There are too many cases of promising young football players failing to achieve what their talent deserves. Jonny Boyle remembers a youngster that got Europe excited in 2004, along with a fresh-faced Wayne Rooney, but was tragically unable to realise his potential.
Remember Johan Vonlanthen? The 18 year-old Swiss striker who burst on to the scene in Euro 2004? The striker who, when notching against France in a 3-1 defeat in the group stages, became the youngest player ever to score in a European Championships – a record set just four days earlier by another fresh-faced teenage wonder-kid going by the name of Wayne Rooney?
Both strikers introduced themselves to the international stage with stand-out performances in Portugal, where Wayne Rooney sealed his £25.6m move to Manchester United. Johan Vonlanthen on the other hand, was a promising youngster who had already made his big (ish) European move for €704,000 to PSV Eindhoven in the summer of 2003.
Eight years ago, both Rooney and Vonlanthen looked to be the most impressive of a burgeoning group of emerging European talent. Now, one stands tall as a multi-trophy winning and international talisman while the other slumps with almost nothing.
Potential is a word which is often overused in football. On many occasions youth talent is swallowed up in to the brightly lit mouth of our beautiful game never to be seen again. Wayne Rooney is certainly not among that talent. Demonstrating ridiculous ability long before he scored ‘that’ goal against Arsenal in 2003, Rooney has developed his great potential to lead Manchester United to nine domestic trophies, including four Premier League titles, and three Champions League finals with a solitary win in 2008 against Chelsea. He’s starred for England at two European Championships and lead the line at World Cup’s in 2006 and 2010. He’s fulfilled promise to become Manchester – the red side anyway – and England’s main man.
Sadly, Johan Vonlanthen could have been all that too. Now, it’s difficult to say whether the Columbian born striker had the world-class ability to achieve what the Englishman has, but he certainly had the natural quality to achieve what his talent deserved. He had a career which appeared to be heading towards domestic and international glory after his goal against the Euro Championship holders, France, in 2004. A career expected of a young prodigy like Vonlanthen.
A small intense player, the multilingual machine combined short bursts with an inconsistent finishing touch. Which was a contributing factor to his use as a right midfielder at PSV rather than through the centre – a position he had naturally excelled in for Young Boys Berne in his adopted Switzerland. He had more established strikers like Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Mateja Kezman to contend with in his first season, but made encouraging contributions from the bench. His second campaign was much the same; making more sub appearances than starts, Vonlanthen was a handy impact player, but struggled to prove his worth as a regular starter for Guus Hiddink. A succession of loan moves followed to firstly Brescia, in Serie A, and then Eredivisie side, NAC Breda. However, the promise Vonlanthen had shown at Euro 2004 was gone, in PSV’s opinion anyway, and he approached the 2006 World Cup low on confidence and about to be struck down with the first of several significant injury setbacks.
In excruciating pain after his first training session with the national team, the 20 year-old was forced to withdraw from Kobi Kuhn’s squad. A torn hamstring had put an end to any chance of redemption and instead, Vonlanthen rested his way back to first-team football eventually making his return at new club, Red Bull Salzburg, in the Austrian Bundesliga. 11 goals and 85 appearances later, Austria proved to be another uninspiring stint in the forward’s career, and only a season-long loan move to Zurich reminded everyone of the Johan Vonlanthen which had so memorably made his name in 2004. His employers were unimpressed though and permanently placed the player on the transfer list, going as far as deciding not to assign him a squad number. International football was where he proved his worth though, with 7 goals in 40 impressive appearances, but even Switzerland didn’t want him as he failed to be called up for the World Cup in 2010. A series of knee injuries blighted Austrian life and when he was fit, he wasn’t firing. Now, almost club-less, would he move to pastures new, or again languish in another first-team unable to make the most of ‘that’ potential?
Unfortunately, it was the latter case. Moving to the place of his birth, Columbia – Vonlanthen began life in Switzerland when he was 13 – the now 25 year-old had another chance to get fit and find his form among familiar surroundings. However, with a knee as brittle as Shaun Ryder’s real teeth, he again broke down shortly after signing for Itagüí Fútbol Club and had his contract prematurely terminated six months after moving to the Columbian side.
It’s a heart-breaking story which gets even crueler when you realise that Johan Vonlanthen recently announced his retirement at the ripe old age of 26. Despite stating that he was “happy” and “…feeling very good right now”, the striker also said “I could not face the prospect of undergoing a knee operation.” a decision taking out of being physically and mentally tired of recurring injuries.
At 26, Wayne Rooney can look back on a career already filled with high and low-points as he navigates his way through life as a world-class striker at one of the biggest clubs on the planet. For Johan Vonlanthen, football gave so much in the beginning, but has been pitiless ever since.
As the former Swiss international refocuses on raising his son in his native Columbia, he may find himself overcome with disappointment, regret and what-if’s, but when he thinks back, to that day in October 2004 especially, he can look back on a career that he can ultimately be proud of.
For any promising youngster looking to make the step into European top-level football, there’s a lesson to be learned here; it’s a very fine line between having and realising your potential.
Make sure you’re on the right side of that line!
Are there any other high-profile examples of a talented player failing to fulfil his potential? Give us your thoughts on this article on twitter @beanroll or @talkingbaws. Alternatively you can comment below.