LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - Three Iberian prodigies who went to Merseyside as starlets will line up in the opening game of the African Nations Cup on Saturday looking to add some lustre to careers that have failed to sparkle.
Francisco Junior, Emmanuel Mendy and Toni Silva were snapped up by Everton and Liverpool as teenagers but never made the grade in the Premier League.
Now the stage of a major continental championship gives them the opportunity to put aside past disappointment and revive careers that have not lived up to their promise. They will all play for Guinea Bissau, who make their Nations Cup debut in Saturday’s opening match in Libreville against hosts Gabon.
There will be a debut for 24-year-old Junior, who has recently switched his international allegiance to the country where he was born before moving to Portugal as a child.
Versatile defender Emmanuel Mendy, who grew up in Spain, went from Murcia to Liverpool’s academy, aged 18, in 2008 and spent four years at the club.
But despite getting a squad number for the 2010-11 season, he never played and has led a nomadic existence since, appearing for clubs in Georgia, Latvia and Romania, where his last team went bankrupt after relegation.
Silva, 23, has already played once for Guinea Bissau, scoring on his debut in his country’s shock win over Zambia in June that catapulted the unfancied former Portuguese colony into the finals for the first time.
Like Junior, he is also Bissau-born, an ex-Benfica product and a Portuguese junior international.
Silva left Liverpool, also without getting a game, for Barnsley, who released him after a single outing and inside a year. Over the last two years he has played at clubs in Bulgaria, Turkey, Portugal and now at Levadiakos in Greece.
Junior, who will be 25 next week, was signed on a long-term contract by Everton but played just 45 minutes of first-team football in four years and is now in Norway, having developed a reputation for ill-discipline.
“When I came to Everton I was doing very, very well and waiting for my chance. But for the manager it didn’t always matter what I was doing on the pitch, but what I was doing off it,” he said in an interview with the Liverpool Echo last year.
“But I didn’t really care what I was doing outside the club because I didn’t have the support of anyone. I was doing whatever I wanted. Before, I didn’t drink alcohol, I didn’t go out and when I lost my head I had nobody to support me. That is one of the [reasons] why I didn’t make it at Everton.”
Guinea Bissau’s unlikely qualification is an opportunity to get back into the spotlight and revive lost dreams. The team is not given much chance but Silva says they can do well.
“We are a team that does not count on any star player but with unity and determination from the players, we can do well at the Nations Cup,” he told reporters in the build-up to the opening game.
Editing by Neville Dalton