7 outstanding footballers who made the grade late
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As Djibril Cissé hits the streets of three European capitals to find soccer talents who slipped through the net and give them another chance, here are seven players who left it late to become legends.
On August 18, Red Bull TV premieres a landmark series that follows Champions League winner and French international star Djibril Cissé as he straps a TAG Heuer Connected smartwatch to his wrist and goes in search of gifted young footballers who, for various reasons, didn’t originally make the grade at professional football academies, but who deserve a second chance.
In each of the three episodes of The Streets Don’t Lie, Cissé tracks down three players – first on the streets of London, then Paris in Episode 2 and Berlin in the final part – and puts them in a real game situation, where he must choose only one from each city to award the ultimate prize: a professional trial at one of the soccer academies of RB Leipzig, Red Bull Salzburg or the New York Red Bulls to help them get their career back on track.
To celebrate this new series of second chances and late blooms, we look at seven footballers who seemed to have settled for something else but then found another level.
1. Djibril Cissé
Let’s start with our host. OK, so he played in Ligue 1 for six years with Auxerre, the French club who also boast Laurent Blanc and Eric Cantona as former players, but it was Cissé’s switch to Liverpool in 2004 at the age of 23 that led to Champions League glory the following year as Liverpool overturned a 3–0 half-time deficit to draw 3–3 and then go on to win on penalties. Cissé was the first to get his name on Rafa Benítez’s list of penalty takers and he scored their second spot-kick. The match is sometimes called the Miracle of Istanbul, but Cissé’s part in it was also somewhat miraculous after he recovered from a horrible leg break seven months previously that had originally been expected to end his season. Below is that memorable shootout (from 06m 16s):
2. Ian Wright
After initial interest from English lower-league sides Brighton & Hove Albion and Southend United faded, and a short spell in prison for relatively minor driving offences, Ian Wright belatedly bounced back. From Sunday League football came a semi-pro contract at Greenwich Borough in London and then a trial for nearby Crystal Palace, where he won a professional contract just before his 22nd birthday. In the next six years he played more than 250 times for the Eagles and scored 117 goals before arguably his most famous club, Arsenal, came calling. Seven years at the Gunners brought 288 appearances and 179 goals, not to mention a Premier League title and a number of cup-winner’s medals. And to think, he almost became a plasterer.
Below you can watch 11 minutes of Ian Wright scoring, and this is just for Arsenal:
3. Miroslav Klose
Born to a footballing father who played for Auxerre in France (the club’s second mention in this illustrious list) and a mother who was an international handball player, it’s not surprising that Miroslav Klose had professional sport in his blood. It’s just surprising it took so long to show. Into his 20s Klose was still struggling to break into the first team of lower-league FC 08 Homburg in Germany, but once he arrived at FC Kaiserslautern in 1999 things began to look up, with a Bundesliga debut there, a move to Werder Bremen in 2004 and then a 2007 move to Bayern Munich, where he finally achieved top honours with the Bundesliga title just shy of his 30th birthday in 2007–8. He ended his career in Serie A with a successful spell at Lazio. Having waited until he was almost 23 to play for Germany (and turned down his birth country, Poland), Klose soon made up for lost time with an amazing 71 goals in his eventual 139 international appearances, including 16 at World Cups, an all-time record. Below are all those international goals with authentic German commentary:
4. Jay DeMerit
Born in Wisconsin, Jay DeMerit was a promising college soccer player, but it wasn’t enough to be drafted or earn a contract in the MLS. Unhappy to remain a barman for ever, DeMerit took the brave step of using his Danish ancestry to work in Europe and play for English ninth-tier side Southall, in west London. But it was a move up two divisions to a club called Northwood and a chance to shine in front of big club Watford in a friendly match that led to a trial there, a contract and eventually Premier League football when they were themselves promoted in 2004. Despite relegation the following season it was DeMerit’s man-of-the-match performance that helped Watford go back up again in 2006 in a play-off. The MLS eventually took notice, and in 2010 DeMerit joined the Vancouver Whitecaps and grabbed the captain’s armband in time for their inaugural MLS season. His story’s even been made into a film called Rise and Shine, though we think Wisconsin to Watford would’ve been catchier. Here’s a trailer, below:
5. Didier Drogba
Ivorian Didier Drogba moved to France as a kid to live with his footballer uncle, but this familial influence took a while to show. He played first for Le Mans (where he was also at university studying accountancy), turning pro only at age 21, and then Guingamp, where his goalscoring finally caught fire, earning a move to Marseille and a promise of Champions League football. However, it was his transfer to José Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2004 at the age of 26 that earned him legendary status. A hundred goals in over 200 matches included one in his last match of the eight-year spell, the 2012 Champions League final. His last kick in a Chelsea shirt was scoring the winning penalty in the shootout. Except it wasn’t – he sort of ruined the fairytale by returning in 2014 on a free transfer, after spells in China and Turkey, for a one-season Chelsea stint after Mourinho had also returned. Not just an all-time great at Chelsea, Drogba is a former captain and the all-time top goalscorer of Ivory Coast, and played for them at three World Cups. Below is a raw, authentic view of what that famous Champions League penalty meant to fans:
6. Dado Pršo
Born in Zadar, now in Croatia, Dado Pršo’s early promise was hampered when a medical at his second club Hajduk Split suggested he had a heart defect. This didn’t stop NK Pazinka signing him as an 18-year-old during their brief spell in the top flight of Croatian football, but by 1995 Pršo had moved to France and was combining a playing career at lower-league Stade Raphaëlois with a career as a mechanic. Luckily perhaps, Saint-Raphaël is just down the road from Monte-Carlo and he was spotted by AS Monaco coach Jean Tigana, who soon drafted him into his squad. Pršo went on to win a league title in 2000 and made a major contribution to Monaco’s 2003–4 Champions League campaign, where they eventually lost to Porto in the final, scoring a then-record four goals in one UCL match against Deportivo La Coruña in an 8–3 thrashing in the group stages. Latterly he became something of a legend in Scottish football with three years at Rangers, highlighted in the below clip (also with a phat Chemical Brothers soundtrack):
7. Luca Toni
He mightn’t have been a barman, mechanic or accountancy student on his way to the top, but it’s amazing that a man who’s played for 12 clubs in Italy alone can have become such a legend. He’d tasted a little Serie A action with Vicenza and Brescia, but having dropped to Serie B and Palermo in 2003 at the age of 26, his 30 goals for that season saw the Sicilian team promoted to Serie A, where another 20 goals helped them qualify for European competition. A controversial move to Fiorentina the following year nevertheless saw his league goal tally hit 31, the most by a player in Serie A for half a century. He then played at Bayern Munich for a spell (with Miroslav Klose, incidentally) before more Italian clubs came calling. It took Marcello Lippi to give him his first international cap at the age of 27, and he repaid the Azzurri with a hat-trick in World Cup 2006 qualifying and two goals in the tournament itself, as they lifted the trophy after beating Germany in the final. Here’s another fan compilation, below: