As football fans, we often make a big deal out of the fact that some of the sport’s very bests teams and players often fall flat in their attempts to reach the top of the game; preferring to highlight what they failed to achieve throughout their careers over what they did achieve.
Take England’s ‘Golden Generation’, for example - the crop of English players that began to flourish sometime around the turn of the millennium, such as Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen, John Terry and Frank Lampard, to name a few. That star-studded squad were viewed as England’s best chance of winning an international tournament for the first time since the 1966 World Cup. Yet, while the vast majority of the Golden Generation thrived at club level, they fell flat in each and every international event that they featured in.
It’s a similar case for Steven Gerrard at Liverpool. The retired skipper was once viewed as one of greatest midfielders in the game, finishing third in the 2005 Ballon d’Or rankings behind Brazilian icon Ronaldinho and England teammate Frank Lampard. Yet, much has been made of the fact that Gerrard was never able to guide Liverpool to the Premier League trophy.
The same goes for Lionel Messi. The Barcelona star is widely regarded as the greatest player of all time. Yet, his failure to dominate on the international stage with Argentina is one of his few shortcomings, with many using this to suggest that he isn’t even Argentina’s greatest ever player, due to the success that Diego Maradona brought to the national team.
Yet, while we’re busy bickering over brilliant players that failed to achieve, we often forget to celebrate the unknown, unused and often terrible players that won major titles (which they probably didn’t deserve…).
José Kléberson: 2002 FIFA World Cup
22-year-old Kléberson made his international debut in January 2002 and within six months he was on the plane to South Korea with the likes of Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo and Ronaldo to take part in the hugely prestigious World Cup tournament.
During his first four years as a professional footballer, with Brazilian Championship side Atlético Paranaense, he had proved himself to be a capable backup player, should Luiz Felipe Scolari need him. However, after making his first start at the tournament in the quarter-final clash with England, in which he played a vital part in Brazil’s equalising goal, he was soon one of the first names on Scolari’s team sheet.
Brazil went on to win the tournament and Kleberson had attracted the attention of some of the world’s biggest clubs, including Barcelona and Manchester United. The following summer saw the Brazilian join the Premier League heavyweights alongside fellow up-and-comer Cristiano Ronaldo.
Both were tipped to achieve big things, but while one went on to win multiple Ballon d’Or awards, the other suffered an injury in his second Manchester United appearance and went on to make just 18 more over the course of two seasons, before embarking on a journeyman career across Turkey, Brazil and the United States.
Djimi Traore: 2005 UEFA Champions League
25th May 2005 was one of the greatest nights in Liverpool Football Club’s long history. Yet, it could have been one of the worst, had cult hero Djimi Traore had his way.
The Malian defender joined the Premier League side from French club Stade Lavallois back in 1999 as a promising 19-year-old, with the hope that he would develop into a top player. However, his career failed to take off under Gérard Houllier, who eventually banished him to the reserves.
With a move to local rivals Everton on the cards, the arrival of Rafa Benitez would offer him a second chance to impress at Liverpool. He became a regular during the 2004/05 season, making 39 appearances throughout. However, his displays weren’t without mistakes.
An own goal in the third round of the FA Cup saw Liverpool dumped out of the competition by then Championship club Burnley and he made a similar mess of things in the Champions League final, as a gave away a foul which led to AC Milan’s opening goal in the first minute of play.
Liverpool went on to recover, coming from three goals behind to force a penalty shootout which they eventually won, handing Djimi Traore a Champions League winners’ medal that he didn’t exactly deserve.
Mario Balotelli: 2010 UEFA Champions League
There have been plenty of ups and downs throughout Mario Balotelli’s career. Yet, despite the bags of potential that he undoubtedly possesses, he has always let himself down with a poor attitude, lacklustre displays and often insane off-field antics.
This has often led many to state that he will never achieve what he could have within the game. Yet, it is often forgotten that Balotelli has already won a handful of the world’s most acclaimed awards.
In fact, Balotelli has multiple league titles to his name, including the three that he picked up during his first spell with Inter Milan between 2007 and 2010, as well as the Premier League title that he won with Manchester City in the 2011/12 season. However, his most prized possession is undoubtedly his Champions League medal, won during the 2009/10 season when Jose Mourinho guided Inter to a historic treble, winning Serie A, the Coppa Italia and the Champions League.
The feat means that Balotelli has more Champions League medals than Ronaldo, Dennis Bergkamp, Diego Maradona and Zlatan Ibrahimovic combined.
Royston Drenthe: 2007/08 La Liga
Once promising winger Royston Drenthe is often referred to as the ‘Dutch Balotelli’. However, Drenthe was the Balotelli before Balotelli and took passing up his potential to a whole new level by playing himself out of the professional game altogether.
The unpredictable character started his career with Eredivisie side Feyenoord, where it nearly came to an end before it began after some questionable behaviour on a trip to Switzerland forced reserve coach Marcel Bout to call for his contract to be cut short. However, he stayed on at the club and eventually made it into the first-team.
Following some spectacular performances at the 2007 U21 European Championship, Drenthe was subject to interest from Real Madrid, who soon snapped him up after he threatened Feyenoord with legal action should they turn down the offer.
Drenthe won his first major trophy in his first season, helping Real Madrid to claim the La Liga title. Although, his career would be downhill from there, as he quickly lost the support of the Bernabeu crowd, played himself out of the squad and began a downward spiral that took him to clubs such as Abu Dhabi’s Baniyas Club, Russia’s Spartak Vladikavkaz and second tier Turkish side Kayseri Erciyesspor, all before his 30th birthday.
With little hope left of turning his football career around, Drenthe turned his attention to the hip-hop scene, releasing rap music under the name ‘Roya2Faces’.
Claudio Borghi: 1986 FIFA World Cup
This Argentine was once viewed as the heir to Diego Maradona’s throne back in the 1980s. As you can probably guess, he never did quite reach the heights of the footballing icon.
Borghi had been playing for Argentinos Juniors in the Argentine Primera Division, the nation’s top flight, as a youngster throughout the early 80s, and after helping the club to claim back-to-back league titles in 1984 and 1985, Borghi was called up to the Argentina squad for the 1986 World Cup tournament to play alongside world-beater Maradona.
Competing for the attacking midfielder role with Maradona, Borghi made just one appearance in that tournament, but went home with a medal after Argentina trumped West Germany in the final.
Borghi’s performances for Argentinos Juniors would eventually earn him a move to AC Milan in 1987, where it at first appeared that he would become a part of Arrigo Sacchi’s historic squad, playing alongside the likes of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Paolo Maldini. However, foreign player rules forced Borghi out of the squad in his first season, before the arrival of Frank Rijkaard the following year saw him fall further down the pecking order.
Borghi departed back to South America a year after joining AC Milan, having failed to make an appearance for the club, and disappeared into football’s shadows - yet he still boasts more World Cup wins than Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard.
David May: 1999 UEFA Champions League
Former Manchester United man David May boasts one of the most impressive games to trophies ratios in the game, having claimed approximately one winner’s medal for every 12 appearances that he made for the Premier League club.
All in all, May’s haul includes two Premier League titles, two FA Cups, two Community Shields and, best of all, a Champions League winner’s medal. He achieved all of those honours having featured in just 85 matches throughout his nine year spell at the club.
That isn’t to say that May was a bad player - he was brought in by Sir Alex Ferguson from Blackburn Rovers to provide cover in defence and he did just that, stepping in when required until the emergence of Gary Neville ruled him surplus to requirements. Yet, it is still incredible that such a mediocre player departed the game with such a full trophy cabinet.
Bernard Diomede: 1998 FIFA World Cup
Bernard Diomede deserved his place in France’s 1998 World Cup squad, having proven himself as a worthy winger during his late teens and early 20s at Ligue 1 side AJ Auxerre, where he netted 30 goals in 176 appearances from a wide position.
Some decent performances in friendly games throughout 1998 had earned him a place in the squad that summer. Diomede made a good start, starting in three games for France during the early stages of the tournament. However, a change of formation forced Diomede out of the side, and his quarter-final appearance against Paraguay would prove to be his last for France.
Diomede’s performances earned him a move to Liverpool two years later, where he would score an overhead kick on his debut which was wrongly deemed to have not crossed the line. However, he would make just one other league appearance for the Premier League side before returning to his native France, bringing an end to his big break.
Luke Chadwick: 2000/01 Premier League
Having watched the famed Class of ‘92 rise out of the Manchester United academy and blossom into some of the club’s best ever players, being a youth player at the Premier League club in the years that followed must have offered plenty of hope and optimism.
Luke Chadwick was one such player who hoped to emulate their success, joining the Manchester United youth set-up aged 17 in 1997. By 1999 his chance came, as he was handed his first-team debut, and the following year saw him named as part of the club’s senior squad.
After spending the first half of the season on loan with Belgian club Royal Antwerp, Chadwick went on to make 19 appearances for Manchester United in the second half of the campaign, 15 of which came in the Premier League. This was enough to earn him a Premier League winner’s medal, as the club stormed to the title.
Chadwick hoped that it was the start of a brilliant career with the club. However, 10 appearances in the 2001/02 season, followed by four in the 2002/03 season, and it was soon clear that Chadwick wouldn’t become a Manchester United great.
Instead, he would make his way down the England league system, playing for Reading, Norwich, Milton Keynes, Cambridge United and Soham Town Rangers, before calling time on his disappointing career.
Roque Junior: 2002 FIFA World Cup
One of the many promising players in the triumphant Brazil squad at the 2002 World Cup that ultimately failed to take their careers to the next level, Roque Junior is best remembered for his time at Leeds United.Roque Junior’s talent was unearthed during his time at Palmeiras, where he made a name for himself as a club icon during his 200-game spell with the Brazilian side. Unsurprisingly, he was soon on his way to Europe to play for Italian giants AC Milan.
The next few years would prove to be the greatest in Roque Junior’s career, as he claimed the 2002 World Cup with Brazil, playing a vital part in keeping Germany at bay in the final, before claiming the 2002/03 Champions League title with Milan. However, a loan move to Premier League giants Leeds United would soon see his career come to a halt.
The centre-back was dismissed in his debut and it soon became clear that he was far from the player that had valiantly defended Brazil’s goal at the World Cup. He made just five appearances for Leeds, all of which resulted in defeat, while the club also conceded 20 goals in the process.
Unsurprisingly, after suffering relegation from the top flight, Leeds decided not to extend his stay and Roque Junior began his decent down the footballing ladder.