February 11, 2019

Famous Names Count for Nothing in Football

A question for all you sports trivia fans out there: What do George Weah, Zinedine Zidane, Paolo Maldini and Diego Simeone have in common? Answer: they all have children who’ve played in the Al Kass International Cup.

There are a total of 240 youngsters in the 12 squads competing for the trophy this year, but one name stands out from the crowd: Real Madrid striker Andri Gudjohnsen, whose father Eidur attained legendary status playing for Iceland, Chelsea and Barcelona. Andri has caught the eye in his two appearances so far, but does a famous name help or hinder progress in the long-term?

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked that question. I enjoyed a long career as a professional footballer in England, playing almost 500 times for the likes of Manchester City, Sunderland and Swindon Town. I look back now and I’m proud of what I achieved, because I know how difficult it is to make the grade. And yet, I know that my achievements will never be judged in isolation, because football is in my blood and runs through generations of my family.

My grandfather, George, was also a professional player who spent 12 years at Preston North End - one of the giants of the English game at the time – as a teammate of the great Bill Shankly. Unfortunately, the Second World War meant that the football league was suspended for seven years, so my granddad’s promise was never fulfilled.

But his son - my Dad – certainly fulfilled his promise. Mike Summerbee is a bona fide Manchester City legend, and don’t just take my word for it – goal.com named him as the club’s seventh greatest player of all time. When you consider the talent contained within the current side alone, that’s some accolade. As part of City’s ‘holy trinity’ of the late 1960s and early 70s alongside Colin Bell and Francis Lee, my Dad won the league, FA Cup, European Cup Winners Cup and League Cup in the space of just three years.

When I was a boy, he’d take me along to watch City up and down the country, and I was always aware of the recognition he’d get wherever we went. I’d stand pitch-side, seeing up close the talent, aggression and determination that marked out the great from the good. And there was never any doubt in my mind about what I wanted to do when I grew up, because football was everything in my family.

My Dad never tried to influence me one way or another. Although he was always there for me if I needed advice and support, he didn’t push me in the direction of the football pitch. Of course, he was only too aware of the pitfalls that lay ahead, and there were certainly times when having a famous father made things more challenging for me.

As an apprentice at Swindon, one of the coaches seemed to think that I was only there because of my Dad’s reputation, and he told me that I’d never make it. That was all the incentive I needed to prove him wrong. Glenn Hoddle took over as manager and converted me from a centre forward to a winger, and my career took off from there.

When I found out that Manchester City wanted to sign me, it was a dream come true, as I’d supported them all my life. However, the club was going through a difficult time, and this was reflected by poor results on the pitch.

Throughout my time at City, I was often compared unfavourably to my Dad, but this just motivated me to work harder. And that, above all else, is what every young player has to do - regardless of their background.

Over the past eight years, the Al Kass International Cup has proven itself as a magnificent breeding ground for upcoming talent, but it goes without saying that they won’t all reach the top level – and that includes the boys with famous fathers who’ve played at the tournament.

Perhaps the most successful of this select group is Timothy Weah. He holds the record for the highest number of goals scored in a single game at Al Kass, having helped himself to five for PSG against Shanghai Greenland Shenhua in 2016. Still just 18, Weah has progressed through the ranks in Paris and is now on loan at Celtic, where he has scored three times since the turn of the year.

Meanwhile, Daniel Maldini is developing well as part of AC Milan’s youth set-up, having played as a striker at Al Kass 2018, although it was difficult to assess the youngster’s true potential during his time in Doha as his side were disappointing throughout.

Gianluca Simeone was part of the River Plate squad that made it to the quarter-finals in 2015, going out to Arsenal in a game that is chiefly remembered for the Argentineans sparking a mass brawl on the final whistle – an incident which Simeone somehow found himself at the centre of. The young forward has subsequently failed to hit the heights, and left River Plate last month without making a senior league appearance. On the other hand, older brother Giovanni is making waves in Italy, and recently plundered a hat-trick for Fiorentina in a 7-1 Coppa Italia demolition of Roma.

Enzo Zidane played for Real Madrid at Al Kass back in 2013, and was sent off for violent conduct after only nine minutes in a group game against Aspire Academy. His younger brother Luca enjoyed more success in goal for Madrid the following year, captaining his team to the final where they lost on penalties to Aspire International.

However – perhaps unsurprisingly - neither Enzo nor Luca have progressed at the same rate as their famous father. Luca remains at Madrid but, at the age of 20, has made just one league appearance for Los Blancos, and is their third choice keeper. Enzo, meanwhile, left Real in 2017 without featuring in La Liga, moving on to Alaves where he only played twice. Now 23, he is currently registered with Lausanne in Switzerland, but on loan at Majadahonda in Spain’s second tier.

Andri Gudjohnsen will be leading the line today in Madrid’s quarter-final tie against Kashiwa Reysol. Interestingly, his background is similar to mine, because both his father and grandfather were professional footballers.

He will have had it drummed into him from an early age that, if he is to succeed, he has to be completely single-minded. Put simply, there isn’t a defender in the world who will pull out of a tackle with him just because he has a famous surname, and mental toughness can be just as important as physical talent.

I can relate to the kids coming through whose fathers are legends of the game. They’re not getting preferential treatment, because they still have to produce where it matters – on the field. There are only 11 names on the teamsheet each week and if you’re not performing, you won’t be one of them - no matter what your name is.

Nick Summerbee is an analyst and commentator for Al Kass Sports Channels