Ronaldo, Rooney, Robben: The most valuable U21s in 2004 and where they are now

Wayne Rooney vs Charlton

2004 was a big 12 months for football.

It was the year Jose Mourinho truly announced himself to the world as his Porto side won the Champions League, while Arsenal also completed their 'Invincibles' campaign, something no top-flight English side has been able to repeat since.

It was also a special time for young talents, it seems. Transfermarkt have released a list of the most valuable players aged 21 or under at the time, and there are some big names included. Here, we take you through the top 15 and see what they have been up to since.

The ranking

15. Diego – market value in 2004: €10m

Diego was a 19-year-old still making his way in the game at Santos at the start 2004. His performances there earned him a switch to Porto later on in the year, but he blossomed into the playmaker we fondly remember in Germany.

Diego Ribas at Porto

He shined both at Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg, winning the DFB Pokal with the former. Moves to Juventus, Atletico Madrid and Fenerbahce failed to get the best out of him, but the former Brazil international is once again enjoying himself, in his homeland with Flamengo, where he was Copa Libertadores champion in 2019.

14. Vincent Kompany - €10m

The Belgian was plying his trade at Anderlecht 17 years ago and was already tipped as a future star.

Vincent Kompany at Anderlecht

The central defender was one of the first signings of the Sheikh Mansour era at Manchester City and, despite the many big names they went on to capture, few were as important. Across 11 years, the Belgian made 360 appearances, captaining the club to four Premier League titles and numerous other trophies. Now, manager of Anderlecht, he has come full circle.

13. Wesley Sneijder - €10m

A product of Ajax's legendary academy – he won't be the last such player on this list – Sneijder made a name for himself as a talented midfielder with an eye for goal.

Wesley Sneijder at Ajax

His performances for the Eredivisie outfit saw him move to Real Madrid but, like other Dutch talents at the time, such as Arjen Robben and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, he failed to make a real impact. Fortunately, Inter Milan were on hand to capture his services, and he helped the Italian outfit to the treble under Mourinho in 2009. With the Netherlands, he reached one World Cup final and one semi-final, losing both, and ended his career with 134 caps.

12. Emmanuel Adebayor - €12m

Adebayor's controversial nature often threatened to overshadow his footballing ability, but he was undoubtedly a very talented striker.



In the Premier League, he regularly scored goals for Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham. Crossing the north London divide is bad enough, although it was during his spell with the Cityzens that he most angered the Gunners supporters. His celebration after scoring against his former club at the Etihad Stadium, when he ran the length of the pitch towards the Arsenal fans, is one of the Premier League's most infamous moments. Somewhat of a journeyman, the forward played for ten clubs, the most recent being Olimpia in Paraguay, while he also represented Togo at the 2006 World Cup.

11. Rafael van der Vaart - €12m

Van der Vaart was much like his former Ajax colleague Sneijder, a talented playmaker who knew where the back of the net was.

Rafael van der Vaart in Netherlands action

Real Madrid swooped for the midfielder in 2008 after he had impressed with his Ajax and Hamburg, but much like Sneijder, the Santiago Bernabeu did not see the best of him. His deadline day move to Tottenham in 2010 came as a shock, but it was a stroke of genius from Harry Redknapp. Along with the likes of Gareth Bale, van der Vaart fired Spurs to the Champions League. A 109-time Netherlands international, he also played in the 2010 World Cup final, albeit from the bench.

10. Michael Essien - €12m

Only injuries stopped the 'Bison' from becoming an undisputed Premier League legend at Chelsea, who signed him from Lyon for a club-record £24.4m in 2005.

Michael Essien at Lyon

A no-nonsense midfielder, Essien formed an imperious partnership with Claude Makelele in the middle of the park as the Blues won the Premier League for the second successive time in 2006. Those three first campaigns were easily his best, with his body unable to stay healthy afterwards. Still, he ended his career with four league titles, as well as appearances for Euro giants Real Madrid and AC Milan, while he also represented Ghana at the 2006 World Cup.

9. Andres Iniesta - €12m

One of the very best playmakers the world has ever seen and, along with Xavi and Sergio Busquets, part of a midfield trio that dominated the game at club and international level.

Andres Iniesta in 2005

Iniesta made his debut for Barcelona in 2002, but it wasn't until Pep Guardiola arrived six years later that his talent was truly unlocked. A four-time Champions League winner, Iniesta also scored the goal that won Spain their first-ever World Cup in 2010 – that year, only Lionel Messi stopped him from taking home the Ballon d'Or trophy. His departure from the Camp Nou contributed to Barca's recent struggles, although he has enjoyed more success as captain of Japanese side Vissel Kobe.

8. Daniele De Rossi - €14m

Like his friend and compatriot Francesco Totti, De Rossi wore his heart on his sleeve for AS Roma.

Daniele De Rossi in action for Roma

While Totti was the attacking star, De Rossi was the heartbeat of the side for 18 years. After the former had retired, the tenacious midfielder even captained the side from 2017, guiding them to a Champions League semi-final in 2019. That would effectively be his final act at the Stadio Olimpico and, after 616 appearances for his boyhood club, he moved to Boca Juniors, although he only managed seven outings there.

For Italy, he amassed 117 caps and was a member of the side that won the 2006 World Cup, although he missed four matches after elbowing the USA's Brian McBride in the Azzurri's second group stage clash.

7. Carlos Tevez - €15m

It has often been hard to keep up with Tevez's crazy career, which the Argentinian has not yet officially ended.

Carlos Tevez in 2003

He started out with Boca Juniors, where he was in 2004, before moving to Corinthians. There, he continued to shine, and his move to the Premier League was not a surprise. The destination, however, was – West Ham were far from the most glamorous of outfits, and it proved to be a controversial, and illegal, move. After winning the Champions League at Manchester United, he crossed the town to play for Manchester City, although he ultimately departed the Etihad in more controversy after refusing to play against Bayern Munich.

From there, he joined Juventus, and Boca Juniors once more, before becoming the highest-paid player ever in 2016 when he switched to Shanghai Shenhua. Last seen during a third spell at Boca, he has not retired and has left his options open. Who knows what could happen next!!

6. Cristiano Ronaldo - €18m

Given what he has since achieved, it is hard to believe Ronaldo's ability was questioned back in 2004.

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Although clearly talented, his obsession with stepovers and fancy tricks caused plenty of debate. However, Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson stood by him and eventually turned him into a goalscoring machine. At Real Madrid, he became a bonafide superstar, and continues to find the back of the net with almost-unparalleled regularity at the age of 36.

With Portugal, he has made an astonishing 184 appearances, while his 115 strikes are more than any other player at international level.

5. Arjen Robben - €20m

Dominant showings at Groningen and PSV convinced Roman Abramovich to capture Robben in 2004.

Injuries perhaps stopped the winger from showing his best at Stamford Bridge, but Chelsea supporters still fondly remember him for his dazzling ability on the flanks. After moving to, and leaving, Real Madrid, Robben became a club legend at Bayern Munich, winning 18 trophies. That included the 2013 Champions League, when he scored the winner in the final.

Arjen Robben in 2004

Many of his goals came in the same fashion, curled into the top corner with his left foot after cutting in from the right, but defenders were powerless to stop him even though they knew what he was going to do. Across 14 years, he appeared 96 times for the Netherlands, including in the 2010 World Cup final – although, given his miss when one-on-one with Victor Valdes with the scores level, it is a match he would no doubt rather forget.

4. Robinho - €22m

Robinho's career is a case of what might have been, with his attitude on and off the pitch his greatest downfall.

Robinho vs Argentina

Picked out by Pele himself as his heir apparent, Robinho stood out at Santos before a move to Real Madrid materialised. There, he showed flashes of his brilliance, but failed to live up to expectations, something which repeated itself at Manchester City. His disappointing work rate has been a problem throughout his time as a player, and although he impressed on occasion at AC Milan, he never became the player he should have been.

In 2017, he was convicted of rape and sentenced to nine years in prison, although he has yet to serve that sentence due to Brazilian anti-extradition laws.

3. Fernando Torres - €25m

Another case of unfulfilled potential, although not for want of trying on Torres' part.

Although he was only 23 when he departed Atletico Madrid in 2007, he was already a club legend. The move to Liverpool was a huge success, and he cemented his status as one of the best strikers in the world after scoring the winner in the Euro 2008 final for Spain against Germany.

Fernando Torres in 2005

Injury in 2010, though, cut him down in his prime, even if that only became apparent across the next few seasons. Chelsea paid a then-British record of £50m to sign the Spaniard a year later, but although his time in London was his most successful from a silverware point of view, he was a shadow of his former self.

His goal against Barcelona in the 2012 Champions League semi-final was a cult moment for 'Blues' fans. A spell with AC Milan and a return to Atletico Madrid followed before he retired at Sagan Tosu, while for Spain, he was a part of both European Championship successes and the World Cup win.

2. Jose Antonio Reyes - €35m

Before his tragic passing in 2019, Reyes had carved out an impressive career on the football field.

The Spaniard burst onto the scene with Sevilla before Arsenal swooped for his services in January of the 2003-04 campaign. While Reyes' performances were at times erratic, he contributed with important goals later on in the season as the Gunners went the whole Premier League campaign unbeaten.

Jose Antonio Reyes playing for Arsenal

Suffering from homesickness, he returned to Spain in 2006 with Real Madrid and went on to play for Sevilla once more, as well as Atletico Madrid and Espanyol, amongst others. Throughout his career, he won a whole host of trophies, including five Europa Leagues.

Sadly, he was involved in a car crash two years ago due to a vehicle malfunction and died at the scene.

1. Wayne Rooney - €37m

It is a testament to Rooney's ability that many feel he had more to offer despite all he achieved in the game.

The Liverpudlian was already a star at 16 after scoring against Arsenal for Everton and, by the time he was 18 in 2004, he was already turning out for Manchester United. It would prove to be a match made in heaven – Rooney remains the 'Red Devils'' all-time top goalscorer and helped them win five Premier League titles and a Champions League to boot.

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He has also scored more goals for England than any other player, although his performances at international tournaments other than Euro 2004 left a lot to be desired.

In 2017, he departed for Everton, then D.C United, before retiring at Derby County, where he is now manager.

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