By age 21, Drogba realized that he had to establish himself as a player soon or else he would have little chance of becoming a professional footballer. He made his first team debut for Le Mans soon thereafter and signed his first professional contract in 1999.
Miroslav Klose worked as a builder and brick-layer before starting football, and while playing at FC Homburg at the ages of 19-20 (who were in the 5th division of Germany when he played) in 1999. After this initial phase of developing his foundations, his talents were fully fledged and demonstrated suddenly and dramatically on the world stage at the World Cup 2002, where he claimed the Golden Boot.
Luca Toni, now 33, was a journeyman of Serie B and Serie C1 before signing for Palermo (then an ambitious Serie B outfit) in 2003. 30 goals in his debut season brought promotion and 21 goals the following year, his first in Serie A, brought acclaim. For Fiorentina he scored 33 goals and for Bayern Munich an incredible 39 goals in his debut seasons for the respective clubs. Luca Toni went from obscurity to being one of the most prolific goal scorers in Europe for five years (and this all happened after the age of 25 in the topflight).
Ian Wright came to professional football relatively late. Despite having had trials at Southend United and Brighton during his teens, he was unable to attract sufficient interest to win a professional contract offer. Reverting to playing for amateur and non-league teams, he was left disillusioned about his chances of a career as a professional footballer. A Crystal Palace talent scout, Peter Prentice, happened to see Wright playing for Dulwich Hamlet and invited him to have a trial at Selhurst Park. Having impressed then-manager Steve Coppell, he signed professional terms for Crystal Palace in August 1985, just three months short of his 22nd birthday. Good article on those players mentioned here.
Van Nisterlooy started his career with second division dutch team Den Bosch when he was 19.
Kevin Phillips (born July 25th, 1973) was released by Southampton in his youth and signed for a non-league semi-professional side, Baldock Town, where he was moved to a striker role; eventually he was signed by Watford on 19 December 1994 for £10,000. He went on to play over 500+ games for teams like Sunderland and Aston Villa. He also represented England for a short time.
D.J. Campbell was released by Aston Villa when he was a trainee. When he was 18, he moved to English 7th division club, Chesam United. After moving around clubs in the non-professional, 5th – 7th level of English Football, he finally got his chance when he moved to Brentford when he was 24 years old! He later played for Blackpool in the EPL.
Maurice Edu is all the more amazing when you consider his story. Freddy Adu and Santino Quaranta were called into the US team at 16. Landon Donovan and Bobby Convey at 17. All of the previously mentioned players featured for a US Youth National Team before the age of 16. Maurice Edu’s first ever appearance for any US team was at the age of 21, in a full international against Switzerland. Maurice played three years for his college team (Maryland) and got drafted to MLS club Toronto FC when he was 21. He then signed for the famous Glasgow Rangers in 2008 and has made 72 apps for them since.
Anton Peterlin was playing for amateur teams in the USL and PDL and played for his American college team at California Polytechnic State University. It wasn’t until he was recommended by Graham Smith coach of the Fusion in the USL, recommended Peterlin to David Moyes, then manager of Premier League club Everton. After impressing during a ten-day trial during the 2008–09 season, Everton announced on July 6, 2009, that they would sign him to a one-year contract. Since then he has played for Plymouth Argyle and Walsall.
Javi Varas arrived at Sevilla FC aged 23, after having only played amateur football in Andalusia (although he had been bought by the club two years earlier). He spent his first three seasons with the B team, contributing with 13 games in 2006–07 as it promoted to Segunda División for the first time ever, and training now and then with the main squad. Although he was spotted by his mentor at Sevilla, Pablo Blanco, when he was 11, Varas didn’t make his competitive debut for the first team until close to his 27th birthday. The highlight of his career has been stopping a penalty taken by Lionel Messi. This story is pretty inspring, the story of a late bloomer in detail. Read more here.
So there are 10 players that didn’t go pro until late. Proof that we all have every chance to do the same!
I’m creating a training program to help players improve on their own terms. Click here for more.
UPDATED: Even more players have been added to this list!
Gazika Toquero – Click here to read about him.
Dado Pršo – A car mechanic and playing in French amateur leagues, he was 25yrs old when Tigana (Monaco coach) saw him play by accident. at 30 yrs old he walked through a guard of honor led by Barry Ferguson in front of 50.000 fans at Ibrox stadium (rangers). He also played in Uefa champions League final for Monaco and Euro and World cups for Croatia. More info here.
Michael Richardson – http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/12896192 – Electrician until 18 and then signed to Newcastle More news here.
Ollie Palmer – 20 Yr old playing in Blue Square South (6th division) had interest from Chelsea!
Ramires — Chelsea’s Ramires was in the Brazil third division when he was 19/20 yrs old before joining Cruzirero in the Brazillian 1st division. News here
Yuto Nagamoto – He played for his High school team in Japan and attended Meiji University until he was 21 where he was signed by the J-league club FC Tokyo. He played well for them, played for the national team, played well in the 2010 World Cup and It was not until 23-24 years old where he was signed on loan to Seria A, AC Cesena and shortly after the Asian cup in January 2011, he was signed by Inter Milan and has been a regular starter ever since.
Edin Dzeko – Age 19 he was on load to a 2nd division czech club, played in the best league in the Czech Republic until the age of 21 and got his break at Wolfsburg.
Bradley Pritchard (Quite an amazing story for those of you have parents nagging you to go and study at university.. pro football is possible even after it) – Started his career at Carshalton Athletic in the 7th division of England at age 19, from age 20 to 22, he was playing in the 6th Division, Conference North club Nuneaton Borough. He then moved to Tamworth who were playing in Conference North and then promoted to Conference National until the age of 24. At 25 he was still playing in the Conference! Until Charlton of League one a the time, saw his potential and gave him a short trial in the 2011-2012 season. Charlton have just been promoted! So Bradley Pritchard will be playing in the Championship next season against teams like Bolton and Wolverhampton! More about him here
Emanuele Giaccherini – Started his career at Cesena when he was 19, but was put on loan for four seasons at various Lega Pro (Itallian 3rd division) clubs. He bounced around 3rd division clubs until he was 23. It was then Cesena was relegated to the Lega pro division and he went back to help them be promoted twice in a row to Serie A. He played well and he was rewarded with the ultimate move, when he was signed to Juventus in 2011 at the age of 26. He started against Spain in the first match of this years Euro tournament.
Hirofumi Moriyasu – At 24, he was on the verge of quitting football and getting a “normal job”. He was playing in the J3 League in Japan for Mitsubushi Motors Mizushuma FC and then travelled to Australia. “Something tweaked inside me when I was close to quitting. I knew I had to come and try out here. This is unbelievable,” Moriyasu said. He signed a contract with A-league club Sydney FC and has never looked back!
Matt Smith – 29 years old and currently plays for the Brisbane Roar in the A-League. Matt has a Bachelors degree in Marketing and a MASTERS degree in Sports Management. He attended University in England and represented various University clubs before eventually returning to Australia and getting a contract to play in the a-league. Anything is possible.
Geoff Cameron (born Jul, 1985) – Cameron began playing college soccer with the West Virginia Mountaineers and the Rhode Island Rams (2004-2007), as well as USL Premier Development League side Rhode Island Stingrays (2005-2007), before being drafted by Major League Soccer club Houston Dynamo in 2008 and signing his first pro contract at age 22. After an impressive second season in professional soccer Cameron was named as MLS Best XI in 2009 and helped Houston reach the MLS Cup 2011 where they lost in the final to the Los Angeles Galaxy. In August 2012 he joined English Premier League side Stoke City.
Jay DeMerit – If you read any of these stories this is the most inspiring. Played college soccer. Not picked in MLS draft and failed at tryouts. Moved to England with hardly any money. Played for Southall in the ninth tier at age 23 getting paid 40 pounds a week and at 24 joined Northwood in the 7th tier of English football where he played against Watford in a pre season friendly. The rest is history… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jay_DeMerit
Adamo Coulibaly – He was born and begin playing in the east side of Paris, a neighborhood filled with immigrants and low class workers. He played for several French amateur teams up until the age of 25 when he began playing for AS Poissy in the 4th league of France (still an amateur league, but an improvement). According to wikipedia, Coulibaly scored 11 goals in 23 appearances at the club and his good play led him to the professional ranks in the Belgian 2nd division where he began playing for St. Truiden. He then transferred to Royal Antwerp playing at the 16,000+ seater Bosuilstadion 32 times during the 2008-2009 season. He now plays for Debrecen, the Hungarian champions and has participated in Champions League games and won the Hungarian cup and league on several occasions.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – Born in 1973, Before he moved to England, Solskjær completed a year’s national service in the Norwegian army, and played part time for Third Division Norwegian Clausenengen F.K., later moving to Norwegian Premier League Molde F.K. in 1994. He joined United on 29 July 1996, for a transfer fee of £1.5m.
Lee Tuck – From non-league to Football king of Thailand. Struggling to make an impact in England and following a spell with non-league Farsley Celtic, he arrived in Thailand in 2010 after taking up a friend’s invitation to play for Nakhon Pathom FC. A move to Thailand’s capital to play for Bangkok FC – in the country’s second tier – soon followed and the Huddersfield man’s adventurous spirit is being rewarded in a big way. Since signing for Bangkok FC, he has scored 45 goals in 60 appearances, winning Thailand’s Golden Boot last season.
Sergio Torres – How a brick maker realized Old Trafford dream
Jamie Vardy – On 21 September 2014, 27 year-old Jamie Vardy delivered a man of the match performance by scoring one goal and setting up the other four as Leicester made a surprise comeback from 3-1 down to a 5-3 victory against Manchester United. This was also his first Premier League goal, but just three years earlier, Vardy was sent off in a blue square premier league match (5th tier) at Stockbridge. Jamie Vardy: Leicester City striker’s remarkable rise.
Jordan Stewart – From semi-professional Glenovan to Swindon Town
This just proves you don’t need to come through the youth system at a very young age. So don’t stress, you have plenty of time to “make it”. You can start your career playing part-time. Do well in the lower leagues and if you shine there, then there’s nothing stopping you from moving on up. However, these days talent is not enough to get you through the gap. You need connections. You need opportunities. But how do you get them? Of course some people have family, cousins and that uncle who can help their relatives get placed in a big football club. Maybe they got spotted at the park one day or a scout saw them play in a match by chance. For most of us, it doesn’t come that way…
Meanwhile, I’m in the process of creating a training program to help players improve on their own. You don’t need fancy football academies or expensive training camps to get better at football. Your best bet may be to start from the bottom leagues and climb your way to the top as many of these players have done. Good luck!