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Unprecedented times off the pitch at Barcelona have caused havoc on it, with Lionel Messi undoubtedly the most high-profile potential exit this summer. It’s football’s biggest story of the year, but nobody quite knows how it will end.
The winger’s astonishing displays have lit up stadiums all over the world for almost two decades now, with his dazzling dribbling and phenomenal finishing simply incomparable. But that hasn’t stopped the media and many within football from challenging several young stars to emulate the Argentine’s distinctive style.
We take a look at ten teen prodigies who were once dubbed the ‘Next Messi’ when they first burst onto the scene.
10. Muhammed Demirci
A talent who was first introduced to the world through YouTube, Demirci was quickly labelled as the ‘Turkish Messi’ at just ten years old. The wonderkid then made his step up to professional football with Besiktas at the age of 16.
Both Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson and Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola were reportedly battling it out for his signature, but a move never came to fruition and he soon faded away from the limelight, with Dermirci now lining out for Turkish fourth division side 24 Erzincanspor.
9. Pietro Pellegri
The Italian became the joint-youngest Serie A player when he made his debut for Genoa in 2016 aged 15 years and 280 days. It was the club’s chairman who hailed their new goalscoring sensation as the ‘Next Messi’, but it’s a comparison that hasn’t quite gone to plan.
Monaca snapped up Pellegri for €25m in 2018, the second-highest fee ever paid for a 16-year-old, behind Real Madrid’s €46m move for Vinicius Junior a year before. Several injuries have, however, restricted Pellegri to just six Ligue 1 appearances so far.
8. Sardar Azmoun
Once dubbed the ‘Iranian Messi’, Azmoun first broke onto the scene when he left his home country for Russia, joining Rubin Kazan in 2013. His impressive record for the Iran national team helped further his reputation, with his 11 goals in qualifying securing a spot at the 2018 World Cup.
Azmoun has been enjoying life in the Russian top-flight for six years now, finishing as the league’s top scorer last season with 17 goals for current club Zenit St Petersburg as they secured a second consecutive league title.
7. Giovani dos Santos
The Mexican joined Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy aged 13, and hit the headlines six years later on the final day of the 2007/08 La Liga campaign, outshining team-mates Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o and a young Messi with a 33-minute hat-trick at Murcia.
Despite his clear potential, his move to Tottenham Hotspur didn’t work out, with the winger sent on three successive loans to Ipswich, Galatasaray and Racing Santander. Spells with Mallorca and Villarreal followed and, after three years at LA Galaxy, the 31-year-old is now back in Mexico with Club America.
6. Gai Assulin
Another academy graduate from the Catalan club, the speedy winger was highly regarded by Pep Guardiola at Barcelona B in 2008, with Assulin also making an impact on the international stage, becoming Israel’s youngest ever player at 16.
A lack of playing time in Spain saw him leave for Manchester City, who quickly loaned him to Brighton after a reported falling out with manager Roberto Mancini. A long list of clubs have followed, with the 29-year-old now with Romanian outfit Politehnica Iași.
5. Ryan Gauld
A 17-year-old Gauld laughed off his likeness to the Argentina forward when his impressive performances for Dundee United in 2013 caught the eyes of several top European sides. Portuguese outfit Sporting Lisbon won the race for his signature a year later.
But the move didn’t work out for both parties, with Gauld loaned out on four separate occasions, with one taking him back to Scotland at Hibernian. He has now settled in Portugal with Farense, where his nine league goals helped secure promotion to the top-flight, with the Liga Pro Player of the Year award going his way.
4. Lee Seung-woo
Another to have spent several years in Barca’s youth academy, the ‘Korean Messi’ joined up with the club aged 12 after shining in the 2010 Danone Nations Cup, one of the most renowned youth football tournaments in the world.
The youngster was sold to Hellas Verona in 2017, and has gone on to represent South Korea at the 2018 World Cup. He now finds himself playing in the Belgian top-flight for Sint-Truiden, with an improved attitude certain to earn him a fresh start at a top European side.
3. Bojan Krkić
In 2006, just two years into Messi’s senior career, a 16-year-old Bojan was viewed as the next big thing. The first-ever youngster labelled as the future Messi, the Spaniard was a bright prospect in the Barcelona academy, scoring goals for fun before graduating into the first team.
Spells at Roma, AC Milan, Ajax and Stoke followed, but his time at the Britannia was interrupted by loan moves to Mainz and Alaves. At 30 years old, the forward is now plying his trade at MLS outfit Montreal Impact.
2. Alen Halilović
With a Messi-like mop of hair and a joy to watch with the ball at his feet, the comparisons were made immediately upon the Croatian’s arrival at Nou Camp aged 17. However, the former Dinamo Zagreb man failed to live up to expectation.
Halilovic has gone from Messi’s prodigious team-mate to a journeyman with eight clubs under his belt at the age of 23. AC Milan are the latest side to take the risk on Halilović, but he’s now on his second loan from the Serie A outfit at Eredivisie side SC Heerenveen.
1. Ryo Miyaichi
A brief trial at Arsenal in 2010 was enough to convince Arsene Wenger to bring the ‘Japanese Messi’ to north London permanently, but it was a gamble that didn’t pay off, with the teenager loaned out to five clubs during his time at the Emirates.
A 27-year-old Miyaichi put an end to his Gunners nightmare five years later, joining German side St Pauli in 2015, where he has been ever since. A cruciate ligament rupture has, however, heaped further misery onto a once-promising career.