If Pelé deserves the title of King for being the greatest footballer of all time, then Freddy Adu, once labeled the next Pelé, is the rightful King among players who never fulfilled their promise.
Plenty of young talents are hyped up every season as the next big thing, only to never meet the gigantic expectations the world creates for them. But Freddy Adu wasn’t viewed as just another big talent. At age 14 he was already a professional footballer, hailed as the soon-to-be greatest player in the world. Ten years later, he hasn’t just failed to make true on that promise. He hasn’t even improved a bit it seems.
Freddy Adu’s passport has him born on June 2 1989, in the seaport town of Tema, Ghana. He moved to the US eight years later. From that moment on, Adu’s story is one of ever increasing success. He did incredibly well in school, skipping seventh grade and breezing through eighth grade. According to a story in Sports Illustrated, Adu showed remarkable talent in every sport he played. Choosing football, he lead his youth team to victory in several tournaments, prompting Internazionale to make an offer for him – which he rejected.
Just prior to his 14th birthday, Adu signed a $1 million dollar contract with Nike. His future, it seemed, would be one of glory, fame and success. Shortly later he signed for DC United in the MLS, becoming the youngest professional athlete in an American team sport in a hundred years. His salary also made him the best paid professional player in MLS. That same season, he won the league with DC United. Two years later he made his debut for the US National Team. While not impressing in the MLS, a fact explained away by his young age and the incredible pressure on his shoulders, Benfica signed him as soon as he turned 18. Europe was waiting for the American wonder kid.
But here story of Freddy Adu takes a radical turn. It becomes a tale of repeated failure. Adu made a poor impression at Benfica, and was subsequently loaned out to clubs of ever diminishing stature. First Monaco, then Belenenses, then Aris, and finally to Çaykur Rizespor – a club in Turkey’s second division. None of the clubs showed any interested in prolonging Adu’s stay. And with every successive failure, the excuses (pressure, having to adapt to Europe, not being fit yet, coaches not making adequate use of his services, etc.) started to sound less convincing. Benfica lost faith in their American star. As soon as his contract was over, with no club in Europe interested in his services, Freddy Adu, after four years of failure in Europe, moved back to the US. To the MLS. The league where it had all started. The only league where he had been somewhat successful. Surely there he could revive his career?
But his two seasons at Philadelphia Union were again a disappointment. He simply didn’t seem to be very good. Adu has now been loaned out to Bahia in Brazil, where he spends most of his time on the bench.
So what’s the explanation for this remarkable tale? How can a player of such enormous talent fail to even succeed in the Turkish second division?
Perhaps because he never was that talented in the first place.
Consider the following facts. In a Sports Illustrated story from 2003, Adu was described as 5’8″ tall, weighing 140 pounds. He was 13 then. His current size? 5’8″. Apparently, he stopped growing at 13.
Or, perhaps more likely, he didn’t stop growing at 13. He’s just a couple of years older than he says he is.
It’s common knowledge that many players born in West-Africa are older than their passport states. By convincing the world that they are younger than they really are, such players increase their chance of being considered a big talent, which in turn increases their chance of a foreign club giving them a contract. The ‘real’ age of African players is an issue that looms over every FIFA youth tournament.
The fact that Adu skipped one or two grades in school suggests he was indeed “wise beyond his years”, or rather, older and more developed than his classmates. Let’s say he was 15, playing football against 12 year olds and sitting in class with 12 year olds. Is it any wonder that he breezed through school and defenses alike? Yet that advantage disappeared as soon as he faced mature opponents, hence his current problems in even the lowest of leagues.
Both his early ‘talent’ and his sudden failure to ‘develop’ his talent are perfectly explained by Adu being older than he says he is. Indeed, in a SI story from 2003, Adu says that even when he was 9 years old, people questioned his age. “When I was 9 or 10 years old, it used to bother me a lot, but now it’s just like I don’t care about that stuff anymore”.
Of course he no longer “cares”. He may not have made turned into the American Pelé, but he’s still a millionaire because of his lies.