media which has never helped anyone’s cause. In a path-breaking interview with the Guardian, the man touted to be the next Lionel Messi talked about how his overnight status as a celebrity and pressure led to a constant battle and how anxiety affected his football. And if the world isn’t careful it and then they and the media might destroy the future generation, if they haven't already.
Bojan himself admitted as much, in an interview with the Guardian, that after he told Spain he couldn’t play for the national team after a series of anxiety attacks, “The next day I saw a headline: ‘Spain call up Bojan and Bojan says no.’ That headline kills me, it’s as if I don’t care. I remember being in Murcia and people insulting me: they don’t know, they just think I don’t want to play.” He’s one of the few ones that actually opened up and spoke about the problems he faced as a teenage prodigy and even explained that the overwhelming pressure of being the next Lionel Messi hurt his career more than anything.
Football, for some impossible reason, seems to be littered with the dead careers of former wonder kids with most of them flaming out thanks to pressure and possibly psychological issues that stemmed from everything. "You have to not let it affect you but that’s not always easy,” Bojan added. “Those of us who have feeling, who are sensitive, who can be affected, need a good shield. Footballers are very young and they’re exposed. Even at under-15s, players have Twitter and I’m sure they’re already getting insults ... it’s ugly, it sullies society and football.”
No one defines that better than Freddy Adu and David Bentley with the two men being called the next great thing to step onto the football pitch before subsequently flaming out. There are hundreds maybe even thousands more but as Nicky Butt, in an interview with the ESPN, aptly says “Thousands of players have come through this club that had more talent in their little finger than I ever had, but I got to where I did because of something else. It can't just be talent -- there has to be a lot more." That something more was never allowed to develop and it’s exactly what is happening to the new generation which is why the world is suddenly shocked when Martin Odegaard is not just playing football but is doing it so well, that some have called him the next great thing.
You will be gifted with three things that are very, very intoxicating, but also very, very dangerous. Money, fame, and the job of your dreams.
The Norwegian was brought in at the age of 15, with exactly what Gigi Buffon said luring him in, and was more of a publicity stunt than anything else. Even Real Madrid have admitted it since and they saw the 16-year-old play one game the year he was signed – and become Real Madrid’s youngest debutant in the process– and then slowly developed with their B team before making his first start two years later. Yet outside Bernabeu, Martin Odegaard was labelled as nothing more than a flop and all this before he even touched the age of 18, which alone proves so much. Nothing changed and everything remained the same as he moved about Europe on loan spells gaining experience.
Somehow the 20-year-old survived that with him doing exceptionally well out on loan at Real Sociedad and arguably one of the best midfielders that Real Madrid have. And yet he’s not even the biggest argument because that goes to Mario Gotze. Things need to change and this new batch of teenagers are proving that they are somehow worth more. Kylian Mbappe leads the line because it's not often you see 18, 19-year olds forget footballers create a plan, follow it and stick to it despite everything, let alone when the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona are chasing after you with unbridled sums of money.
Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho, and Kai Havertz all had the right idea by going to Germany and Austria to create their own identity. But thanks to the advent of social media, even that is no longer possible because no matter where they fly to, the limelight always seems to find them. It’s why Jadon Sancho’s problems at Borussia Dortmund over the last few months, despite his performances, have seen the teenager excluded with reports of attitude issues, partying and even slacking off which all started after his rise to fame.
Coincidence? Or is it simply time that the world of football starts giving the new guard time to do more than fall flat on their face. It’s the only way, the world will ever get somewhere half as close as to bringing in any form of a footballer good, mature and wise enough to follow in the footsteps of men that truly deserve something more than a half-assed heir.
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