Skilful dribblers, particularly short and left-footed ones, tend to get labelled the ‘next Lionel Messi’. But how many of those supposed heirs have gone on to succeed?
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…
Just two years into Messi’s senior career, the website Foot Mercato published an article titled ‘Bojan Krkić: 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 Monreal Impact in MLS.
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 side Whitehawk and Accrington Stanley.
In 2019, Bruna signed for Northern Irish outfit Derry City. At the time of writing, he has six professional career goals to his name.
A familiar name to English football fans, Mauro Zárate 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 Zárate will turn out better than Lionel Messi,” he said.
Zárate 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 after making just three first-team appearances at Watford.
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.
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 Touré. 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 Iași in Romania in September 2019.
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 just shy of 400 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.
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, where he still plays.
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.
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 for the club but remains in Portugal, now with Farense.
When Barcelona signed 17-year-old Croatian midfielder Alen Halilović in 2014, the comparisons were obvious — especially with Halilović sporting a Messi-like mop of hair.
Those close to the player seemed to agree. Halilović 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 Halilović 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 has since been loaned out to Standard Liege and Heerenveen. He will have to wait to justify those Messi comparisons.
There was massive hype around Norwegian teenager Martin Odegaard when he made his league debut for Strømsgodset 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 loan move, this time to Real Sociedad in Spain where Odegaard has started to really catch the eye, leading to suggestions he will get his chance at the Bernabeu next season.
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.
He has 11 senior caps for South Korea at the time of writing.
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 euros in January 2018, but injury problems have so far restricted him to six appearances and one goal for the Ligue 1 club. He has time on his side.
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.
‘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.
Playing under former Manchester United defender Gabriel Heinze, the 18-year-old scored four goals in 21 appearances in his breakthrough season.
In fairness, he has more in common with Lionel Messi than Minty the Badger.