At age 22, Zinedine Zidane was playing in the Intertoto Cup with Bordeaux. At that same age, Éric Cantona had just got a move from Auxerre to Marseille. Rivaldo had just moved from Corinthians to cross-town rivals Palmeiras in São Paulo.
With the money involved in today’s game and globalized scouting networks, such players would already have been with one of the European giants before they had the chance to establish themselves in their local teams. It’s hardly a surprise when the major European clubs get linked with and buy an obscure teenager in South America, who is tagged as the “new Messi” or “Ronaldinho’s heir.”
But potential doesn’t always translate to development. Equally still, little promise can develop exponentially.
Zidane, Cantona, and Rivaldo’s cases show that it’s not how much you achieve in your early 20’s that defines the rest of your career. These players all stayed in familiar surroundings before making the step up to a major European club. It was only until their mid-to-late 20’s that these players became giant names in world football.
Of course, there are always precocious youngsters who make the grade early on. Perhaps because their game relies on speed, like the two Ronaldo’s or Messi. Perhaps because their physique develops more quickly, like Rooney.
But early spark doesn’t always illuminate the rest of a career. Nicky Butt anchored the midfield for Manchester United in the 95/96 season with Roy Keane and that partnership always came out on top in physical battles. Paul Scholes, who had a much smaller frame than Butt and was frequently deployed further up the pitch, was sparingly used. Today, Nicky Butt plays for Newcastle United, Paul Scholes for Manchester United.
Lucas Leiva is 22 and is already at Liverpool. It is presumptuous to say he will be as successful as Scholes, Zidane, Rivaldo, Cantona, or even Nicky Butt. But to say he won’t turn out to be fine player is equally unfair. He has been thrust on the biggest stage earlier than some of the greatest midfielders of their generations. He has already played in a Champions League quarterfinal, captained Brazil’s U-20 team, finished runner-up in the league with Liverpool, and been capped for the senior Brazil national team.
For us to label him as a flop is premature. A player doesn’t have to progress at Messi’s rate to become a world class player. Lucas deserves time and Liverpool fans should wish the best for him, however much he may struggle now or in the coming years. He is only 22 and already plays for one of the biggest clubs in the world. He is certainly on the right track.
Alfredo di Stéfano was 27 when he crossed the Atlantic to join Real Madrid. When he was voted European Footballer of the Year for the second time, he was 33. The next year, he won the last of five consecutive European Cups with Real Madrid. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time. Where was he before joining Real Madrid? Colombian football.
Even the greatest need time to develop at their own rate. So does Lucas.