‘Next Messi Syndrome’ and the players that we failed

Words By Stephen Tudor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
February 13, 2018
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Are you five foot seven or under? Failing that do you at least execute your footballing chops with what can semi-accurately be described as a ‘low centre of gravity’? Do you have a penchant for a dribble or two when the mood strikes? Then congratulations sir we are very pleased to inform you that you are the ‘Sunday League Messi’. If you’re additionally young enough to wonder what all the fuss is about because five middle-aged women have recently got back together to randomly shriek ‘Girl Power’ at a scowling public then it gets even better – you’re the ‘Next Messi’. You may pick up the mantle at the end of this article. Please wear it lightly

On reflection scrap that bit about your age. Age has nothing to do with this. Last summer a list was drawn up to determine who might be the future successor to Lionel Messi’ crown and the nominees included Egypt’s midfield schemer Walid Soliman. Soliman was 32 at the time.

If the comparing of a long-in-the-tooth bench-warmer for the Pharoahs – Soliman has thus far accrued just 25 caps for his country from twelve years as a professional – with arguably the greatest player to ever don a pair of Adidas could be viewed as a jumping of the shark for the ‘Next Messi’ labelling of tricky customers, then sadly it failed to kill off the franchise. Last September Italian striker Pietro Pellegri became the first sixteen year old to score twice in a major European league game and to commemorate this achievement the BBC asked the excellent James Horncastle to write up the player’s background story. The article, unsurprisingly from such a consummate journalist, was informative and objective. The SEO-grabbing headline however, dreamt up by the Beeb, was not, reading: “The ‘next Messi’ who is breaking Serie A records”.

At no point in the article is the Argentinian genius mentioned, so you have to wonder who the quotation marks should be attributed to. Furthermore, for all of his undoubted potential, Pellegri is a 6ft 2 centre-forward very much in the mould of, well let’s not be hypocritical and go there. Lastly he is a boy with just 354 minutes of professional football under his belt.

There are a great many reasons to hate on the modern obsession with burdening young talent with a direct association to the very best around, but let’s start in the shallow end and wade in from there. At knee-height we encounter the ubiquitous word in such a scenario and one that never fails to bristle at even the most tolerant of tempers. That word is ‘dubbed’.

It’s a word very rarely used in other contexts but here it is so often prevalent and can usually be located in the opening paragraph: ‘The Player dubbed..’ or, once the prematurely hyped prodigy in question inevitably goes on to fall short of the supernatural standards set by the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, ‘The player once dubbed…’

It is a cowardly word. A passing of the buck. It equates to a nod and a wink to readers that says, ‘Just to be clear here: we are not the ones claiming that Jose Angel Pozo will one day go on to be regarded as Lionel Messi’s equal. We are merely relating what others have said. Indeed it would be entirely remiss of us not to include this pertinent detail’. This benefiting from the regurgitation of utter codswallop is a journalistic wanting of their cake and eating it.

It also needs to be gleaned just who precisely is responsible for the original dubbing. In all probability it is unlikely to be a coach fully genned up on the player’s ability because their professional integrity will inform them of the considerable downsides in making such an unrealistic comparison. The potential dangers involved. The counter-productive pointlessness in heaping a hefty weight of expectation onto a teenager’s shoulders.

No, in most instances the ‘dubbing’ derives from websites cluttered with so many flashy pop-ups they induce epilepsy, penned by a fifteen year old who has seen a YouTube clip of the player in between his five daily trips to Pornhub.

Trudging out further into the murky waters we reach the uniqueness of the trend which – due to its ridiculousness – is not mirrored elsewhere. Should a youngster pick up a guitar and knock out a pitch-perfect cover of Norwegian Wood within a few short months down his local club he is not likened to Beethoven. A talented blogger is not tagged as the next Hemingway. An actor with ten appearances on Corrie is not termed the next Marlon Brando no matter how intense his gaze.

It is only in football that we countenance such throwaway, preterm hyperbole; exaggerated estimation that can have very real consequences. Which leads us out further still whereupon we get lost at sea.

In 2001, aged just six years of age, Jean Chera was playing in a local tournament just outside of Sao Paulo when he thumped home a thirty yard free-kick right into the top corner. Four years later clips of the young boy dribbling around opponents for fun were widely viewed on YouTube and that was when the – no doubt erroneous – rumours started of a possible move to Manchester United. That was also when the lead weight of the next Messi tag was hung on his skinny frame by a Brazilian nation that was desperate to unearth their equivalent of Argentina’s megastar.

You play with toys at that age. You play in woods and use street signs or garage doors for goals. You’re protected from the world.

Chera eventually signed for Santos, his hometown club, but following a row between his father and the board his contract was terminated when he was 15. He retired from the game aged just 21 later returning to play in the Brazilian fourth division. After a string of impressive showings for Borussia Monchengladbach aged just 18, winger Marko Marin was almost immediately saddled with the moniker of the ‘German Messi’. A big money move came soon after to Werder Bremen where the diminutive dervish initially formed a third of a devastating attack. Yet even when his form plummeted soon after his lofty appraisal remained, travelling with him everywhere from Chelsea to loan spells at Sevilla and Anderlecht among others. It became a curse that framed his decline and subsequently a player who can boast a finer career than many will forever be known as a flop.

It was a similar tale that befell Bojan Krki,c only here at least there was some relevance to the otherwise fallacious comparison. Having graduated from La Masia with flying colours the Spanish forward made his Barcelona debut aged just 17 years and 19 days, beating Messi’s previous record. His ten goals in that inaugural season announced the arrival of a superstar in the making and, what is more, Krkic even looked like his idol in a certain light: small in stature, big in talent, and with a haircut in need of a good haircut.

In a short period of time he became Camp Nou’s next anointed one. The wonderkid who could do no wrong. The next Messi.

Sadly his immense promise unravelled, eventually falling behind in the Barca pecking order then enduring mixed spells in Italy and Holland before Stoke City came calling. It has been jokingly enquired on numerous occasions whether the great maestro could handle a wet Wednesday night in Stoke. His reluctant imitator ultimately could not and he is presently on loan at Alaves.

It would be wrong to wholly blame Next Messi Syndrome on the downward trajectory of Krkic’s career but can anybody reasonably claim that it wasn’t a factor at all? It is difficult enough to forge your own path in professional football without having your every touch viewed through the prism of someone else’s greatness.

The same applies to all of the other talents who have been curtailed to some extent by a premature and entirely unrealistic measurement against genius. From Marlos Moreno to Juan Manuel Iturbe; from Ryan Gould (Scotland’s ‘Baby Messi’) to Lee Seung-woo (the ‘Korean Messi’); from Sebastian Giovinco to Adam Maher. The list frankly is endless. The list damns us and not them.

We will know when the son of God is upon us. Until then there is really no call to guess.

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