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’.
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 titled ‘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.
He’s now been without a club since December 2020.
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 in Spain, Tranmere, 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 secnd tier.
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.
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.
Sayoud made just 12 appearances in four years at Al Ahly. Nowadays he plays for Algerian top division side CR Belouizdad.
The comparisons have ceased.
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. As of 2021, he plays for Crema in Italy’s Serie D.
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.
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.
In August 2021, he told the Scotsman he’s got his eye on an international call-up: “Watching the likes of Andy Robertson and Stuart Armstrong, who I played with at Dundee United, seeing them play at the Euros, especially the performance they put in against England, to have the chance to be apart of something like that in the future is definitely in my objectives.”
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 has not signed and is a free agent at the time of writing.
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 Odegaard is now hoping he will get his chance at the Bernabeu this season.
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 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 been sent out on loan to Portuguese outfit Portimonense.
He has 11 senior caps for South Korea at the time of writing.
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. Aged 20, 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 18-year-old scored four goals in 21 appearances in his breakthrough season, which he followed up with five in 25 last term.
In fairness, he has more in common with Lionel Messi than Minty the Badger.
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.
It just so happens that Manchester City are reportedly trying to sign Sarmiento at the same time as they’re trying to pull off a deal to get Messi out of Barcelona.
Why have one Messi when you can have two?
2021: Ansu Fati
The latest incarnation 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 seemingly on his way out of Barcelona this summer, Fati will have some very big boots to fill in 2021-22. Metaphorically, of course. We can’t imagine Messi or Fati wear anything bigger than a size six boot. Look at the size of them.