Van der Vaart was earmarked for greatness from very early on in his career. Having honed his skills on the streets of Amsterdam close to the trailer park he grew up in, he was scooped up by Ajax aged 10 and moulded into the technically excellent player who would leave them 12 years later for Hamburg. The Dutchman was a first-team regular by the age of 17 and won the Eredivisie twice, in 2002 and 2004, establishing himself as a goalscoring midfielder with 14 league strikes in 2001/02 and another 18 the following campaign (from an injury-curtailed total of just 41 appearances altogether). Those injuries took their toll. Van der Vaart’s stock fell before his surprising 2005 switch to Hamburg – much to Johan Cruyff’s disgust, among others – but his move to northern Germany was a wise one. In 2008 he was snapped up by Real Madrid for €13m, spent two trophyless seasons in the Spanish capital and then moved to Tottenham, where he was a popular figure for two campaigns before re-joining Hamburg. That was the beginning of the end: Van der Vaart was deteriorating at the same rate as his club, and they followed up a seventh-place finish in 2013 by twice almost getting relegated. A move to Real Betis was even worse – he barely featured and left the La Liga strugglers after a year. He’s now in his first season with Denmark's Esbjerg after a two-year spell with Midtjylland.
Oh, for these days again Wazza. Having followed up two seasons in Everton’s first team with an excellent Euro 2004 for England, it was only a matter of time before the country’s golden boy moved on to bigger things. Newcastle wanted him; Manchester United got him for a shade over £25m – at the time a record for a player under 20. Under Fergie’s wing he achieved a Premier League-best haul of 11 goals in his debut campaign, then followed that with 10 more seasons of double figures (including two above the 25-mark), firing United to five title wins and a Champions League trinket in the process. Major tournament success with England was always elusive, though, despite Rooney breaking the all-time scoring record in 2015 and becoming his country’s most-capped outfielder in September 2016. Both of those latter achievements only masked a worryingly slide, however: Rooney wasn’t quite right from the late Fergie years onwards.
“I’d never seen anything like it from a teenager,” cooed Fabio Capello after watching world football’s new boy wonder dismantle his experienced Juventus side in a 2005 pre-season friendly in Barcelona. “At the end of the game, I went up to Frank Rijkaard and asked to loan him for the season, because they already had three non-EU players [Messi was due to receive his Spanish passport the following month]. He just laughed and said: ‘No chance’.” He’d finally arrived properly. Barça already knew what they had in the pint-sized prodigy, of course, but now everyone else was seeing it too. Messi at this point wasn’t the free-scoring freak of today, but his dribbling skills dropped jaws and he was already considered among the world’s best when he was barely out of his teens. “Best in the world? I’m not even the best at Barça,” chuckled Brazilian great Ronaldinho to FFT in late 2005 – but he really wasn’t joking. The buck-toothed trickster’s brilliance was mesmeric but frustratingly fleeting, unlike Messi who's lasted the course and somehow got better with age. Nine La Liga titles with Barcelona and another four in the Champions League only tell a portion of the story for a player who's scored 560 goals in 646 games for his only club. At 31 he’s still just as frightening.
Chucked into Arsenal’s first team at 16 three years earlier, Fabregas became a regular in Arsene Wenger’s side from the following season onwards, playing alongside the seasoned likes of Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira. The Spaniard arguably goes down as Wenger’s greatest student to date; a player who was forced to take on a great weight of responsibility after Vieira’s departure to Juventus in 2005, and duly responded with consistently impressive performances. By the time of his Golden Boy win in 2006, aged 19, he was already over three-quarters of the way to 100 appearances in the Premier League. But the trophies never came. Fabregas had lifted the FA Cup in 2005 but didn’t get to taste success with Arsenal again, so returned home to Barcelona in 2011 to win La Liga (but not the Champions League) in 2013. His homecoming hardly went to plan, though, and a 2014 switch to Chelsea was right for all parties.
When you make your senior debut aged 15, people are going to expect a lot from you – just ask Freddy Adu, who played at the ludicrous age of 14. And when you score what might just be your club’s greatest-ever goal just two years later… well, you get the picture. Aguero did both of these things for Independiente before a €23m move to Atletico Madrid in 2006, where he continued his scary ascendency by replacing the Liverpool-bound Fernando Torres. A fine start to that 2007/08 season – he netted seven times in the first 11 games, including an opening-day effort against Real Madrid – proved good enough form to land him the Golden Boy crown. Since then he’s never failed to hit double figures for league goals. In his final campaign at Atleti, he struck 20, earning the Argentine a £38m move to Manchester City that’s proved brilliant value for money.
“Aaaaaan-deeerrrr-son, son, son, he is better than Kleberson…” went the chant at Old Trafford, to the tune of Black Lace’s 1984 nonsensical nightmare Agadoo. It was supposed to be a glowing tribute to better times (it also included a line about excrement on Cesc Fabregas, which didn’t turn out so well) – but over time it became clear that Anderson wasn’t going to live up to his carefree early days from Brazil. He was touted as the ‘new Ronaldinho’ after some scintillating early displays for Gremio in attacking midfield, which duly earned him a move to Porto – but it was a position and reputation which had long been forgotten by the end of his United career in 2015. Alex Ferguson was tempted by the Brazilian’s industry and fine technical ability when he paid around £20m for the then-19-year-old’s services in 2007, but Anderson was uncomfortable in his new role and barely troubled opposition goalkeepers like he used to – indeed, over 40 games passed before he scored his first goal. Injuries didn’t help his cause, and nor did the consistently brilliant Paul Scholes, who was simply a much better player and replaced his younger team-mate after reversing his decision to retire in 2012. In 2014, Anderson was loaned to Fiorentina (who decided against making the move permanent), before he finally ended his long affiliation with United for good with a return home to Brazil and Internacional in February 2015.
You wouldn’t have believed it looking at the unfit, past-it Brazilian who shuffled around occasionally for Chelsea in 2015/16, but Pato was once the talk of youth football during his early days at Internacional. Milan paid around £13m for him in 2007, and he responded with nine goals in his first 18 Serie A games. For the first four seasons, in fact, things were very good: though it took until his final good campaign of 2010/11 to win the title with Milan, the Brazilian had bagged 50 league goals in 102 games for the Rossoneri up to that point. But then came the injury problems. First, there was a thigh issue, then a muscle strain after an aborted move to PSG, then another thigh aggravation. It was the beginning of the end of Pato’s time at Milan: he joined Corinthians for €15m in 2013 and scored on debut, but his form soon suffered and he angered fans further with a dreadful Panenka penalty which knocked his team out of the Copa do Brasil. He threatened a revival with a temporary spell at Sao Paulo, but by the time he returned to Corinthians his parent club was desperate to get shot of a high-earning underperformer. That’s when Chelsea stepped in after Pato had turned down a mega-money move to China, but the Blues predictably elected not to snap him up permanently. Villarreal did in summer 2016, paying just €3m for 60% of his rights (oddly, Pato owns the other 40%). Eventually, he relented on China, joining Tianjin Quanjian in January 2017.
Flash cars, fireworks, darts, t-shirts, and trouble with training bibs: sadly for Balotelli, it’s these, and not his actual football, that he’s best remembered by. And yet back in 2010, it all looked so good. Sure, he arrived at Manchester City with a boyish reputation, but it was fun – and best of all he could play a bit too. Having hit 20 Serie A goals in 54 appearances before his 20th birthday, and made his Italy debut two days before his switch to Eastlands, Balotelli was proving himself as a refreshing young footballer who was backing up his chat on the pitch. After a speckled start at City – injury and suspension were married with sporadic goals – he won his Golden Boy award with typical grace, beating Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere to the trophy. “What's his name? Wil... ? No, I don't know him, but the next time I play against Arsenal I will keep a close eye on him,” said the Italian of his rival. “Perhaps I can show him the Golden Boy trophy and remind him that I won it.” Next in the firing line where the award’s former winners – well, almost all of them. “There's only one that is a little stronger than me: Messi. All the others are behind me. I’m delighted to receive the award, but who should have won it but me? Two years ago I finished sixth and then fourth in 2009. It was finally my turn. My aim is that this prize will transform itself into the Ballon d'Or. To have won this award is a good omen to achieve that.” Unfortunately for Balo, his performances on and off the pitch weren’t. He was sent packing to Milan when Roberto Mancini tired of his antics, first on loan and then permanently before Brendan Rodgers attempted to make the striker his pet project at Liverpool. He couldn’t, of course. “Joining Liverpool was the worst decision of my life,” Balotelli later rued.