Joel Campbell: The Prodigy Who Peaked at International Level But Couldn’t Cut it at Arsenal

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Joel Campbell in action for Arsenal in the FA Cup | Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images

Danny Karbassiyoon had already finished his playing career by the age of 26. A former Arsenal left-back with caps for the United States at youth level, he had taken a job with the Gunners as a scout working in North America.

In July 2011, he found an 19-year-old winger who was starting to get recognition in Costa Rica’s first division. He and Arsenal took on a chance on the player in question.

Less than a month later, Arsenal announced the signing of Joel Campbell.

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Joel Campbell joined Arsenal when he was just 19 | GLYN KIRK/Getty Images

As Campbell prepared for life at a Premier League club, his progress was stopped in its tracks when he failed to obtain a work permit. He went off on loan, making his debut in Europe’s top five leagues at Lorient, where regular game time enabled him to hone his skills.

The following season, he was in La Liga, getting even more game time at an even better club, registering an impressive 28 league appearances for Real Betis.

July 2013 saw the now fully fledged Costa Rica international finally get that work permit. But there was no space for Campbell in Arsene Wenger’s squad. Olympiacos came calling, and Campbell obliged by delivering his most productive season to date.

The Greek giants won the league, largely thanks to Campbell’s eight league goals and 11 league assists. Three further strikes in other competitions capped off a brilliant season.

Still only 21, Campbell travelled out to Brazil that summer on the back of some blistering form. Costa Rica had qualified for their first World Cup since 2006, but were largely tipped to exit at the first hurdle, thanks to their spot in a group of death with Uruguay, Italy and England. With seven World Cup titles between them, most thought the aforementioned trio would each slam Costa Rica, leaving them pointless from three games.

The gods were watching down favourably on Campbell and Costa Rica, though.

Campbell put together one of the greatest performances of his career as Costa Rica stunned Uruguay to win their opener. His front-on volley that cancelled out Edinson Cavani’s opener cannoned past Fernando Muslera like a rocket. That ball is still spinning today.

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The Uruguayan defence watches Campbell’s thunderous volley find the net at the 2014 World Cup | Michael Steele/Getty Images

After his wonderful pass had allowed Marco Ureña to put the minnows two goals ahead, Campbell turned from chance creator to game killer, wasting time with smart turns that irritated the impatient Uruguayans. Costa Rica duly held on for a famous and unlikely victory.

A 1-0 win over Italy and a 0-0 draw with England meant Costa Rica topped the group. The unthinkable had happened. Campbell scored his penalty as the Central Americans squeezed past Greece in a shootout at the round of 16 stage. The Ticos were through to the quarter finals, in what was already their best World Cup campaign in history before they had even kicked a ball against the Netherlands.

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Costa Rica’s 2014 World Cup squad is widely regarded as their strongest ever | RONALDO SCHEMIDT/Getty Images

This was a wonderful Holland team, spearheaded by the incomparable Arjen Robben and the insuppressible Robin van Persie. Campbell and his teammates pushed the Dutch all the way, but Keylor Navas couldn’t repeat his heroics in this penalty shootout.

The Netherlands went through. Costa Rica were out.

But Campbell was one of the tournament’s best players. His football career was destined to take off. Suddenly, everyone was taking notice of this young star and were jealous of the player Arsenal had on their hands.

He got his opportunity, but a very average first half-season saw him sent back out on loan yet again. Villarreal took him on from January until the summer of 2015.

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Campbell spent the second half of the 2014/15 season on loan at Villarreal | Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Finally, in 2015/16, Campbell was given a full season to show Wenger and his colleagues what he could do. He was staying firmly put in north London. The 23-year-old racked up 30 appearances for the Gunners that season, finding the net twice each against Sunderland and Swansea.

For the most part, his performances were good. Wenger was pleased with him, and his Arsenal career looked like it was just beginning to take flight.

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The 2015/16 campaign was Campbell’s only as an Arsenal regular | Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images

Just as things were looking up though, Campbell was sent on loan again, this time to Sporting CP in Portugal. He scored twice in a 4-0 win over the Unites States in a crucial 2018 World Cup qualifier midway through an otherwise average season.

Never a particularly prolific scorer – three goals in 28 matches for the Primeira Liga side can attest to that – and nine appearances the following term, back at Betis on loan, wasn’t enough either. After a disappointing 2018 World Cup, in which Costa Rica came bottom of their group, Campbell was sold by Arsenal.

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The Costa Rican has cut a frustrated figure in Mexico | Hector Vivas/Getty Images

Newly promoted Frosinone of Serie A would be his next destination. It was to be his biggest disappointment yet. In 17 league matches, Campbell failed to win a single game or even score a goal. It was agreed he would join Mexican Liga MX side Club León for a season and a half. His time in Mexico has been underwhelming, too.

As the once so exciting, fast and capable winger approaches his 28th birthday, the football world is already looking back on his as a career of what might have been.

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