Soccer is the most popular sport in the world. So many kids around the globe dream of making it to the very top and playing for the biggest clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool, and Juventus. However, only a few will ever make it to an elite level and many faded away after bright starts.
Getting there is only half the battle. When these athletes do, they have to maintain the same levels of skill and motivation. Sometimes players gamble on a move to a big club. In short, they see it as a pathway to glory and financial security. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
Today, we’re going to look at 40 players who reached the top and fell away. Some got injured and were never able to reach their full potential. Others got old and their careers just fizzled out. Then there are those who just weren’t able to cope with the pressures of an elite club. Check out the list below via 888 Sport.
40. Alex Song
Hailing from Cameroon, Song established himself as one of Arsenal’s most reliable players in 2008. It had taken him a couple of seasons to earn a first-team place but he became one of the best defensive midfielders in the league. Then after three brilliant seasons for the Gunners, Barcelona swooped him. This turned out to be a defining moment for his career, but not in a good way.
He couldn’t resist the lure of the Catalan giants, who signed him for his versatility. But he never became a guaranteed starter at the Camp Nou and ended up on loan at West Ham for a couple of seasons. However, his form deteriorated and before he knew it he was in Russia. After a couple of seasons with Rubin Kazan, he faded away with the likes of Swiss team Sion. Song never recaptured his Arsenal brilliance.
Arshavin was one of the stars of Euro 2008. The then-Zenit St. Petersburg star was superb throughout the competition as he helped Russia to a semi-final berth. A diminutive attacker, he lit up every soccer field he stepped onto. This convinced Arsenal to make him the most expensive signing in their history. While he had moments of brilliance including a four-goal display against Liverpool, he was never consistently brilliant for the Gunners.
After this, they sent him back on loan to Zenit, before finally selling him to the Russian giants. However, Arshavin was past his best at this point and his career kind of faded away after this point. He spent another season in Russia with FC Kuban before embarking on a voyage to Kazakhstan. Finally, he saw out his professional career in the Kazakh capital of Almaty with the mighty Kairat.
Nobody had heard of Zaki before he arrived in Wigan in 2008. Manager Steve Bruce brought him in on loan from Egyptian team Zamalek. He made an immediate impression with ten goals before Christmas in his first season. A physical presence with an eye for goals, he earned the nickname ‘The Bulldozer.’ However, his good form didn’t last because of his terrible attitude.
Zaki returned late from international duty and infuriated his manager. Meanwhile, his lazy antics convinced Wigan not to make his stay permanent. After an amazing start to life in the Premier League, Zaki faded away. He spent most of the rest of his career back in Egypt but did return to England briefly with Hull City. Unfortunately, he never showed the same brilliance that made him a cult hero in the eyes of many.
Essien was one of the best midfielders in the world during his time with Chelsea. A ferocious, marauding presence in the center of the grass field, the Ghanaian was unstoppable at full drive. He was one of Jose Mourinho’s most trusted lieutenants but suffered multiple injuries later in his Premier League career. After a while, the team allowed him to go to Real Madrid on loan before he just faded away.
Even though Essien had made enough money to retire, he still loved soccer. So he continued to play, but embarked on a nomadic career that took him around the world. He featured for the Greek giants Panathinaikos after a short spell with A.C Milan. Then he moved to Indonesia with Bali United. Finally, he played a single season in Azerbaijan of all places. Essien just couldn’t hang up his cleats.
Another player who made an incredible but unsustainable impact in the Premier League, Michu joined Swansea in 2012. The Welsh team paid less than three million dollars for his services but his goal return was incredible. He scored 22 in his first season and helped the Swans to cup glory. However, it was a case of one and done for the Spaniard because he failed to produce similar results again.
He lasted for one more season in the U.K. but only contributed six more goals. Italian giants Napoli swooped for him but he failed to impress in Naples. After that, he returned to his native Spain and played in their Segunda division. It was a fall from grace from a player who looked like a world-beater when he first broke onto the scene. In the end, he was just another player who faded away after a great start.
The younger brother of English star Rio Ferdinand, Anton enjoyed a lengthy career too. However, he never reached the same lofty heights as Rio. Despite this, he was a Premier League player for a lengthy period of time with the likes of West Ham United and Sunderland. A racism scandal with John Terry, he daded away and ended up in Turkey with Bursaspor. Then he signed a deal to play with Bangkok side Police United.
Ferdinand drifted from club to club after this. He played in England’s lower leagues with the likes of Southend. Finally, he moved to St. Mirren in Scotland where he saw the end of his career. It was a nomadic ending to a career that offered a lot of promise. To say he underachieved is unfair because his path was simply different from his brother’s, yet Ferdinand was a good player in his own right.
It’s easy to forget that Teixeira exists because he never played in the Premier League. But he came very close because Jurgen Klopp wanted to make the Brazilian one of his first signings for Liverpool. The German was desperate to inject some attacking flair into his side and saw the then-Shakhtar Donetsk forward as the perfect man. However, Teixeira’s pricetag put him off and Liverpool stepped back.
Then the Chinese Super League blew everybody else out of the water with a massive bid for Teixeira. Liverpool was definitely not prepared to pay the outrageous sum of money they threw at the Ukrainian champions. In the end, it was a case of what could have been for Teixeira. He placed money over glory and spent the prime of his career with Jiangsu Suning. Meanwhile, his reputation faded away.
Bothroyd broke out in 2010 with Cardiff after a career that took him to Italy and back to the U.K. He became the first Championship player to receive an England cap for years that season. This was highly unusual and the media focused on him. It also convinced Queens Park Rangers to sign him the following year, yet the move was disastrous for Bothroyd. He only scored five goals in two seasons for QPR and was a total bust.
After this, he faded away into obscurity. He arrived in the Premier League as a high-profile signing and looked ready to take the next step. But after a short spell in the Championship with Sheffield United, he moved to Thailand with Muangthong United. He enjoyed his time in Asia and continued it with Japan. Bothroyd played for two years with Jubilo Iwata before moving to the wintry island of Hokkaido with Sapporo.
This Senegalese striker broke out as one of the most scintillating strikers on the planet. He arrived from Freiburg in January 2012 and quickly made an incredible impact. Cisse scored a fantastic volley on his debut and had the entire league talking about him. Then there was a phenomenal goal against Chelsea as he bent the ball into the net with the outside of his foot.
However, nothing lasts forever. Cisse lost his strike partner Demba Ba and his own form declined. Finally, he left for the Chinese Superleague with Shandong Luneng. It was an easy way to make some millions before the end of his career. It also meant that his profile faded away. Most people didn’t realize that he later spent time with two clubs in Turkey. Cisse was capable of scoring fabulous goals.
One of the stars of the World Cup in South Africa, Sunderland signed Gyan in 2010. In the beginning, it looked like a great deal for the Black Cats. He scored two goals on his debut and was in electric form before a hamstring injury ended his season. But then Emirati team Al-Ain swooped for the Ghanaian star. They offered to take him on loan and quadruple his salary. Furthermore, they paid Sunderland a hefty loan fee.
It was a shame because Gyan was genuinely excellent for Sunderland but fans never saw him play for them again. After his loan spell ended, Al-Ain signed him permanently. Gyan further enhanced his mercenary reputation with a move to China with Shanghai SIPG. He faded away into obscurity after this as he played for teams in the UAE, India, and his native Ghana.
This one is a real blast from the past. Back in 2000, Lazio was one of the strongest and richest sides in Europe. They had their eye on Gaizka Mendieta, one of the brightest talents on the continent at the time. He had played an instrumental role in helping Valencia to consecutive Champion’s League Semifinals.
Lazio was happy to fork out $50 million for him. That might seem standard by today’s crazy transfers, but in the early 2000s that was definitely an outrageous sum of money. Anyway, an expensively-assembled Lazio side failed to gel and he was sent to Barcelona. That didn’t work out either and he ended up at Middlesbrough. Finally, he faded away and everybody forgot about him.
The man, the myth, the legend. Has there ever been a soccer player who has fallen victim to his own misplaced self-confidence like Nicklas Bendtner? He saw himself as the Danish Zlatan Ibrahimovic when the truth is he’s really not as good as he thinks he is. This is a man who once scored 10 on a confidence test that was only graded up to nine.
Bendtner had a few big moments at Arsenal but never lit the Emirates on fire. He’d have loan spells at Sunderland and bizarrely at Juventus. Eventually, he was released by Arsenal and went on a nomadic journey around Europe. Now he’s back in his native Denmark with FC Copenhagen. After a fantastic start to life as a professional, he faded away and became a caricature of himself.
Apart from upsetting Newcastle United fans, what did Owen really achieve in his career? It all went wrong when he left Liverpool for Real Madrid. He never settled in Spain and desperately wanted to return to England. When the Reds failed to try and bring him back, he ended up on Tyneside.
Injuries would wrack him for the remainder of his career. He never regained a semblance of his form as a teenager when he was one of the most exciting young players on the planet. He’d be a squad option for Manchester United and Stoke City. That was about as good as it got for the former England international.
Kewell had all the skills, but his body let him down. The Australia international was phenomenal for Leeds, where he won the PFA Young Player of the Year. He’d also help his side to the semifinals of the FA Cup and Champion’s League. That attracted the attention of Liverpool, who was in the market for a creative winger.
Kewell started well but soon became afflicted by injuries. Over the course of his five years with the club, he’d spend the majority of the time on the treatment table. While he would win a Champion’s League at Anfield, he was taken off before halftime because of an injury, so he could take little personal satisfaction from that result. After this, his career prospects faded away.
Ryan Babel was instantly compared to Thierry Henry when he arrived at Liverpool, but he failed to live up to that promise. The Dutch forward never settled in one position, which affected his confidence. He did have some great moments, including a winning goal against Manchester United. However, a series of inconsistent performances led to him leaving the Premier League and he faded away.
Babel would go on a nomadic career that saw him play in Germany, Turkey, the UAE, Spain, and England again. He reignited his career at ailing Fulham in 2018/19. Although the Cottagers suffered relegation, a series of impressive performances saw Babel get snapped up by Galatasary and recalled by the Dutch squad.
At the age of 14, Freddy Adu was being called the next Pele. He was the youngest player ever signed to a professional contract by a US team and looked like he had the world at his feet. That’s not exactly the way it has turned out for the Ghana-born midfielder, who has played for 14 different teams.
It’s crazy but it’s true. Adu has never settled at any of the clubs he played for and doesn’t appear to have the discipline to succeed at a big club. Now he’s playing for the Las Vegas Lights in the USL. Even wilder is the fact that he’s still just 30 years old. It’s sad that after such a great start his prospects faded away.
Tons of fans know about the case of David Bentley. He was meant to be the next David Beckham. Over the course of two years at Blackburn Rovers, he lit up the Premier League with dazzling displays. This drew the admiration of the biggest clubs in the division. Somehow, he ended up at Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham Hotspurs.
Things never took off for Bentley at Spurs. He failed to recapture his Blackburn Rovers form and lost the trust of the manager. After a couple of loan spells in the Championship, he moved back to Blackburn but had fallen out of love with the game. Bentley retired at the age of 29. Now, he runs a series of nightclubs and restaurants after his soccer career faded away.
Robinho was always on the edge of greatness. The Brazilian forward had attitude problems throughout his career that have prevented him from becoming the player that he could have been. He’s played for Real Madrid and Manchester City, two of the biggest clubs in the world, but never achieved the success he could have.
Although he had his moments in a white shirt, fans weren’t upset when Robinho left the Bernebeu. He was meant to signal in a new era at Manchester City. While he started well, inconsistency and a lack of respect for manager Mark Hughes saw it all fall apart. He’d end up playing back in his native Brazil and faded away into obscurity. Robinho had the ability to be a megastar but never capitalized on it.
Dutchman Affelay is most famous for looking like a 12-year-old. He spent eight seasons in the Eredivisie with PSV Eindhoven, helping them to a series of trophies over that time. Soon, the European giants came sniffing and Barcelona made their move on one of the most exciting prospects of the time.
Injuries would wreck his hopes of making it at Camp Nou. Affelay would end up having loan spells in Germany and Greece before finally being released by the Catalans. He’d then have a couple of unhappy seasons with Stoke City in the Premier League. Now he’s back where it all began with PSV.
Born to a Croatian father and Spanish mother, Bojan is most noteworthy for breaking through at Barcelona as a 17-year-old. He broke Lionel Messi’s record and the comparisons were instantaneous. For a while, it looked like he would be able to live up to them, but that was ultimately not the case.
After four seasons at Camp Nou, he was sold to Roma, who in turn sent him to AC Milan on loan. A nomadic career began with spells at Stoke City, Ajax, Mainz, and Alaves at various stages. Now he’s in the MLS playing for the Montreal Impact. It’s a fact that Bojan didn’t achieve all that he could have and faded away from the big leagues.
There was a time when Maicon was arguably the best right-back on the planet. He was so good for Inter Milan that he was first-choice for Brazil too, keeping Dani Alves out of the first team lineup. Then along came a Welsh winger named Gareth Bale, who ripped him apart in a career-defining game.
It wasn’t the end for Maicon, but his reputation suffered from then on. He’d eventually move to Manchester City, where he’d serve as a squad option. The Brazilian never looked convincing in the Premier League and there was every sense that he was a broken man. After this, his career faded away.
When Alexandre Pato broke through at AC Milan, he was instantly compared to Brazilian legends like Ronaldo, Romario, and Kaka. He was the club’s top scorer in 2009 and looked to be on the fast track to superstardom. Unfortunately, Pato was unable to maintain that momentum. Injuries would stall his progress before he moved back to Brazil with Corinthians.
He had a second chance in Europe with Chelsea when he came in on a six-month loan. Apart from scoring a penalty on his debut, Pato did nothing. Now Pato is playing for his hometown club, Sao Paulo. He could have been so much more. It’s unfortunate because he faded away after an exceptional start to life as a professional soccer player.
Every now and then a new player comes along who is supposed to be soccer’s next big thing. Enter Petersen. It might seem crazy now, but this man was one of German football’s great hopes during his time at Energie Cottbus. Needless to say, Bayern Munich snapped him up as soon as he became available.
Petersen wasn’t ready to play at the highest level. He was unable to handle the pressure and hadn’t developed enough to threaten for a starting place in the squad. First-team opportunities were few and far between. Overall, his signing was a total failure. He’s currently with Freiburg as his reputation faded away.
Sahin was an integral cog in Borussia Dortmund’s midfield under Jurgen Klopp. The Turkish midfielder was superb at controlling the game. Eventually, Real Madrid came calling and Sahin found it impossible to resist that temptation. He’d make the big move to the Bernebeu, but it would go bad thereafter.
His career spiraled downwards as he only played eight games for the Spanish team. Sahin would be shipped out on loan to Liverpool but that didn’t work out either. He’d find himself back with Dortmund but was never the same player. That’s a warning sign if ever there was one.
This one is a bit harsh because he’s still so young and finally starting to play well. Odegaard broke onto the scene in Norway as a 15-year-old. The teenager was actually starting games for his country and straight away, half of Europe put in bids for him. A precocious, technically-skilled talent, it’s no wonder why they wanted him.
Odegaard made the fateful decision of signing with Real Madrid. Now, we’re not sure if that’s the smartest move. After all, this team is nicknamed the Galacticos. Their identity literally hangs around them signing big-name players for massive amounts of money. So far Odegaard hasn’t broken into the Real Madrid team, but he does have time on his side.
Imagine being told that someone wants you to replace Robert Lewandowski. That’s exactly the position that Italian soccer player Immobile found himself in. Lewandowski was incredibly prolific for Borrusia Dortmund before going onto Bayern Munich. Meanwhile, Immobile had been excellent for Torino in Serie A.
Italian football is very different from the German style of play. This was a case of a good player in the wrong system and the wrong league for his talents. Immobile would only last for a season in Germany. Far-off hills are not always greener. Now Immobile is back in Serie A with Lazio.
If injuries hadn’t decimated Cole, there’s a good chance we’d be talking about him as one of the greatest English players of his generation. Steven Gerrard even compared his technical ability to Lionel Messi. Cole had great dribbling skills. His low center of gravity and ability with the ball made him a defender’s nightmare.
After a successful few years with Chelsea, Cole moved to Liverpool on a free transfer to try and reignite his career after numerous injuries. First, he got sent off in his debut. Then he totally failed to make a positive impact on the pitch. That was the end for Cole as he went on a nomadic career that would end with the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
There was a time when Vidic was the best defender on the planet. Think about Virgil Van Dijk’s influence on Liverpool. Vidic filled that same role for Manchester United. The Serbian was as consistent and brilliant as they come, except when he played against Fernando Torres.
When he finally left United for Inter Milan, the Serbian was a shadow of himself. He struggled to cope with the change of pace in Serie A and made a number of mistakes at the San Siro. Consequently, Vidic would end up making just a few appearances before retiring. He had an amazing career, there’s no denying that. But in the end, Vidic faded away. That’s not hating on him, it’s just a fact.
Every year there’s some striker who is consistently linked with a big-money move to a high-profile club. But it never comes. Jackson Martinez found himself in that situation at FC Porto. The Colombian tore up the Portuguese league and finally sealed a move to an elite club when he joined Atletico Madrid.
It looked like a match made in heaven. Atletico has had some brilliant strikers over the years and Martinez had the goodwill of fans behind him. However, he was never able to settle and replicate his goal-scoring exploits for Porto. Now he’s playing for the Chinese club, Guangzhou Evergrande. After this, his profile faded away but at least he made millions of dollars.
Sanches was meant to be European football’s next big thing. It hasn’t turned out that way for him so far. He had an incredible Euro 2016 campaign, winning the Golden Boy award and attracting the attention of big clubs across the continent. Eventually, Sanches would move to big-spending Bayern Munich.
Unfortunately, he was unable to settle in Bavaria. The Germans decided to send him out on loan and let him gain some valuable experience. He moved to Swansea City in the Premier League. It was an absolute shambles. He made no impact and would end up leaving Munich permanently for Lille in 2019.
During his time with Liverpool, Torres was arguably the best striker on the planet. He possessed a devastating pace and brilliant finishing. So in 2011, he broke Reds’ hearts and moved to Chelsea for £50 million. It was a shocking transfer, but many believed it would leave Chelsea untouchable at the top of the league.
That’s not what happened. Injuries affected Torres’s pace and a lack of confidence overtook him. Sure, he did have some iconic moments including his Champion’s League goal against Barcelona. However, it was a far cry from what Chelsea fans expected. One of the saddest declines we’ve seen in football. Finally, he ended his career in Japan.
Yes, you probably forgot that Jovetic even played for Manchester City. When he played for Fiorentina in Italy, he absolutely terrorized Serie A defenses. The attacking midfielder was linked to teams all across Europe and eventually joined the big-spending Citizens. However, that’s as good as it got for him in the Premier League.
To sum up, Jovetic was just too lightweight for the tempo of English football. He scored 8 goals in 35 appearances, but that wasn’t what City was expecting from him. Eventually, they gave up and lent him to Inter Milan. That triggered procession of moves for the Montenegro international. Now, he’s playing in Ligue 1 with Monaco. After a bright start, he faded away.
Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Depay was supposed to be Manchester United’s next young superstar, but that’s not what happened. The Dutchman carved out a great reputation for himself in the Eredivisie. France Football Magazine even called him the best young soccer player in the world.
Then, Depay moved to United and it all went downhill. The Dutchman failed to gain the trust of his coaches. Furthermore, his role in the team was never clearly defined. Many also questioned the Dutchman’s lifestyle. Finally, United lost patience and let him leave. Depay has reignited his career at Lyon. There may be hope for him yet.
Cole might just be the most underrated English soccer player ever. The former Arsenal and Chelsea left-back had a distinguished Premier League. When he was in his prime you could argue that he was the best left-back in the world. His attitude just turned the media off of him.
After cementing his legacy as a Chelsea legend, Cole decided to make the move to Roma in 2014. However, it definitely didn’t work out as he hoped. First of all, there was that infamous team photo where the Englishman is standing a foot away from the rest of the squad. Finally, it didn’t get much better on the pitch, as he only played 14 times. Basically, he was way past his prime.
Belgian defender Vermaelen had a couple of magnificent seasons for Arsenal. He moved to Barcelona in 2014 and many thought that the Catalans had secured a coup. On paper, he looked a perfect fit for the La Liga giants. Possessing great passing and defensive skills, it had all the makings of a brilliant transfer.
There’s no doubting Vermaelan’s class, but sadly it hasn’t worked out for him. First of all, his injury record is diabolical. As a result, he was never able to assert himself in the team. Injuries affected the tempo of Vermaelan’s play and he tended to be more error-prone than in his Arsenal days. He tended to be error-prone when he did play. It was sad to see because he was so talented but he faded away.
The only Belarus player you’ve ever heard of, Hleb was excellent for Arsenal. He was highly effective under Arsene Wenger and even attracted the attention of Barcelona. The Catalan side swooped for the playmaker in a highly random transfer that not many people saw coming.
However, it definitely didn’t really work out for Hleb. Sure, he was part of a superb squad and definitely earned a lot of money, but he didn’t make much of an impression at the Nou Camp. He was never more than a squad player and would eventually move back to the Premier League with Birmingham. To sum up, this was definitely a strange one as he faded away.
Mkhitaryan is one-half of one of the worst transfer deals in Premier League history. He moved to Arsenal from Manchester United, with Alexis Sanchez going the other way. In short, both teams thought that they were getting the better deal. Neither of them has worked out at all.
Mkhitaryan was superb in the Bundesliga for Borussia Dortmund. Above all, the Armenian showed a great eye for goal and was brilliant at linking play. However, he’s just a bit too light for the Premier League and was unable to assert himself in games for Arsenal. Just what they needed: another lightweight attacking midfielder.
One of the most confusing players of all time, we still don’t know exactly how good Ozil is. He was highly effective for Real Madrid, so much so that Ronaldo was furious when he left. His reputation in La Liga meant that expectations were high when he came to Arsenal.
Hence, it’s fair to say that he did not live up to expectations. On his day, Ozil is beautiful to watch. Excellent on the ball, and capable of splitting the lines, he’s got that visionary ability. However, his days are few and far between. It probably doesn’t help that he played for a team in permanent transition, but there’s a good reason why so many fans think he’s a flop. Now he’s in Turkey after his Premier League hopes faded away.
Tottenham Hotspurs thought that they had secured a coup when they signed Soldado from Valencia. The Spanish international had torn up La Liga. In short, they thought that he was going to be the man to bring them to the next level. Too bad that that didn’t turn out to be the case.
This is one of those inexplicable situations where a player suddenly goes from being incredible to looking like a donkey. As a result, Soldado suddenly lost confidence and his goal-scoring touch during a horrible couple of seasons in London. Eventually, he’d move on to Villareal. Injuries would further decimate his career and he just faded away.
There was a time when Sanchez was one of the most exciting attackers on the planet. The Chilean international lit up the Premier League during his early days with Arsenal. He would score 30 goals in his best season in the club and would win the Copa America with his country. That seems a long time ago now.
After losing inspiration with Arsenal, he decided to push for a move to their rivals Manchester United. It was a terrible decision. Although he made a fortune in wages, Sanchez was an absolute flop. In short, he became alienated from the team and fell way down the pecking order. He was moved to Inter Milan.