Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada (10) celebrates his goal against Columbus Crew during the second half of an MLS playoff soccer match, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Atlanta.

Where are they now? A ‘new Lionel Messi’ for every year since 2006

There will never be another Lionel Messi. Never. But that doesn’t stop skilful dribblers, particularly short, left-footed ones, being dubbed ‘the next Lionel Messi’.

When Messi made his Barcelona debut in 2004, he was quickly hailed as the ‘new Maradona’, a label that was previously given to players like Ariel Ortega, Pablo Aimar and Javier Saviola.

Only a few seasons later, the benchmark was changed: a new generation of skilful young attackers would be dubbed not the ‘new Maradona’ but the ‘new Messi’, a tag that has proven bloody hard to live up to…

2006: Bojan Krkic

Just two years into Messi’s senior career, the website Foot Mercato published an article entitled ‘Bojan Krkic: le futur Messi?’.

Aged just 16 at the time, Bojan had excelled at Barcelona’s La Masia academy and would score 10 goals in 22 appearances for Barcelona B that season before graduating to the first team.

His career has since had its ups and downs. Short spells at Roma, AC Milan and Ajax were followed by a permanent move to Stoke City in 2014.

The forward enjoyed success in his first two seasons but was loaned out in both 2016-17 and 2017-18 before spending a campaign mainly on the bench as Stoke struggled in the Championship. In 2019 he signed for Montreal Impact in MLS and stayed for a year.

After eight months without a club, he joined Vissel Kobe in August 2021, joining fellow former Barcelona player Andreas Iniesta. Bojan retired in March 2023. He’s now back at his boyhood club, helping look after the crop of youngsters sent out on loan.

2007: Gerardo Bruna

Three years after Messi’s debut, Real Madrid thought they had fostered their own version of the Argentine phenomenon: 16-year-old Gerardo Bruna.

But Bruna was quickly snapped up by Liverpool, much to the chagrin of the Spanish side.

Four years on Merseyside produced no first-team appearances, and short spells followed at Blackpool, Huesca back in Spain, Tranmere, and non-league sides Whitehawk and Accrington Stanley.

In 2019, Bruna signed for Northern Irish outfit Derry City and in 2021 he moved to Dublin to play for Shelbourne FC in the Irish second tier.

An ACL injury prevented him from making any appearances and he left the club at the end of the season. He most recently played for Dungannon Swifts.

2008: Mauro Zarate

A familiar name to English football fans, Mauro Zarate has played at four different Premier League clubs: Birmingham, West Ham, QPR and Watford.

The forward moved to Lazio after his Birmingham loan spell, prompting the Italian club’s president, Claudio Lotito, to make some bold claims about his new player.

“The terms of the agreement foresee a valuation of the player which will rise to around 25 million euros because Zarate will turn out better than Lionel Messi,” he said.

Zarate scored 13 goals in 36 appearances in his first Lazio season but has rarely been as prolific since.

In 2018 he moved to Boca Juniors, where he won two league titles before leaving in May 2021 owing to a lack of playing time.

He signed for Brazilian side America Mineiro, helping them to an eighth-placed finish upon their return to the top flight. Zarate now plays for Uruguayan outfit Danubio.

2009: Amir Sayoud

In 2009, Egyptian club Al Ahly turned down the chance to sign Abdessalam Benjelloun of Hibernian.

Their reasoning was simple: they already had a ‘new Messi’ within their ranks.

“We have a young Algerian player called Amir Sayoud and we consider him the young Messi,” Khaled Mortagey, a member of the Al Ahly board, told the BBC.

The comparisons have since ceased; Sayoud made just 12 appearances in four years at Al Ahly and moved on to Algerian top division side CR Belouizdad.

He is now a regular at Saudi top-flight side Al-Raed, after twice winning the Algerian league as well as the cup in 2019.

2010: Gai Assulin

It’s hardly a surprise that many of the youngsters dubbed the ‘next Messi’ have emerged from the La Masia academy.

A few seasons after Bojan’s debut, another hot prospect emerged in the form of Israeli midfielder Gai Assulin, who was compared to Messi after excelling at Barcelona B.

In 2010 he signed for Manchester City on the advice of Yaya Toure. But he would make no first-team appearances at the club before heading back to Spain two years later to join Racing Santander.

Assulin was signed by Kazakhstani club FC Kairat in February 2018 but had his contract terminated by mutual consent just six weeks later, eventually joining Politehnica Iasi in Romania in September 2019.

In 2021, he moved to Crema in Italy’s Serie D but left the club at the end of the season and, after a short spell with Serie D side Unipomezia Virtus, is currently unattached.

2011: Iker Muniain

After making his first-team debut for Athletic Bilbao aged just 16, Iker Muniain quickly earned the label of ‘El Messi del Botxo’ — the Messi of Bilbao.

In the 2011-12 season he reached the finals of the Copa del Rey and Europa League, scoring nine goals in 58 appearances in all competitions.

Despite rumours of a move to Manchester United early in his career, Muniain remains at Bilbao to this day with over 450 appearances for the club to his name at the time of writing. Unlike Messi, he is yet to hit double figures for goals in a single season.

He’s lifted the Supercopa as captain, but missed out on two Copa del Rey losses when both the delayed 2020 final and the 2021 edition were contested within a month.

He earned rightful plaudits for applauding rivals Real Sociedad after they lifted the trophy, although he got his revenge in the Basque derby in February 2022…

2012: Ryo Miyaichi

Branded the ‘Japanese Messi’ and ‘Ryodinho’ after a successful loan spell with Feyenoord in 2011, Arsenal’s Ryo Miyaichi seemed destined for big things.

Loans at Bolton and Wigan were less successful, and the winger would leave Arsenal with just a single Premier League appearance for the Gunners.

Miyaichi moved to German second-tier club FC St. Pauli in 2015. After missing the entire 2017-18 season with a cruciate ligament rupture, the former future Messi, now 26, returned to fitness in 2018-19 to score five goals.

More injury issues saw him play just one game in 2020-21, however, and in July 2021 he returned home to sign for Yokohoma F. Marinos.

2013: Ryan Gauld

In 2013, 17-year-old Scottish attacking midfielder Ryan Gauld was being labelled the ‘Baby Messi’.

Gauld himself wasn’t so sure. “The comparison to Messi is quite laughable,” he told The Guardian. “It is good to read, I just don’t think about it too much.”

A year later, the Scot signed for Sporting Lisbon for £3million. He only ever played five times but a couple of outstanding seasons with Algarve club Farense earned him a move to Vancouver Whitecaps in MLS.

2014: Alen Halilovic

When Barcelona signed 17-year-old Croatian midfielder Alen Halilovic in 2014, the comparisons were obvious — especially with Halilovic sporting a Messi-like mop of hair.

Those close to the player seemed to agree. Halilovic was signed from Dinamo Zagreb, whose head coach Zoran Mamic called the youngster “a Messi-type player if there ever was one”.

In 2016, Barcelona sold Halilovic to Hamburg, who then loaned the player to Las Palmas for 18 months.

The 23-year-old moved to AC Milan in the summer of 2018 but was loaned out to Standard Liege and Heerenveen before joining Birmingham in November 2020.

Seventeen appearances for the Midlands club saw him offered an extension to his one-season deal, but he turned it down and moved to Reading instead.

Halilovic is currently turning out for Eredivisie club Fortuna Sittard.

2015: Martin Odegaard

There was massive hype around Norwegian teenager Martin Odegaard when he made his league debut for Stromsgodset aged just 15.

In 2015 he was snapped up by Real Madrid, who kept him in the Castilla squad for two seasons before sending him on loan to Heerenveen in the Dutch Eredivisie between January 2017 and May 2018.

He then spent a season at Vitesse before another temporary transfer, this time to Real Sociedad in Spain where Odegaard started to really catch the eye.

Another successful loan at Arsenal followed and the deal was made permanent. He is now tearing it up for Mikel Arteta’s ambitious Gunners side and will be hoping to captain them to glory this season.

Arsenal transfer target Houssem Aouar of Olympique Lyon walks in the field during the Ligue 1 Uber Eats match between Lyon and Strasbourg at Groupama Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Lyon, France.

READ: Martin Odegaard: Revisiting the four alternatives Arsenal chased in 2021

2016: Lee Seung-woo

Barcelona’s South Korean winger Lee Seung-woo was hyped as the next Messi not by a click-hungry journalist but by Barcelona legend Xavi.

“In one or two years he will be in the first team,” Xavi predicted.

Xavi, now Barcelona manager, was wrong.

In 2017, Lee was sold for €1.4million euros to Italian side Verona, for whom he made 43 appearances and scored two goals before joining Sint-Truiden in Belgium a couple of years later.

For the 2021-22 season, he has was sent out on loan to Portuguese outfit Portimonense but they opted not to trigger his buy option and he left Sint-Truiden.

After a few months without a club, he returned to his native South Korea with Suwon FC in January 2022.

He has 11 senior caps for South Korea at the time of writing, all of which came in 2018 and 2019.

2017: Pietro Pellegri

In May 2017, Genoa’s 16-year-old Italian starlet Pietro Pellegri became the first player born in the 21st century to score a goal in Serie A.

To those at Genoa, it was hardly a surprise. Two years prior, club chairman Enrico Preziosi had boldly proclaimed: “We have the new Messi.”

Pellegri moved to Monaco for €25 million in January 2018 after which injury problems restricted him to six appearances in two and a half seasons.

In 2020-21, he recovered to play 16 times in Ligue 1 and got a first cap for Italy in November 2020.

He moved to AC Milan on loan for the 2021-22 season with the idea being the deal would be made permanent, but his loan was mutually terminated in January to allow him to move to Torino on loan instead for more game time – who he joined permanently in the summer.

Aged just 22, time is on his side.

2018: Minty the badger

In July 2018, ITV News reported that a 15-week-old badger named Minty had been rescued from a roadside in Stratford-upon-Avon.

“Could Minty the badger be the next Lionel Messi?” the broadcaster asked, after Minty reportedly “found a new lease of life and a new hobby: playing football.”

Minty reportedly has her own “goal celebration” but is currently unattached.

2019: Thiago Almada

“Man City set to land ‘new Messi’ with £20million deal for teen sensation Almada” read The Sun’s headline in April 2019.

The report suggested Almada, who is making a name for himself in Argentina with Velez Sarsfield, could first join City’s sister club Girona amid worries Pep Guardiola’s side could be hit with a transfer ban (they needn’t have worried).

Playing under former Manchester United defender Gabriel Heinze, the striker scored four goals in 21 appearances in his breakthrough season.

He made a high-profile move to Atlanta United ahead of the 2022 campaign in a transfer that made him the most expensive player ever in MLS history.

2020: Dario Sarmiento

Hailing from Messi’s native Argentina, Sarmiento burst onto the scene with Estudiantes at the age of 16, and his dribbling ability and low centre of gravity have drawn comparisons with Little Leo.

Unable to sign the actual Messi, Manchester City sealed a deal for Sarmiento last year and sent him out on loan to Girona ahead of the 2021-22 campaign where he played a bit-part role in the second division.

Sarmiento spent last season at Montevideo City Torque, another of City’s affiliated clubs.

READ: Dario Sarmiento: The ‘next Lionel Messi’ Manchester City want with the OG

2021: Ansu Fati

Fait is another product of La Masia and he had a brilliant first season in the senior ranks in 2019-20, scoring eight goals in 33 appearances.

In 2020-21 he made his senior international debut – opting to represent Spain, where he has grown up, rather than the nation of his birth, Guinea-Bissau – but his season was curtailed by injury.

With Messi having left, Fati has been seen as the rightful heir to the Argentine’s throne, even being given the No.10 shirt.

He has some very big boots to fill. Metaphorically, of course. We can’t imagine Messi or Fati wearing anything bigger than a size six.

But Fati has produced frequent flashes of quality and is central to Xavi’s revolution at Barcelona.

2022: Joaquin Messi

Yes, that’s seriously his name.

If being Argentian, diminutive in stature and playing for Messi’s old club wasn’t enough to be called the new Messi, actually sharing his name should surely do the job.

Messi, the 21-year-old one, is a highly-rated prospect at Newell’s Old Boys and even wears the No.10 (for the Under-20 team, mind).

But don’t worry, he’s said on the record that if Messi returned to his former club he would happily give up the number. How unselfish: the club wouldn’t even have to reprint the shirts.

Messi (the new one) is yet make his debut for Newell’s, but if he possesses even a modicum of the talent of his namesake then he’ll have a long, successful career.

2023: Claudi Echeverri 

Watch this space.

READ: Argentina’s ‘next Messi’ is dancing with the devil & dunking on Brazil with an iconic hat-trick

READ MORE: 17 of the best quotes on Lionel Messi: ‘Life with Leo is prettier’

TRY A QUIZ: Can you name every club Lionel Messi has scored against in the UCL?