Solanke vs the England Hype Machine

Illustration by Lucie Knights (@luciemknights)

Illustration by Lucie Knights (@luciemknights)

On May 30th, the news broke that Liverpool would complete the free transfer signing of Chelsea youth team prospect Dominic Solanke. Although the story of a young starlet abandoning one top-four club for another was far from a non-event, in a transfer window that had already seen Manchester City break the £70m spending threshold, Solanke’s move hardly dominated the back pages.

But then Suwon happened, and Solanke and his Young Lions teammates became World Champions. Solanke was presented with the Golden Ball for his exploits at the Under 20 World Cup in Korea, and in so doing added his name to a list that includes Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Paul Pogba. With that, the England hype machine churned into overdrive. Solanke became the flavour of the month, and a player who could barely get a minute on the pitch at Chelsea last season became the hottest prospect in English football.

Even before his elevation to World Champion status, Solanke’s transfer was a no-brainer for Liverpool – few Premier League teams would pass up an opportunity to sign an England youth international for next to nothing, tribunal notwithstanding. From the player’s perspective, however, the logic is less apparent. Solanke has turned his back on Chelsea due to a lack of playing time, but his route to the first team at Anfield is far from clear – Roberto Firmino, Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi will likely remain ahead of him in the centre-forward pecking order, and on the wings, Felipe Coutinho and Sadio Mane are mandatory picks.

Perhaps Solanke will get his chance to shine in the first-team under Jurgen Klopp, or perhaps not. Those tempted to look for omens might well refer to that list of former U20 Golden Ball winners. As well as Pogba and that trio of celebrated Argentinians, famous names including the former Brazil striker Adriano and Barcelona’s treble-winning midfielder Seydou Keita make a compelling argument for Solanke's future. England’s latest starlet is in illustrious company indeed.

But there are names you won’t recognise, too – names like Henrique Almeida, Dominic Adiyiah and Ismail Matar. Matar picked up the Golden Ball in 2003 – two years before Lionel Messi claimed his – but has never played outside of the United Arab Emirates. Matar captains his country and has struck 36 career goals for the UAE, but he’s hardly enjoyed the stellar career one might expect from a youth team starlet with the world at his feet.

It’s a similar story for Adiyiah. The Ghanaian midfielder signed for Milan after his impressive showing at the 2009 tournament, but made a sum total of zero appearances for the Rossoneri before being farmed out on a series of loan moves. Adiyiah never broke into the first team at the San Siro, and at 27 and the theoretical peak of his powers, now plays his club football for mid-table Thai outfit Nakhon Ratchasima.

If Dominic Solanke needs a reminder that his work is far from done, he need only cast his mind back six years to the Under-20 World Cup in Columbia. Henrique Almeida scored five goals as he fired Brazil to the title, claiming the Golden Ball and Golden Boot as the standout performer at a tournament including the stellar talents of Felipe Coutinho, Alexandre Lacazette, James Rodriguez and Isco. Here was a player with an impossibly bright future ahead of him, but like Matar and Adiyiah, it just hasn’t happened for Henrique in the years since. The striker has been passed around the Brazilian top flight for the past eight seasons, with his single European sojourn a loan move to Granada that yielded six appearances and zero goals.

For Solanke, the challenge is even greater. As a key member of the first England team of any age group to win major silverware since 1966, the microscope will remain trained on the striker for as long as he wears the shirt. Many players could tell you how heavy that shirt weighs, and the price owed for failure on the senior international stage. Solanke will get his chance to shine, but must beware the England hype machine. His hard work is far from done.

Louis Rossi