WHEN I first heard of Celtic’s decision to play 13-year-old Karamoko Dembele in an Under-20s match, my first thought was the sad tale of Freddy Adu.
Famed for his incredible prowess as a 14-year-old in the legendary football management simulation game Championship Manager, the American teen became a household name without having achieved anything in the sport.
After becoming the youngest ever athlete to sign a professional contract in America, the expectancy on the Ghana-born immigrant was huge.
Thrust into the DC United first team, still aged only 14, Adu initially fared well – finishing the season with five goals – but ultimately it was too much too soon.
Being exposed to TV cameras, punditry, column inches and fans will eventually lead to criticism, the type of which a child is not mature enough to deal with.
In an interview with BBC in 2012, Adu admitted: “I said yes to everything that was asked of me and ended up doing a lot of appearances, a lot of promotion, a lot of interviews, and it took away from the football on the field. People saw me more as a marketing tool.”
Through no fault of his own, the wheels soon came off for poor Freddy Adu, and the early suggestions that he would one day play for Manchester United, Real Madrid or Barcelona faded into obscurity.
He did play for Benfica, one of the sleeping giants of European football, but only in 11 league games over a period of four years, and his list of clubs thereafter features virtual unknowns like Belenenses, Bahia and Jagodina.
The USA national team had given up on him by 2011 as he finished his senior international career with a measly 17 caps and two goals.
Now aged 27, Adu still plays professionally with Tampa Bay Rowdies in America’s second tier, but the commercial appearances, endorsements and interviews have dried up, much like his stale career.
It’s been a sad, slow demise for Adu, and one can only hope history does not repeat itself with Celtic’s Karamoko Dembele, the London-born 13-year-old who came on as a substitute in the club’s 3-1 win over Hearts Under-20s on Monday.
— Copa90 (@Copa90) October 4, 2016
The term ‘if you are good enough, you are old enough’ does not sit well with me in this case.
Sure, he’s a very talented boy – just watch the YouTube videos of him running rings around his peers in other youth games – but remarkable physical ability does not make him ready to play with adults.
I don’t know anything about Dembele’s personality, but as a 13-year-old he could be forgiven for being petrified when entering a changing room packed with lads aged 18, 19 and 20.
Then there’s the physical risk. The pictures of the adolescent coming on to compete alongside what are effectively grown men are laughable, yet absurd.
Quite why the Celtic U20s coaching team felt it necessary to bring him on at 3-1 up with nine minutes to play is beyond me. Nine minutes is enough time for a kid to get clattered and suffer a serious injury at the hands of someone twice their size.
But it’s more the mental vulnerability about this that bugs me. Bookmakers Ladbrokes have already been offering odds on how good he’ll become, putting a price on whether or not he’ll outscore Henrik Larsson or one day play for Barcelona.
That’s effectively making money off whether or not a child will fulfil his potential, pressure a 13-year-old can do without.
I dare say Wayne Rooney could have held his own in an Everton U20s game aged 13, but the club were sensible enough to wait until he was 16 to unleash him into the limelight.
Dembele’s physique and mental maturity will change enormously over the next three years, so much so that he may well be ready for the first team, on both fronts, by the age of 16.
Celtic fans were already well aware of Dembele’s talent, but by creating headlines worldwide – everyone from CNN to The Guardian reported the news – I fear the Bhoys have put his progression at an unnecessary risk.
In this ever-evolving digital age, footballers need thick skins more so than ever. Here’s hoping Karamoko Dembele is not another Freddy Adu.