Sometimes a scout’s job is easy. You spot a player so outrageously talented, so far above his peers that there seems no question or risk; it’s just whether you can get there first to sign him. The teenage Neymar and Sergio Aguero are examples from my own old notebooks of those about whom I sent ‘must-have’ reports, along with the rest of the world! But while scouts and sporting directors are happy to share success stories, sometimes we get it wrong. There are names who were predicted to have glittering careers, only to never fulfill their potential.
In 2011, European scouts gathered in the southern Peruvian city of Arequipa for the South American U20 Championship. Although the tournament is best remembered for an amazing Brazil side that comprised the likes of Neymar, Lucas Moura, Casemiro, Alex Sandro and Danilo, most exciting was the emergence of 17-year-old Juan Iturbe, winger/second striker about whom there had been plenty of talk after he broke into the first team of top Paraguayan club Cerro Porteno.
At first glance, the stocky, explosive Iturbe appeared to have the intensity on the ball of Carlos Tevez and the and the explosivity and one vs. one skills of Lionel Messi. Though he excelled and frustrated in equal measure, Iturbe possessed the raw “street footballer” edge that is almost unique to Argentinean forwards. There was hardly a scout in Arequipa, who was not prepared to take a punt on him, but, not for the first time, Porto were one step ahead and rushed in to secure a deal with the player’s agents and family while the tournament was taking place.
Nine years later, and still only 26, Iturbe is trying to find his feet in Mexico. He spent a successful 2014-2015 season at Verona, which led to a €20m move to Roma, but since then his career has consisted of failed loan moves including one in the Premier League for Bournemouth that entailed just four appearances in all competitions.
The list goes on; many will remember Florent Sinama Pongolle securing a move to Liverpool on the back of a remarkable nine-goal scoring spree at the 2001 Under-17 World Championship, while Souleymane Coulibaly earned a contract with Tottenham after reaching the same tally at the same competition a decade years later. Both were predicted to have great futures, but neither managed to consistently perform.
Among plenty of examples from recent years, Lazar Markovic is probably the most extreme example of the discrepancy between intrinsic ability and actual end product. The Serbian winger, who joined Liverpool from Benfica for €25m in the summer of 2014, has only just turned 26 and so still has time on his side, but how he could go from such a most coveted young star — tipped to star in Europe’s top leagues — to having to kick-start his career at hometown club Partizan Belgrade is a mystery.
The integration of data and analytics, as well as an array of footage, better sources and a wider range of information have certainly helped clubs mitigate the risk element to transfers. For the player, though, choosing the environment and head coach that best suit your needs — on and off the pitch — remain critical aspects when forging a career path.