Five football superstars whose careers prematurely fizzled out

As James Rodriguez joins Qatar side Al-Rayyan despite being just 30 years old, we look at football stars whose careers flamed out early.

James Rodriguez in a file photo. (Image: Everton website)
By Shayne Dias | Sep 25, 2021 | 4 Min Read follow icon Follow Us

The life of a football star is a dream for many, but one attainable only for a few. That’s not to say you can’t make a living playing the beautiful game, but being a consistent performer for a top club is not an easy task. Eventually, you’te going to decline. Or there are other factors that just make a player unsuitable for a number of clubs. Just take a look at James Rodriguez.

The Colombian playmaker is a household name in his native Colombia and, on his day, is a sparkling player. Yet at only 30 years of age, he has joined Saudi Arabian outfit Al-Rayyan.

With that in mind, we take a look at five football players who were once seen among the best in the world… but whose career fizzled out sooner than anyone expected.

James Rodriguez

We start, of course, with the aforementioned James Rodriguez. The Colombian made a star of himself with some amazing performances in the 2014 World Cup. But even before that, many knew just how good a player he was. His time at Porto and later Monaco would further the belief that he was a star in the making.

He fared well enough when he joined Real Madrid, excelling under Carlo Ancelotti. Yet injuries as well as not being rated by subsequent manager Zinedine Zidade led to him joining Bayern Munich on a two-year loan. He did well enough there, but Bayern opted against signing him permamently. That left him a peripheral figure at Real for the 2019-20 season.

He would join Everton on what was essentially a free deal – reuniting with Ancelotti – but poor performances continued. His time at the club ended with Rafael Benitez’s arrival and he thus joined Al-Rayyan. This despite having at least a few more years of top-level football left in him.


This might seem controversial, but let’s look at the facts. Ronaldinho in his prime was a force of nature; a maverick, trickster, dribbler, creative force and goalscorer extraordinare. His time at Barcelona saw him win the Ballon d’Or and lead the resurgence of the Catalan club.

However, he admitted himself he lacked the motivation needed to deliver consistently after a point. It didn’t help that he enjoyed nights out and would often turn up to training either hungover or still drunk. It comes as little surprise then, that he was moved on by Pep Guardiola when he took the reins at Barcelona.

Ronaldinho moved to AC Milan but endured a journeyman career afterwards and never threatened to scale the same heights. He had a career most could only dream of, but it still feels like he could have done so much more if his application was better.

Mario Gotze

The man once dubbed the ‘German Messi’ for his scintilating skill and prodigous finishing, Mario Gotze was a product of Borussia Dortmund’s vaunted youth system. It was with Dortmund that he would first make an impact, winning two leagues and a DFB-Pokal. A controversial transfer to Bayern Munich followed, but the move didn’t really work out for all involved.

He scored the winner in the 2014 World Cup final, bringing Germany their first glory in the tournament since 1990. However, his club form continued to suffer. A move back to Dortmund was met with excitement and fanfare, but it didn’t boost his career.

Still only 29, his days at the top seem all but over as he now plays in PSV Eindhoven. Not where someone who was touted as a future Ballon d’Or winner would expect to be playing.

Wayne Rooney

Wayne Rooney is something of an outlier in this list, in the sense he won a boatload of trophies at Manchester United. However, it is still fair to say his career never hit the heights expected, such was his potential at a young age. His breakthrough at Everton saw him earn a move to United early in his career.

The initial years were solid, with Rooney a key part of a dominant United side. However, injuries and a loss of his physicality saw him become a bit-part player towards the end of his United career. A move back to Everton didn’t set the world alight, and he moved to the ultimate retirement home for footballers – America. He signed for MLS side DC United and did okay.

A return to England with Derby County led to his eventual retirement and becoming the club’s manager. And while he did pretty well for himself overall, there remains a tinge of regret he never quite fulfilled his potential – and started to decline in his mid-20s.

Joe Hart

Proof that such drastic declines don’t happen only to forwards, Joe Hart’s fall from grace was harder than most. He emerged as England’s number one goalkeeper after a solid loan spell at Birmingham City, and duly made the #1 jersey at Manchester City his own. He was a key member of a side that won trophies aplenty under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini.

However, he was shockingly axed by Pep Guardiola, who didn’t trust his ball-playing ability. A loan move to Torino soon followed, where it became pretty clear it wasn’t just Hart’s ability with his feet that was an issue. Regular errors crept into his game and soon the club merry-go-round began.

Spells at West Ham United and Burnley did little to reinvigorate his career. A year as Tottenham Hotspur’s back-up further showed how far his stock has fallen. Now at Celtic, it remains to be seen if Scotland is the place to get his career back on track.