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In reality they were doomed from the start.
Many have been heralded as the next Lionel Messi during the forward's storied career – from around the time of his Barcelona breakthrough, to him claiming the first few of his seven Ballon d'Or titles. But as the years have gone by, those tipped to follow in Messi's footsteps have been fewer and further between.
His recent achievement in leading Argentina to the World Cup has almost indisputably set him apart as the greatest player to ever grace the game – and certainly in the modern era. Which makes those comparisons from earlier in his career look all the more silly.
Here's how nine of those players backed to emulate the PSG star have fared in their respective careers since.
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Once considered Germany's answer to the world's best player, Marko Marin captured admiring glances across Europe with his performances as part of an exciting Werder Bremen attack alongside the likes of Mesut Ozil.
Marin's form in the Bundesliga prompted Chelsea to make a move as they swooped for his services in 2012, though the Blues ended up sending him out on no fewer than four separate loan spells. Marin only made a total of 16 appearances for Chelsea during his time there before he was eventually sold to Olympiakos.
He won the league in Greece, as well as in Serbia with Red Star Belgrade and in Hungary with Ferencvaros before retiring in March last year aged 33. A decent career no less, but comparisons with Messi were very much wide of the mark.
Once dubbed the 'Baby Messi', Dundee United's 5ft 6in 17-year-old winger couldn't help but laugh after he'd burst onto the scene in Scotland. A team-mate of Andy Robertson at the time, Gauld later revealed the Liverpool star cut out a newspaper headline and stuck it to the wall in his room.
Gauld recalled to the Guardian: "The actual name didn’t bother me, it was just when people read that they judged me a little quicker and expected more." Sadly for Gauld, he wasn't able to meet the sky-high expectations.
Despite Sporting Lisbon snapping up his services, he made just one appearance for the Portuguese giants amid several loan spells before dropping into the second tier with Farense. Two years later in 2021, he moved to Vancouver Whitecaps where he remains to this day, helping them win the 2022 Canadian Championship and picking up the MVP award in the process.
From the 'Baby Messi' to the 'Iranian Messi', Sardar Azmoun may not share a great deal in common with the World Cup winner, but his status in his home nation has put him on a similar pedestal with his own country's fans.
Azmoun began his career at Rubin Kazan after being transferred to the Russian club at the tender age of 17, and was soon catching the eye of the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal. Despite all his promise, he was loaned out to Rostov, before making the deal permanent, before then returning to Kazan prior to a switch to Zenit St. Petersburg.
He moved to Bayer Leverkusen in 2022 and is a key player for the German club, though it's fair to say his career hasn't quite taken off as expected. Azmoun does have a superb record on the international stage, however, scoring 41 times in 68 games for Iran.
He started two of his nation's matches at the World Cup in Qatar, though it was his protest against the death of Mahsa Amini – who died in police custody in Iran – which set him apart. "Shame on you for killing so easily;" he wrote on Instagram, against direct orders from the Iranian FA to remain silent. "Long live Iranian women."
Arsenal fans may recall their club being on the brink of signing the next Messi in 2015 – only for it to never come to fruition. Widespread reports suggested the Gunners had agreed a £4.5million deal for Velez Sarsfield youngster Maxi Romero, though he eventually stayed put before joining PSV for €10.5m three years later.
Romero struggled to make any real impression at the Dutch club, who loaned him back to Velez for the 2019/20 season. The 24-year-old is currently on loan with Racing Club in Argentina but his career doesn't appear to be going anywhere fast.
Jose Angel Pozo
Another budding young star tagged as the 'mini Messi', Jose Angel Pozo left football fans salivating over his displays for Manchester City's youth team after transferring to the club from Real Madrid aged just 16 in 2012.
Pozo then raised the excitement levels at the Etihad after scoring on his first-team debut in a 7-0 League Cup thrashing of Sheffield Wednesday. Asked about the comparisons after the match, he replied: "This is crazy. Messi is the best player in the world and I only play one game for the first team."
He did go on to make three more senior appearances – all in the Premier League – though City eventually sold him to Almeria in 2015. Pozo has racked up more than 200 games in Spain after moving to Rayo Vallecano, and is now currently on loan at Qatari club Al Ahli.
Not many players can say they've been on the books of both Barcelona and Real Madrid by the age of 21. Then again, not every player is regarded as the 'Japanese Messi'.
Takefusa Kubo first made headlines when Barcelona broke FIFA rules regarding the transfers of minors, which ultimately blocked him from continuing to play for their youth team, where he had already struck up a stunning goal record. After getting his career back on track in his homeland – becoming the youngest player to score in the J-League, Real Madrid bought him from FC Tokyo in 2019, but soon shipped him out on four successive loan spells, including two with Mallorca.
Madrid eventually accepted Kubo might not be the player they thought he was and sold him to Real Sociedad – though they still reportedly hold 50% of his rights, suggesting they still see some prospect of him becoming a star.
Not only did Bojan come through the same La Masia academy at Barcelona as Messi, it turned out the two forwards were distant relatives. Bojan made his Barca debut in 2007 – three years after his fourth cousin – and by all accounts impressed under the management of Pep Guardiola.
However, despite featuring for some of Europe's top clubs, it didn't take long for Bojan's career to take a swift downturn. After stints with Roma, AC Milan (loan), Barcelona (again), Ajax (loan), the football world was left shocked as Bojan pitched up at Stoke.
While the Britannia Stadium is a far cry from the Nou Camp, Bojan insisted to FourFourTwo that playing for the Potters was "one of the best moments of my entire career". He spent five years on their books but was loaned out to Mainz, then Alaves over the back end of his time there.
He was sold to Montreal Impact in 2019 and was most recently featuring alongside Andres Iniesta at Japanese outfit Vissel Kobe, though has now moved on. Aged 32, it is thought Bojan is now looking for his 11th club.
The difference between Patrick Roberts and all the other candidates on this list is that Lionel Messi actually tipped him among 10 wonderkids to be a future star.
Having started his career on the right foot at Fulham, Man City moved quickly to sign Roberts in a deal worth around £12m. But despite his promise, Roberts only made three appearances for City, even after shining on loan at Celtic.
Roberts actually scored against his parent club whilst playing for the Bhoys in an embarrassing situation during a Champions League tie. Subsequent loans followed at Girona, Norwich, Middlesbrough, Derby and Troyes, before City finally sold Roberts to Sunderland in the summer, where he has so far contributed five goals in 42 appearances.
Juan Manuel Iturbe
The 'Paraguayan Messi' was likened to the Argentine due to his pacy and direct style of play after making his first-team debut at Trinidense at the age of just 12.
He had to wait four years for his next outing, this time on the books of Cerro Porteno, before Porto came calling. But Iturbe didn't last long with the Portuguese giants, joining Hellas Verona two years later following a loan spell with River Plate.
He finally got his career back on track and earned a move to Roma, though was then bizarrely sent on loan to Bournemouth. Upon signing for the Cherries, Iturbe said: "I hope I can do my best here at Bournemouth. Lionel Messi is the best player in the world so it is nice to be compared with him. But it was just a comparison made by the media in Italy.”
“My talking will be done on the pitch." He made just four appearances.
Two more loan spells followed before Iturbe was sold to Mexican side Pumas where he found some form. He now plays for Greek club Aris Thessaloniki but at 29, it's fair to say the best days of his career are behind him.
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