James Rodriguez and the #TrendySoccerPlayer Problem

By: Chris Dagonas

Back in the early 2000s, my friends and I spent an inordinate amount of time (and most of our grocery-store wages) on eBay. More specifically, we were looking for unique and interesting soccer jerseys, ones that no one else had and couldn’t be bought at our local Champs Sports. I was the proud owner of an RC Lens jersey in those days, to put this into perspective. Anyway, my buddy Rob trumped any and all outrageous jersey purchases when he won an auction for an El-Hadji Diouf 2002 Senegal jersey. He wore it proudly for about 3 months, then it seemed to fade into oblivion. More on Diouf a little later on.

That's the jersey!

That’s the jersey!

I tell this story because it mirrors the excitement, and potential disastrous outcome, of a breakout World Cup soccer star, or what I’ll call a #TrendySoccerPlayer. This year, it’s Colombia’s James Rodriguez, whose move to Real Madrid after this summer’s World Cup is only the latest in a long line of World Cup-breakout-star transfers. It seems to happen every four years, when a massive club team notices a trendy player at the World Cup, and spends big money to bring that player to their team.

While that concept has exploded in the Youtube and Twitter age, it is certainly not a new one. It’s not limited to soccer. (Andrew Wiggins would be a #TrendyNBAPlayer.) It’s not even limited to the sporting realm. There are #TrendySingers, like Lorde, and #TrendyActors, like Matthew McConaughey. Trendy soccer players are more notable because the costs associated with them are so much higher, and their productivity is so much more difficult to predict than any other sport or area of entertainment.

And, as you might have expected, not every big name post-World Cup transfer has ended up paying dividends for their new squad. That’s what makes this fun.

The history of big-name post-World Cup transfers can be traced back to the 1960s. Before that time, players would normally spend their entire careers with the same team, and almost never transfer outside of their home country. Even more relevant, most soccer matches were not televised until the ’60s, and radio doesn’t have the same effect of capturing a player’s talents and feeding media hype.

With that in mind, I dug through the crates and found some #TrendySoccerPlayers after each World Cup, then looked to see how they did with their new team and with the rest of their careers. Hopefully, this will help me predict how Rodriguez will perform for Real Madrid this season, so my fantasy La Liga team can be appropriately prepared.

New look, same James?

New look, same James?

Of course, not every #TrendySoccerPlayer transferred right after the tournament. I’ll start with this category.

NOT TRANSFERRED AFTER WORLD CUP

Eusebio, 1966 – The Portuguese striker was already a star in his home country, and with perennial Portuguese powerhouse Benfica, before the tournament even began. He won the Golden Boot as top goalscorer in 1966, and Portugal finished third, to this day still their best ever finish. In the 1966-67 club season, Eusebio scored 42 goals in 33 appearances and would continue to play at a high level for almost a decade. If Twitter had existed in Eusebio’s time, you’d have seen Brooks Robinson and Bill Russell tweet their respect to @Eusebio9.

Eusebio could have been transferred for millions of Escudos

Eusebio could have been transferred for millions of Escudos.

Gerd Muller, 1970 – Der Bomber was already a 25-year-old goal-scoring machine for Bayern Munich by the time the 1970 World Cup came around, and he kept that form right through the tournament. The stubby forward (he was nicknamed Short Fat Muller by one of his coaches) scored 10 goals, the most in the tournament, and took his West Germany team to a third-place finish. He was the Bundesliga’s top scorer in three of the next four seasons, and would go on to lead Bayern for another decade, before jumping to the (legendary) Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the NASL to end his career.

Johan Cruyff, 1974 – Barcelona purchased Cruyff from Ajax a year before the ’74 World Cup, and still paid a world record fee for him (6 Million Dutch Guilden, or about $2 million USD.) Cruyff then went on to lead his Netherlands national team to a runner-up finish, losing to Gerd Muller’s West Germany. Cruyff had five successful seasons with Barcelona, but wasted two years in his 30s trying to build up the fledgling NASL, before returning to Europe to finish his playing career. While the paltry sum of $2 million may seem like small potatoes, it was big money back then, and Cruyff was one of the world’s first soccer superstars to move to another country to play professionally in his prime, and it goes without saying that he helped change the face of club soccer forever.

Cruyff enjoyed some great success with Barcelona

Cruyff enjoyed great success with Barcelona.

Teofilo Cubillas, 1970 and 1978 – If the Peruvian striker had played in the 1990s, he would have played for Barcelona or Real Madrid and won a couple of Champions League titles. Since he played in the ’70s, no one has ever heard of him. Most notably, he played for FC Porto for four seasons in the mid-’70s, and, like Gerd Muller, played for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers at the tail end of his career. However, he has been called the Pele of Peru, and was the centre of two top-eight finishes for the soccer minnows, in 1970 and 1978. Peru has not qualified for a World Cup since Cubillas retired, in 1982.

Marc Overmars, 1994 – Ah, now we’re into an era I can actually remember. The speedy winger won the Best Young Player Award of the 1994 tournament,  and was a critical piece of the Ajax dynasties of the mid-1990s. I can vaguely remember that 1995 Ajax team, which featured Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, and Overmars, and played a frenetic, heavily attacking style that differed greatly from any other soccer I had ever watched. Overmars moved to Arsenal in 1997, and continued to be a productive winger. Health issues began to overshadow his play, and after leaving Arsenal for Barcelona in 2000, Overmars’ abilities quickly deteriorated and he retired in 2004. Through the 90’s, though, there were few wingers more dangerous than Marc Overmars. A fair comparison might be made to Arjen Robben today. Watch. Gaze upon the brilliance of Overmars!

Ronaldo, 1998 and 2002 – The Brazilian legend had already bounced around from PSV Eindhoven in Holland to Barcelona to Inter Milan before the ’98 tournament. But, he exploded on the global scene as a 22-year-old star striker, scoring 3 goals for the eventual second-place finishers. He was dominant throughout the 90’s, particularly in his one season with Barcelona, but began to suffer knee injuries and played in only 24 matches in his last 3 years with Inter Milan. His triumphant return from knee surgery in the 2002 World Cup, where he scored six goals, including two in the finals against Germany, tickled the fancy of Real Madrid enough to spend 46 Million Euros for him. His next four seasons proved to be his most productive since his Barcelona days. Ronaldo was so great that he was a #TrendySoccerPlayer twice in his career.

 

Thomas Muller, 2010 (and, kinda, 2014) – The second Muller on this list is not yet 25 years old, and has already had two huge World Cups. He is signed for Bayern until 2019, and likely will play out his career there. Other than Rodriguez, Muller is the most #TrendySoccerPlayer in the world right now.

Now, we get to the category of players that moved on immediately after a big World Cup tournament, and proved themselves to be worth the money.

WORTH THE TRANSFER FEE

Zbigniew Boniek, 1982 – Jeszcze Polska Nie Zgienela! Did you know Poland finished in third place at the 1982 World Cup?! I did, because my mom constantly reminds me of that fact whenever the Poland national team is on TV. Anyway, they did, and winger Zbigniew Boniek (Zbeeg-niev Bon-yek) was a big part of that success. He scored a hat trick against Belgium en route to Poland’s third-place finish. After that tournament, Italian giants Juventus bought Boniek from Widzew Lodz, and in three seasons with Juventus, and another three with Roma, he managed a respectable goal-scoring record for a winger. During Boniek’s time with Juventus, the Italians also won a Serie A title, an Italian Cup, and a European Championship. I would also like to take this space to shout out Grzegorz Lato, another Polish soccer hero who was very trendy in the 70’s and 80’s, but spent most of his career with domestic side Stal Mielec and never made a mark in European club circles. Marsz, Marsz, Dabrowski!

Gary Lineker, 1986 – The English and Everton striker was the World Cup’s best goal-scorer in 1986, and Barcelona coach Terry Venables wanted to bring a British flavour (bland, I guess would be the flavour) to the Camp Nou. Lineker joined Welshman Mark Hughes to lead the Barcelona attack (it must have been weird, but it worked!) Lineker spent four seasons with Barca, before being asked to change positions and losing effectiveness. He won a Spanish Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup before moving back to England with Tottenham, where he continued to score plenty of goals and win the FA Cup in 1991. Lineker is the last English striker to enjoy club success outside of England. Sorry, Michael Owen.

The Catalan Flavour of Mark and Gary

The Catalan Flavour of Mark and Gary.

Speaking of Michael Owen, we now get to the category of #TrendySoccerPlayers who were not worth their post-World Cup transfer fees.

NOT WORTH THE TRANSFER FEE

Robert Prosinecki, 1990 – Ethnically Croatian, Prosinecki played his first World Cup for Yugoslavia in 1990, and impressed many with his dribbling and playmaking abilities. Among those he impressed were the brass at Real Madrid, who forked over 2.5 billion Pesetas (equal to about 15 Million Euros these days, and thus my knowledge of pre-Euro European currencies has never been more complete) to acquire his services from Red Star Belgrade. Prosinecki soon suffered from multiple injuries, and was never able to really settle himself in La Liga, bouncing around to Oviedo, Barcelona, and Sevilla before moving back to his homeland of Croatia. He went on to play the 1998 and 2002 World Cups for Croatia, becoming the first and only player to score World Cup goals for two different countries. While interesting, that is more of a side note, and Prosinecki was ultimately a disappointing post-World Cup purchase by Real Madrid (though certainly not their only one).

Oh, young Podolski. So much promise.

Oh, young Podolski. So much promise.

Lukas Podolski, 2006 – In the days when Thomas Muller was just a teenager scoring goals at will for the Bayern Munich youth squad, another young Polish German attacker was turning heads. Lukas Podolski had three goals for Germany in the 2006 World Cup (which was played in Germany, no less!) and was immediately scooped up by German powerhouse Bayern from small-time FC Koln. In three seasons and 71 appearances for Bayern, Podolski managed just 15 goals and was eventually sold back to Koln, before being bought by Arsenal and enjoying a bit of a resurgence there as a left-footed winger. Podolski is a fine player, sure, but think about this sentence right here: In 2006, Lukas Podolski was given the World Cup’s Best Young Player award, ahead of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. So, yeah, a bit disappointing given the expectations.

That brings us to my favourite of all the categories. There are tons of soccer transfers that could go here, I know, but none that were as directly related to the World Cup, and as flat-out terrible as the one I chose.

WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY THINKING?

El Hadji Diouf, 2002 – Senegal shocked the world in 2002 with its defeat of defending champions France (commentary on colonialism redacted, enjoy this clip) and its progression to the quarter-finals. Diouf was unquestionably the star of that team. Like Rob with his jersey, Liverpool FC thought it had discovered something unique and wonderful in Diouf (bought from RC Lens, ironically!) In reality, the Senegalese forward proved a disappointing purchase, scoring only three goals in 55 appearances for the Reds. Diouf then proceeded to spit on a Celtic fan at a Champions League match, and has bounced around several Premier League and Championship teams since then. He is also not very well-liked in soccer circles, having been accused of diving and other non-sportsmanlike offenses. He is probably the very worst example of the #TrendySoccerPlayer, but it goes to show that two or three good weeks at the right time could mean a lifetime of employment for a soccer player, regardless of their skill or temperament.

The #TrendySoccerPlayer phenomenon will never go away, as there are so many players and so many leagues – and so many Youtube clips – that the well can never run dry. Sports media, and Twitter commenters, love to jump on and blow up a player’s performances in big tournaments. Sometimes, the hype is worthy. Other times, it’s overdone, and expectations far exceed potential. The pressure is now on Rodriguez’s shoulders, as it was on Neymar and others before him. Real Madrid can only hope that they have added a massive young talent to their stable, and haven’t won an auction for an El-Hadji Diouf jersey.

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