Gaël Kakuta leaves a legacy of hype and false hope behind at Stamford Bridge

As the Radamel Falcao to Chelsea story gathers pace (unlike the striker himself during his time at Manchester United), Gaël Kakuta has quietly left Stamford Bridge for Sevilla.

The winger, who’s represented France at junior levels, made a massive impact at Chelsea – but not on the field. He’ll be remembered in London as an example of the lengths to which clubs will go, the money they will spend, to sign promising youngsters who’ve achieved nothing except the creation of hype. And of how often they fail to meet hopes and expectations.

Born in Lille, Kakuta was labeled the “next Zidane” – pretty much a prerequisite for any exciting French attacking midfielder back in the mid-2000s. He developed though the Lens youth system, starting with them at age nine, and signed a pre-contract agreement at age 14 stating he would join as a professional at 17.

Chelsea wanted him and believed that the pre-contract agreement was not enforceable because of his age. After the clubs failed to agree on a fee, Kakuta moved to London anyway, signing on his 16th birthday on the basis that he was a free agent.

He was the Chelsea academy side’s top scorer in 2007-08. “His natural talent is amazing,” Frank Lampard said.

Lens complained to FIFA. In 2009, FIFA — seemingly fearing a free-for-all on young players that would destroy its transfer values if Chelsea was allowed to get away with signing Kakuta and not compensating Lens — found the teenager guilty of breach of contract and found Chelsea guilty of inducing him to breach his contract.

Chelsea, then, according to that verdict, had poached Kakuta. “Stolen” him, if you want to be sensationalist about it. And if you believe that it is OK for soccer clubs to in essence own the employment rights of children.

The club and player were together ordered to pay Lens about $1 million compensation. Kakuta received a four-month ban and, most dramatically, Chelsea was banned from signing players for the next two transfer windows.

Not surprisingly, the case became a big deal, dominating the news agenda. It was headed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport until, in 2010, Chelsea and Lens, who were in financial trouble and needed money, reached an out-of-court settlement reported to be about $1.5 million.

Meanwhile, what was happening to Kakuta on the field? Not much. He suffered an ankle injury at 18 that stunted his progress. But he started to get occasional first-team action under Carlo Ancelotti’s management. After Ancelotti was fired in 2011, though, Kakuta didn’t get near the starting lineup again.

He’s been more or less constantly out on loan since January, 2011: to Fulham, Bolton, Dijon, Vitesse Arnhem, Lazio and Rayo Vallecano, where he made 35 appearances and scored five goals this season. So his reputation in Spain is on the rise, and he’s finally looking like an established first-team player. And he’s still only 23.

As he finally leaves Stamford Bridge for good, eight years after he arrived, the story of Gael Kakuta is now one of yet another prodigious Chelsea youth player who failed to make the grade at a club constantly under pressure to win now, with the resources to sign experienced internationals whenever it wants. But at the time, when his name was making headlines across England and Europe long before he’d made his professional debut, he represented far more fundamental questions about soccer’s problematic relationships with youth, talent, money and freedom. About a sport that monetizes and asserts ownership over kids.

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