FIFA U17 World Cup: African Wonderkids who never realised their potential
The FIFA Under-17 World Cup presents an ideal opportunity for football fans to catch a first glimpse of the superstars of tomorrow, with the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Toni Kroos and John Obi Mikel all announcing themselves at the tournament before achieving success at the highest levels of the game.
However, for every Mikel, who enjoyed a decade at Chelsea after emerging at Finland 2003, there have been plenty of other prospects who burned brightly at U-17 level, but failed to translate that early promise into a successful senior career.
Perhaps the most high-profile African wonderkid who never realised the potential he demonstrated at youth level is Nii Lamptey, who appeared destined for the very top when he scored four in Italy ’91, as Ghana won their first U-17 title.
The youngster boasted sublime pace, technique, agility, dribbling ability, and perhaps most importantly, he could finish, outshining the likes of Alessandro Del Piero and Juan Sebastian Veron at the 1991 tournament to prompt some lofty parallels.
Pele had hailed Lamptey as his ‘natural successor’ after his performances at the U-16 finals in Scotland, and the forward led Ghana to the U-20 Africa Cup of Nations title in 1993, Bronze at the 1992 Olympics, and the final of the 1993 World Youth Championships.
“That guy played like a demon back then,” Ghana assistant coach Maxwell Konadu, who played alongside Lamptey at the ’92 Olympics, told ESPN.
“You were on the same pitch as him, he’d take the ball, and you’d see how quick he moves, it was so amazing.
“He is one of the finest players that Ghana has ever produced. He was extremely quick on the ball, and for that, nobody comes close to him, at his peak, he was the best.”
By 1991, Lamptey had already been signed by Belgian giants Anderlecht following a recommendation from Nigeria great Stephen Keshi, who had smuggled the Ghanaian talent into the country after passing him off as a relative.
He appeared to have the football world at his feet.
After a productive spell with Anderlecht, and then a successful loan to PSV, things began to go downhill after he joined Ron Atkinson’s Aston Villa, in a move that appeared ill-conceived from the start.
“I personally think that his style of play was ok in Belgium, Netherlands and the likes,” Konadu added, “but back then, English football was very [direct], and I wondered how he would survive there.
“When he moved to England, I wasn’t happy, I wanted him to stay in Belgium, [or] in the Netherlands and succeed there. He could have made it much, much bigger.”
Lamptey struggled to settle into English football, and his decline continued at Coventry as he rejoined Atkinson, before moving on to Italy, Argentina, Turkey, Portugal, Germany and elsewhere.
The attacker’s failure to realise his potential cannot simply be attributed to his inability to adapt to life in England; Pele’s own lofty praise surely created unrealistic expectations, while Lamptey’s adult life was also mottled by exploitative agents and personal tragedy.
He’s not the only Ghanaian player to have starred at U-17 level only to fail to make the step up; Daniel Addo and Ishmael Addo also flattered to deceive in the senior game.
The former won the Golden Ball as Player of the Tournament in the 1993 edition in Japan, while the latter was top scorer in New Zealand six years later in a team that contained Michael Essien.
Daniel, a winner alongside Lamptey in 1991, spent a decade in Europe after leaving Great Olympics for Bayer Leverkusen, but failed to make the grade with Die Werkself and dropped into the second tier with Fortuna Dusseldorf.
Nonetheless, he’d go on to make 27 appearances for Ghana, finishing fourth at the 1996 Afcon.
Despite demonstrating his goalscoring quality at the ’99 event, netting seven goals as the West Africans finished third, the fleet-footed Ishmael’s best days would be with Hearts of Oak in his homeland, where he was top scorer for three consecutive seasons.
However, Ismael had appeared destined for more glittering heights, moving to Europe in 2002, initially on loan at SC Bastia, and then permanently to Israel’s Maccabi Netanya.
He attracted the interest of Maccabi Tel Aviv, and represented them in the Champions League, but returned to Ghana after only four years away after failing to establish himself with the Yellow Ones.
Addo, nicknamed the ‘Baby-faced Assassin’, only managed nine Ghana caps during his career, an underwhelming return for a player who had once outgunned his peers at U-17 level.
Following in Addo’s footsteps, 12 years later, was Ivorian forward Souleymane Coulibaly, who equalled Florent Sinama Pongolle’s record for goals scored in a single edition of the tournament when he scored nine at Mexico 2011.
It wasn’t enough to take the Ivory Coast beyond France in the Round of 16, but it catapulted Coulibaly to relative stardom and, amidst interest from Real Madrid, a move to Tottenham Hotspur.
He was subsequently dubbed the ‘New Drogba’, even though his playing style was entirely different from his compatriot.
“They started calling me the new Drogba after the Under-17 World Cup,” he told BBC Sport, having signed for Kilmarnock following his release by Peterborough United, “but he is a legend and it would just be nice just to meet him.”
In subsequent years, Coulibaly spent 18 months on the sidelines due to a legal dispute emanating from a troubled spell in Egypt with Al-Ahly, while injuries have also affected his progress.
“It was quite hard for me, as at the time Didier was an idol, everyone wanted to be him,” the striker told Planet Football earlier this year. “It was tough for me as I don’t want to compare myself to [anyone].
“I am Souleymane Coulibaly, I know my own qualities, I know what I can do.
“Mexico in 2011, I can never forget, It was the best ever,” he added. “To score nine goals in four games is unbelievable.
“I got Golden Boot, Young African Player of the Year in 2011, so that was my best moment.”
Now 24, Coulibaly currently represents Tunisian giants Etoile du Sahel, but appears unlikely to ever enjoy the kind of career trajectory that once appeared to await him.
No team has enjoyed more success in the U-17 World Cup than Nigeria, who have clinched five titles (including the current tournament’s predecessor, the U-16 World Championship).
However, as the Golden Eaglets have demonstrated more than most, success at youth level doesn’t always translate into a long and prosperous club career.
Neither Macauley Chrisantus, top scorer in 2007, or Sani Emmanuel, the Player of the Tournament two years later, settled at a major European club, and ultimately both had nomadic careers in which they never came close to emulating their World Cup form.
Emmanuel, who moved to Lazio in 2010, hasn’t played professionally since 2015, with officials at his last club – Oskarshamns AIK – complaining about his time-keeping and fitness record, and he never represented Nigeria beyond U-20 level.
Chrisantus, who was once reportedly attracting interest from the likes of Chelsea, Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur, is currently playing in Iran.
He later blamed the significant turnover of managers at his first European club, Hamburg, for failing to establish himself in Germany, although he did go on to score 20 in 67 for Las Palmas.
For Nigeria’s subsequent U-17 World Cup stars, fortunes have been mixed, although it remains too early to make sweeping post-mortems of their careers.
It’s poignant that, as the tournament kicks off again, Kelechi Iheanacho finds himself in such a slump at Leicester City, where he’s yet to feature in the Premier League this season.
Despite netting eight goals in his first season at Manchester City, having scored seven as Nigeria won the title in the United Arab Emirates in 2013, Iheanacho was deemed surplus to requirements at the Etihad Stadium under Pep Guardiola, and has scored just four league goals in his two seasons at the King Power Stadium.
Any hopes that the arrival of Brendan Rodgers could have revived the forward’s fortunes appear slim in light of the attacker’s ongoing inactivity.
Kelechi Nwakali and Victor Osimhen, the stars of Nigeria’s victorious campaign in Chile four years ago, took different routes after that success, with the former opting for a high-profile switch to Arsenal while the latter joined the more modest Wolfsburg.
Today, it’s Osimhen who’s thriving, having made his Champions League debut earlier this season and scored seven in 10 Ligue 1 outings for new club LOSC Lille. He also scored his first goal for the Super Eagles earlier this year.
Nwakali, by contrast, was allowed by Arsenal to leave for Spanish Segunda side Huesca in September, having failed to make a single appearance for the Gunners.
Is he to become the next U-17 star who never truly builds on the success he showed at the tournament?