The last couple of weeks have seen the spotlight fall on a new generation of players across Europe with one thing in common – their Dads were all superstars in the 1990s. But is there more to the hype surrounding these players than just a familiar name? And away from the highly rated, which youngsters have struggled to follow in their fathers’ footsteps?
Want to feel old? Remember those players you idolised as they tore up the top leagues in Europe and represented their countries in the World Cup back when Noel was the credible one in Oasis and Tony Blair wasn’t part of Labour’s shameful past? Well they’ve all started families, retired, and now, twenty years later, their children are on the way to becoming your new idols. Depressing isn’t it? But also quite exciting, because if Rafael and Fabio have taught us anything it’s that familial connections in football can go a long way in making up for a lack of natural ability. Phil Neville won 59 caps for England for heaven’s sake. The 90s itself had already seen a wave of footballers outshine their father’s achievements, but for every Youri Djorkaeff – World Cup winning son of Jean, who represented France at the 1966 tournament – there will always be a Jordi Cruyff – a player who enjoyed a very decent career, but was constantly weighed down by the reputation of his father. Put simply, it’s never that easy to become a chip off the old block, but its also difficult to temper the thrill of watching the offspring of a former great have a go at bettering Dad. Sigmund Freud would undoubtedly have a few things to say about that. Thankfully there are a few unfamiliar faces with familiar names whose performances have attracted the attention of the football media over the course of this season, and they look like they might be the real deal.
The Premier League is hardly new to the notion of father-son connections, and Kasper Schmeichel is perhaps the most notable case of a footballer following paternal footsteps. Born in 1986 when Peter was making his name as a promising young goalkeeper at Danish club Hvidovre, Schmeichel made his breakthrough at Manchester City after signing for them while his Dad was still at the club. By the time he’d reached his mid-twenties, Kasper’s chances of emulating his father at the highest level looked slim, as he’d only just earned his spot as Notts County’s first choice goalkeeper in League Two. That season though, the Danish stopper was key in helping the Magpies win the league and promotion, and his impressive performances at Meadow Lane led to a move to Leeds United. Another impressive season led him to Leicester City and at the end of his first season at the King Power he earned a call-up to the Denmark national team and his first international cap. With the Foxes winning promotion in 2014 off the back of some fine defensive performances, Schmeichel had finally reached the big time and, against all the odds, won the Premier League with Leicester to ensure he and Peter became the first ever father/son combo to secure the title. At the other end of the pitch, Swansea City’s fraternal strikeforce of Andre and Jordan Ayew have followed in their father’s footsteps. Abedi Pele is regarded as one of Ghana’s greatest ever players, and in the late 80s and early 90s became one of the first African footballers to gain major success in Europe. Having enjoyed a nomadic career playing in Ghana, Qatar, Switzerland and Benin, Abedi came to the attention of the wider football world when signing for Marseille in 1987. He would go on to win back-to-back Ligue 1 titles and a Champions League medal in 1993. Sons Andre and Jordan have both trodden Abedi’s well worn path, turning out for Marseille together between 2009 and 2014 before the Premier League came calling. Having already won the French championship with the same club as their father, the Ayew brothers will be hoping to add an African Cup of Nations in order to match Abedi’s success with the national team in 1982. There are other examples of footballers sons making waves in the Premier League and Europe, mainly Daley Blind, son of Danny, at Manchester United, who had emerged through the ranks at Ajax and won four Eredivisie titles before making the move to Old Trafford, as well as Tiago and Rafinha – the sons of Brazilian World Cup winner Mazinho currently represent Bayern Munich and Internazionale respectively, and though they represent different countries at international level at least one is likely to feature in Russia, most likely the elder Tiago.
But while those household names have so far enjoyed enviable careers, the second generation players currently making the headlines have been touted for much bigger things. Chief among them is Justin Kluivert. Being the son of a footballer who won four league titles, the Champions League, and scored 240 career goals, including one in a World Cup semi-final, finding your way in the world is never going to be easy, but at just 17 Kluivert made his first team debut for Ajax at PEC Zwolle, and scored his first goal for the Dutch giants just two months later. Less of an out-and-out striker than Dad Patrick, the youngster prefers to use his pace operating as a wide forward, but shows the kind of directness and goalscoring instinct that would see him wasted as a traditional winger. Having established himself in the Ajax first team this season, Kluivert has started 23 of de Godenzonen’s 30 league games, scoring eight goals and providing five assists. After making his Netherlands debut as a substitute against Portugal during the last international break, talk quickly turned to his likely destination in the summer, having seemingly outgrown his surroundings at the Amsterdam Arena. A pre-contract agreement with Manchester United has been rumoured, though Kluivert himself is keen on a move to Barcelona, where his father spent six seasons at the turn of the century. Wherever he ends up, it’s crucial for his manager and supporters to remember that at just 18 years old Kluivert Jnr has plenty of years ahead of him, and his progress mustn’t be rushed. One promising young player who has already found himself following his father’s footsteps at an elite European club is Timothy Weah. Over two decades before becoming President of Liberia, George Weah was making his name in the French capital as one of the most fearsome strikers in Europe. After scoring over 50 goals and winning each of the domestic competitions, Weah joined AC Milan to add a further two league medals to his collection before winding down his career and becoming involved in politics. Timothy is hoping to reproduce that success under his own steam, and 2018 has seen the American born striker make his first steps towards top level success. After making his debut for Paris Saint Germain at Troyes in March, he quickly added a first cap for the United States at the end of the month in a friendly against Paraguay, becoming the first player born after 2000 to represent the US men’s team. While he may be lagging behind Kluivert in his development, Weah is at least well placed to kick on and break into both club and national sides. The expected change of management at the Parc Des Prince this summer may go some way to deciding where Weah’s future lies, but if he can make himself part of the new manager’s plans then the natural talent he’s inherited from the President could take him a long way. Another youngster that made his international debut last month is also striving to outshine the name on the back of his shirt. Federico Chiesa appeared in both of Italy’s friendlies against Argentina and England in March, and won the penalty that led to the Azzuri’s equaliser at Wembley. At 20 years old, Chiesa’s star is on a far slower rise that his contemporaries, though he’s firmly established himself in the first team at Fiorentina. Father Enrico spent three years at the Stadio Artemio Franchi after making his name as a poacher with Parma and would go on to score seven times in twenty-two appearances for Italy, a tally that Federico will have in his sights. Having gained the trust of manager Stefano Pioli, Chiesa now must work out his best position – in 28 appearances for the Viola this season he’s played in eight different positions, from wing-back to centre-forward. His most effective role appears to be playing as more of a winger on the left hand side, having scored twice in four appearances from the position, though Pioli prefers to play him on the right of a front three. Still, six goals and three assists is no bad return for a player experimenting with his adaptability, and he may become a serious asset for a national team currently experiencing an identity crisis.
Fiorentina have form for giving a chance to the offspring of 90s legends, so it was perhaps no surprise that they jumped at the chance to sign Giovanni Simeone in the summer after the Spanish-born striker enjoyed an impressive season with Genoa last time out. Born while his father Diego was in his first spell as a player with Atletico Madrid, Simeone is one of the few second generation players that doesn’t share on-pitch traits with their father. Joining Serie A from River Plate in Argentina, Simeone had already turned 21 before breaking through in a top European league, but his debut season in Italy saw him score 12 league goals in an underperforming side. This time out the defensive minded forward has managed to find the net ten times, and has rightly received plaudits for his all-round contribution to the team. Given the tough-tackling nature of his Dad, Giovanni is unlikely to face too much comparison, though the expectations of national team supporters may be difficult to surpass should he ever receive a call-up. For now he’s standing on his own two feet. Another player enjoying life away from direct comparisons to his Dad is Hertha Berlin goalkeeper Jonathan Klinsmann. Born in Germany but eligible for the United States, Klinsmann represented the US under 20s at last year’s World Cup. His performances as the States reached the quarter-finals were enough to alert the Bundesliga club to his talent, and joined as back-up to first choice ‘keeper Rune Jarstein. Though there’s serious competition for places at the Olympiastadion, Klinsmann was given his debut in this season’s Europa League in a dead rubber match against Ostersunds and saved a penalty during the game. At 21, Jurgen’s son still has plenty of time to develop as a goalkeeper, though whether his long-term future lies at a middling club in Germany’s top flight remains to be seen. Marcus Thuram shares Klinsmann’s issues with progression, and can probably also empathise with Federico Chiesa’s positional headaches. Nominally a striker, Thuram earned a move to top-flight Guingamp after some impressive performances for Sochaux in Ligue 2 last season. His stats from this term, though, make for fairly grim reading, as two goals and one assist from 18 appearances belie the obvious talent at his disposal. Adapt at carrying the ball and picking a killer pass, Lillian’s boy may find more joy playing in a deeper role, but often a right player needs to find the right place and time in order to succeed. It seems unlikely he’ll reproduce the success of his father, but that’s not to say he couldn’t be an asset in France.
While some players are able to treat their surname as a little leg up to showcase their talent, and others a hurdle to moderate success, there are those that find the anticipation to live up to a parent’s success too difficult to handle. In 2009, Paolo Maldini brought down the curtain on an incredible 24 year career with Milan and to honour their captain the club retired his iconic shirt number with one small caveat – it could only be worn in the future by one of his sons. At the time Christian Maldini was a defender in the Milan youth team, but it quickly transpired that he didn’t possess the talent to break into the first team, and eventually he left the club to join Serie C side Reggiana. A loan move to Maltese club Hamrun Spartans followed, and Maldini found himself without a club by January 2017. He is currently plying his trade at Serie C side Fondi. Christian’s brother Daniel is still only 16, and is currently progressing well within the Milan youth set-up, having scored nine times for the Primavera side this season, though time will tell whether he’ll be following in the footsteps of Asamoah Gyan and lining up as a striker in the #3 shirt. If setting your son up for failure by reserving your iconic shirt number for him sounds bad, then spare a thought for Zinedine Zidane. With three of his children currently occupying places in the Real Madrid youth squad, Zidane was able to give his eldest son Enzo a first-team debut at the Bernabeu, and even see him score in a Copa Del Rey match. That was as good as it got for the child named after Zizou’s favourite player, and months later the Real manager sanctioned the sale of his son to Alaves. Less than 18 months after his first team debut with Madrid, Enzo Zidane was being packed off on a free transfer to Lausanne-Sport in Switzerland.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning a player that will have to do very little to emulate his father’s success on the pitch, but could win a trophy every year in his entire career and still fail to better his cult status. Currently plying his trade in the French third division after an impressive season at non-league level with Olympique Saint-Quentin, Simon Dia started out his career with Lille but unfortunately didn’t make the grade with fellow youth-teamer Eden Hazard. After slowly making his way down the leagues with Valenciennes and Amiens, he found his level in the fourth tier, though did enough to establish himself as a first-teamer at L’Entente SSG during this campaign. How much his father, or indeed his father’s agent, have had to do with his career remains a mystery, but if Graeme Souness ever finds himself in management again, don’t be too surprised to see the son of Ali Dia make an appearance.
It’s understandable that, as football fans, we’re innately interested in the careers of players who carry familiar names, but with this current crop of youngsters it’s important to remember that the name does not necessarily make the man. These players should be allowed to redefine their surnames, remove the connection with their fathers, and carve careers in their own right. Let’s hope that pressure from media and supporters relents for long enough to allow them to do just that.