Only One Messi? Think Again!

There is only one Lionel Messi. The Argentine magician has won everything the game has to offer and is among the greatest players to have ever played the game. When he managed to help Argentina win the World Cup in 2022 he ended the argument about who is better, him or Cristiano Ronaldo, as far as most fans were concerned. His longevity, goals and magical play mean that, for many, he is better than Pelé, Maradona and all the rest as the sport’s true GOAT. There is only one Messi.

But, in many ways, there is not. Well, two ways. A quick search of various websites, for example, business-networking site LinkedIn, shows there are actually many Lionel Messis spread around the world. But the focus of this article is not the people who share their name with the Argentine icon but, instead, the many other footballers who, since Messi rose to the top of the game, have been dubbed either “the next Messi”, or have earnt another Messi-based nickname.

The latest addition to that huge pool of players – a group far too vast for all of them to be detailed in this feature – is the so-called Turkish Messi. Arda Guler was signed by Real Madrid in July 2023 but his game time was limited. When he did play, he acquitted himself well though, and he managed six La Liga goals in just 10 appearances from his attacking midfield role. He announced himself to fans worldwide, however, with his stunning strike in Turkey’s opening game at Euro 2024. And thus became the latest Lionel Messi.

Medford Messi… Not Quite

Aaronson (Credit Werner100359 via Wikipedia)

Brenden Aaronson is now 23 years of age and it is safe to say that any early comparisons to Messi are not going to hold up to much scrutiny. In fairness to the man who is, at the time of writing, technically a Leeds United player, we suspect his nickname of “the Medford Messi” was always meant a little tongue-in-cheek, but even so, he has not lived up to the billing.

The US international, from Medford, New Jersey, earned a move to the Premier League having first impressed in the MLS in his home nation. He then showed enough in the Austrian Bundesliga with Red Bull Salzburg to persuade Leeds to part with £25m for his services, but he failed to sparkle. He went to Union Berlin on loan in 2023/24 where he delivered the distinctly un-Messi-esque return of two goals in 38 games for the Bundesliga outfit.

Bojan One of First

Bojan (Credit Tsutomu Takasu via Wikipedia)

Perhaps the first player to seriously be dubbed the next Messi was one of the great man’s teammates at Barcelona, Bojan. Comparisons were valid, given that when they were first made, Messi had not yet fully delivered on his amazing promise and we could not know quite how impressive, or lengthy, his career would be. Moreover, Bojan broke some of the Argentine’s records, scoring over 900 goals whilst in Barca’s youth system and making his full senior bow at the age of just 17 years and 19 days, in 2007. Messi was a couple of months older.

Bojan played 31 times in the league in 2007/08 and in all competitions scored 12 goals, showing great promise considering his age. His diminutive stature and style of play made comparisons with the club’s star inevitable but, ultimately, Bojan was unable to live up to the hype. He retired in 2023, ending his career in Japan, by way of Roma, Ajax and Stoke City, to name just a few of the teams he played for. He made one international appearance for Spain in a career that many would love to have had, but one that fell well short of his early promise.

The Best “Next Messi” Thus Far?

Ødegaard, right (Credit David via Flickr)

Clearly no current player, Ronaldo aside, has achieved anything that bears comparison to Messi’s accomplishments. There are other outstanding players, of course, but the likes of Erling Haaland, Kylian Mbappé and, dare we say it, Jude Bellingham, all differ so markedly from Messi, in both physique and style of play, that they have never been tagged in this way.

Of those that have been dubbed the next Messi, it is perhaps Arsenal’s “Norwegian Messi”, Martin Ødegaard, who has had the best career thus far. Far taller than the Inter Miami star, the former Real man often displays the same sort of silky touches and sublime passing as the Messi, though they are very different players really.

Ødegaard signed for Real Madrid at the age of just 16 and was already the next Messi but unsurprisingly, the cauldron of the Bernabeu proved too hot for the teenager. Arsenal signed him for £30m plus add-ons and the attacking midfielder has gone from strength to strength, now skippering both the Gunners and Norway. A leader on the pitch, in the 2023/24 campaign he registered eight goals and 10 assists in the Premier League. If he can add silverware then he will further cement his status as the “best of the next”.

Far More Medfords than Martins

Miyaichi, centre (Credit Kieran Clarke via Flickr)

Of the almost countless players to have been thought capable of following in Messi’s footsteps, far more have had average careers at best than have, like Odegaard, really established themselves at the top level. Another Barcelona alumnus, South Korean, Lee Seung-Woo, never really made the grade and never made a senior appearance for the Catalans. He now plays in his native country.

Liverpool fans may know the name Mateusz Musiałowski but they have never seen the “Polish Messi” make a senior league appearance for the Reds. He is not yet 21 so we do not know how his career will play out but it seems unlikely to feature multiple Champions League and Ballon d’Or wins!

Ryo Miyaichi – or the Japanese Messi if you prefer – was signed by Arsène Wenger but played more games for Wigan and Bolton than the Gunners. Yassine Benzia, Munir, Scotland’s Ryan Gould and German Marko Marin are others to have failed to live up to the hype.

To end on a high, we would like to mention one other player who, like Ødegaard, has survived the Messi comparisons to have a very fine career. Gerard Deulofeu is another to have come through the famous Barca youth system and did well enough at Everton to encourage them to trigger a buy-back clause. That may have only been in order to sell him for a profit but even so, Deulofeu boasts silverware with Sevilla and Barca and has played top-tier football in Spain, England and Italy, also playing four times for Spain.