When talented players emerge from prestigious academies, the hype around them reaches near folklore status.
The whole ‘one of our own’ mantra, the prodigy nurtured by the city who brings more pride to supporters than any expensive signing could. An embodiment of every fan’s dream of playing for the club that helped raise them. It’s deeper than football. It’s symbolic.
For decades, this has been a prominent path for wonderkids eager to etch their names into greatness. Marcus Rashford, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Aitana Bonmatí, Leah Williamson, Laurina Fazer. The list of players who've made the journey from academy player to first team regular and burgeoning household name is a coveted one.
And we’ve seen countless players try (and fail) to walk this tightrope but Xavi Simons - perhaps the poster boy for wonderkids - is forging a different path to greatness.
Simons signed to Barça’s famed La Masia academy at just seven years old. Videos of his skills and rousing team talks went viral, turning him into an internet sensation before his professional career even began.
By the age of 14, Simons already racked up over a million followers on Instagram and had a dedicated social media team to handle all the demand that came with such a following. He had it all – the name, the notoriety, the distinctive look, a cosign from one of the most acclaimed academies in the world. Simons wasn’t just a wonderkid, he was ‘the’ wonderkid.
But the 20-year-old would end up signing his first pro contract at Paris Saint-Germain, reportedly worth up to €1 million. Yet after joining another super club, a pattern was beginning to emerge. There was another glass ceiling on a player who was tipped for the top. Consistent game time was difficult to come by, with Simons starting just three senior games across three seasons for the Parisiens.
Barcelona and PSG are known for bleeding through some of the most talented players on the continent. But they’re also known for splashing the cash on the shiniest toys on the market, pushing a prospect like Simons further and further down the pecking order. Ironically, both clubs have now decided to scale back on their expensive tastes – with Barcelona sacrificing Lionel Messi to meet salary cap limits and PSG moving into a post ‘bling-bling’ era.
But for Simons, the writing was on the wall and his flame was slowly petering out. He could see his potential wasn’t being nurtured in the way he envisioned. The road to the top via the biggest clubs in the world might be a popular one, but it also comes with a lot of congestion. It requires a level of patience and obedience that often suppresses a young baller’s budding self-belief.
How can anyone improve without application? As a small cog in a much larger machine, the child phenom was drifting into adulthood and slowly towards normalcy like many wonderkids before him. How was he going to show the world that he had what it took to convert all his promise into prowess?
A move away from the circus to PSV Eindhoven seemed to be the answer.The Dutch boy going home to become the Dutchman. The wisdom to refine his game, make mistakes and learn from them away from the noise and in front of a more accommodating crowd. The result? 22 goals and 12 assists in 48 appearances, along with a first senior international cap and a place in the 2022 World Cup squad.
But perhaps most importantly, Simons proved the value of taking a more modest route to the elite. That’s what can happen when you bet on yourself without major label backing.
PSG had seen enough to activate the buy-back clause in Simons’ contract just a year after his departure. A loan move to RB Leipzig continued his captivating trajectory.
With four goals and seven assists in 11 Bundesliga games so far, along with some eye-catching performances in the Champions League, Simons is grabbing his potential by the scruff of its neck. Passing, shooting, dribbling, physicality, technique – there’s been a complete maturation of Simons’ game simply because he chose environments that allowed him to grow.
On the face of it, PSV and Leipzig are not as glamorous as Barcelona and PSG. But it takes a level of foresight beyond your average 20-year-old’s capability to be so strategic in your transfers. Particularly for a wonderkid who started at the top. It represents a more scalable route back to the pinnacle.
According to Transfermarkt, Simons’ market value has grown from €4 million to €70 million in just under 18 months. When countless other ballers are waiting for the right opportunity, Simons is out there creating his own.
He already knows what it’s like to be on the radar of the biggest clubs in the world from his teenage years. But after a few years in the wilderness of first-team football, the elite have started circling again as he blossoms into the full article. PSG will be keeping a closer eye than anyone else, while Simons will have his eye on a long-term starting role he was never given the time to grow into.
Ultimately, the biggest football clubs are always looking for immediate solutions. There isn’t a luxury of time needed for youngsters to learn on the job. PSG want to win the Champions League in addition to Ligue 1. Manchester United have been trying to restore the feeling for 10 years. Real Madrid have their white handkerchiefs on deck waiting for any and every ‘disasterclass’.
The stakes are just too high at these teams which means their most talented academy players are thrust into volatile circumstances that often stunt their growth. It’s a level of pressure that’s unsustainable for a player in their formative years.
That’s why Simons deserves credit for his calculated career moves so far. When the big clubs come calling, most players his age would heed the call and fall in line. And who can blame them?
But Simons is separating himself from the pack. He is rewriting the wonderkid’s journey. And the ink hasn’t even dried yet.