What's it like to be dubbed 'mini Messi'?

By Sports Desk July 16, 2020

Football, arguably more so than any other sport, has a compulsive need to compare young talents with those who have come before. There's no getting away from it, and it's likely everyone has made such observations.

It has become so ingrained in debates about the sport and players that perhaps we don't even realise anymore, and many of 'the greats' will have been subject to precisely this phenomenon when setting out to establish themselves.

Lionel Messi is an obvious one – one of many Argentinian players to be dubbed the next Diego Maradona in his youth, it's certainly arguable that the Barcelona great has gone on to surpass his compatriot.

But for every Messi there are hundreds of players who, for whatever reason, cannot live up to their early promise and the expectations dumped on their shoulders.

It seems such a harmless occurrence, to suggest an emerging player is comparable – at least stylistically – to an established superstar in conversation with friends, or even over Twitter.

But what we don't tend to see is the other side, how those comparisons take root and spread, eventually spiralling out of control and impacting on the very player being discussed.

Ryan Gauld can attest to that.

'Mini Messi'

Now 24 and playing for Farense, who've just been promoted to Portugal's Primeira Liga, Gauld is very familiar with such player comparisons and the adverse effect they can have.

Before joining Sporting CP on a long-term contract in 2014, Gauld had broken into the first team at Dundee United where he was first dubbed 'mini Messi' for his stature, dribbling ability and the fact he was left-footed. The comparisons began and ended there, but that was all it needed.

"To be honest, I wish it was never written," he explains to Stats Perform News from his home in the Algarve. "What are the similarities between us? We're small and left-footed, that's about as far as you can go. I would've been more relaxed than I already was if it wasn't a thing."

For Gauld, the 'mini Messi' label became a stick to beat him with more than anything, ramping up the pressure after moving to Sporting – he was always expecting it to be tough to breakthrough in Lisbon, but being compared to an all-time great took its toll.

"I would be lying if I said it didn't crop up in my head a couple of times. Like, as soon as people see me as that, they weren't caring what I could do, what I was good at, they were looking to see why I was like Messi, and then if I couldn't do something he could do, they'd say, 'He's rubbish, he's not a mini Messi, he's not worth that tag', or whatever."

The prominence of the 'mini Messi' tag grew to such an extent that Gauld doesn't even think most people knew his actual name for his first two years in Lisbon.

"If they saw me walking about Lisbon or in a shopping centre, Sporting fans who wanted a photo or something, they'd shout 'mini Messi', they wouldn't shout 'Ryan'," he recalls with an exasperated smile. "It makes you think how many people actually know your name – I was known as 'mini Messi' for about two years."

A career interrupted

In the eyes of some, especially those who actually referred to him as 'mini Messi', Gauld's career hasn't quite panned out as might have been expected – he only managed two league appearances for Sporting's senior side in five years, while loans with Vitoria Setubal, Desportivo Aves and Hibernian yielded little.

While he believes his struggles with certain expectations didn't help, Gauld also harbours grievances with Sporting regarding his development, specifically their decision to terminate his loan with Setubal just when he had started to find his groove.

"It was my first shot in the top division. I found it difficult in the beginning to get a place in the team because they started really well and I didn't start the season with the them, and then, I got an opportunity," he said. "The manager was really happy with how I did and I think I played six or seven games on the bounce, and then we had Sporting in the cup.

"I was cup-tied, so couldn't play, but we beat Sporting with a last-minute penalty to knock them out. The next day I received a call from one of the directors to say they were cancelling my loan agreement because we beat them. I think they took the huff a bit, so that was really frustrating."

Another loan was set up, but after spending a month waiting up in the north of the country for clearance to begin training with his new team, he was told Setubal wouldn't sign release papers – a return to Sporting's B team beckoned. "That was the most frustrating part of my whole time here. I would've thought Sporting could have done more to make sure it went through, but no, nothing happened, no one apologised for anything that happened or gave any explanations. It wasn't a very good time."

A social media hiatus and a brighter outlook

After a disappointing return to Scotland with Hibs in January 2019, Gauld's time with Sporting ended – a spell that promised so much finished with the former Scotland youth international barely making a splash.

But he wasn't done with Portugal yet. While many would have expected him to head back to Scotland permanently, Gauld took the eyebrow-raising decision to drop a division, joining Farense on a two-year deal after the two parties left a strong impression on each other during a short loan spell in 2018.

His new-found happiness hasn't only been influenced by on-field matters, though – turning his back on social media played a major role, particularly with respect to being able to detach himself from his 'mini Messi' demons.

"A year, a year and a bit I've been off social media, it's made such a difference," he explains. "You're not seeing it [criticism], you're not looking for it, looking for the negative energy that comes from it. I think that's played a big role in me not thinking about it [the 'mini Messi' label] too much.

"There was a game on TV, and I played terrible, it'd be in my head, 'Oh no, what are people going to be saying about me now?' I don't care what anyone says, it's difficult if that comes up on your phone, it's difficult to not read it."

In 2019-20, Gauld scored nine league goals in 21 matches for Farense, making him their top-scorer as they secured a return to the top flight for the first time since 2001-02 – in the intervening seasons, they have sunk as far as the sixth tier.

Sporting will be the first match he looks out for when the fixture list is announced - like the returning Farense, Gauld has a score to settle in the Primeira Liga.

Related items

  • Manchester City v Real Madrid: Hazard back in England to salvage 'worst' season Manchester City v Real Madrid: Hazard back in England to salvage 'worst' season

    He might have a winners' medal in his pocket at the end of his first LaLiga season, but Eden Hazard is in no mood to spare himself.

    Long touted as a potential marquee signing for Real Madrid, the Belgium star made the move to the Santiago Bernabeu for an initial €100million last June.

    However, by the time Zinedine Zidane had masterminded a post-lockdown overhaul of Barcelona to claim the title, the dream had long since turned into something of a nightmare.

    "We have won the title collectively this year, considering it has certainly been the worst season of my career individually," Hazard told France Info after injury woes – most notably a broken foot that required surgery – restricted him to 16 top-flight appearances.

    He scored once in 1,086 LaLiga minutes and has failed to find the net in five Champions League appearances for the 13-time winners so far.

    The peculiarity of this elongated season means a chance to salvage something arrives on Friday in familiar surroundings.

    Madrid are 2-1 in arrears ahead of their last-16 second leg against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. If a remontada is to become reality, they will probably need an individual to step up and produce something truly special – particularly considering talismanic captain Sergio Ramos is suspended.

    It was another Belgian, Kevin De Bruyne, who stole the show in the Spanish capital back in February as he majestically created Gabriel Jesus' equaliser before dispatching the winner from the penalty spot.

    Although firm friends throughout their gilded careers, it is hard to imagine the distinction of being Belgium's outstanding footballer lying elsewhere sitting too well with the lavishly gifted Hazard.

    Perhaps an outing in east Manchester can stir a return to his very best.

    In December of the 2016-17 season, City and Chelsea were neck and neck at the top of the Premier League when the Londoners travelled north.

    De Bruyne hit the crossbar from point-blank range with the hosts 1-0 up and then Hazard took over, the master conductor as Antonio Conte's Blues took apart Pep Guardiola's men on the counter-attack. He scored the game-sealing goal in a 3-1 victory as a disintegrating City finished with Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho sent off.

    In the return match at Stamford Bridge, Hazard netted a brace in 2-1 win that put Chelsea on the brink of the Premier League title.

    His efforts that year yielded 16 goals and five assists, sitting handsomely alongside the 14 goals and nine assists from 2014-15 when he first inspired the Stamford Bridge outfit to glory. City came second in that earlier campaign and Hazard walked off with the PFA and FWA end-of-season awards.

    There is no suggestion that, at 29, Hazard will not be able to scale such heights again. Whether he can this week, however, is another matter.

    Zidane seems to be as in the dark as anyone else.

    "I think Eden had little [injury] problems recently because, when he finished playing [against Villarreal], he had problems; he didn't end well," he told reporters after Hazard's final appearance of the LaLiga season in Madrid's penultimate match.

    In the final six games of the campaign, the after-effects of Hazard's injury woes restricted him to 70 minutes on the field. The outing against Villarreal accounted for 62 of those.

    "I hope that, with this break, he recovers completely," Zidane added. "Those that know about this, about looking after players, will try to get Eden well again."

    It is probably wise to look towards 2020-21 with a clean slate. But maybe all it will take is one elegant shuffle of the feet, a deft lay-off or one of those beautifully balanced dribbles for the memories to come flooding back – for both Hazard and those in sky blue trying to stop him – in the country where he forged a path to the top of the game.

  • David Silva's legacy secure as he begins 'Last Dance' for Man City against Real Madrid David Silva's legacy secure as he begins 'Last Dance' for Man City against Real Madrid

    Joleon Lescott remembers the time he tried to imitate one of David Silva's signature moves on the Manchester City training ground with a rueful chuckle.

    Having been on the receiving end as Silva subtly changed direction to engineer space and leave his team-mate behind him, an obvious thought occurred to the former England centre-back.

    It can't be that hard, surely?

    "He had the ball and I've closed him down and he's kind of dipped his shoulder to go to the right and gone back on the left," Lescott explained to Stats Perform News.

    "I've tried to mimic the movement he did and ended up injuring my knee.  

    "I've tried to dip down to the right, tried to move as fast as him but I'm obviously a bigger frame and it was just like, 'Ooh, nah. That didn’t feel good. Let me just go and stand on the sidelines for the rest of the session'."

    If feels like a handy illustration of how Silva makes the most of the things he does with a ball at his feet seem effortlessly simple, when in reality they are anything but.

    THE MISSING PRIZE

    Friday's Champions League last-16 match with Real Madrid could be his last for City. If Pep Guardiola's side are able to capitalise upon their 2-1 first-leg advantage, it will be on to Lisbon and the mini-tournament to conclude the closing stages of this season's competition.

    Over the course of 10 trophy-laden seasons in Manchester, Silva has played an integral role in each of the club's four Premier League successes. The first of those, secured in unforgettable fashion in 2011-12, was the club's first top-division title in 44 years. The previous season, Silva played a part in Yaya Toure's winning goal against Stoke City in the FA Cup final that ended a 35-year trophy drought.

    Such honours, once pipe dreams, are now the norm in east Manchester. Silva opened the scoring in last year's 6-0 final win over Watford for his second FA Cup winners' medal, completing an unprecedented domestic treble in 2018-19. This term, he lifted a fifth EFL Cup.

    Another golden era ran roughly parallel in Spain colours, with Silva a cap centurion as part of arguably the finest international team of all time. A rare header in the final of Euro 2012 against Italy set up a 4-0 win, further evidence of a handy knack on showpiece occasions.

    That victory made it three major tournament triumphs in succession for Spain, following Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup. Since leaving Valencia for City in the latter year, Silva has won it all apart from the Champions League.

    The coming weeks could still amount to a beautifully scripted ending to the story. A 'Last Dance', perhaps. Just don't expect Silva to be the outspoken star of his own Netflix documentary a couple of decades from now.

    "As difficult as this time is for everyone, he's probably in the back of his head thinking he's happy he's not receiving the attention when he leaves," Lescott said, with City poised to announce farewell plans after Silva's final game.

    "He's so humble and down to earth, it's crazy. It's ridiculous to think that he lives a lifestyle that's so simple considering what he's achieved. He's a credit to everyone who was around him growing up - his parents, his family, who I've been lucky enough to meet on numerous occasions.

    "I can't speak highly enough of him. There's never a time when I've asked him something – a favour or text him or contacted him – and he's not got back to me.

    "Not that many people have been lucky enough to be in his presence outside of football and I can confirm that he speaks English very well!"

    CHANGING THE GAME

    Despite that reluctance to speak publicly too often, Silva has received plenty of warm words over recent weeks. Players and pundits alike have queued up to declare him a great of the Premier League era.

    It is a situation few envisaged 10 years ago, with Lescott initially among the doubters.

    "I remember me and Shaun Wright-Phillips having a discussion about the physical demands of the Premier League and would he be able to cope," he said. "It was due to the fact we were playing 4-4-2 then. We didn't play 4-3-3.

    "David was going to have to play as a winger. If you look back then and think of David coming up against someone like a Micah Richards at right-back, it was going to be difficult physically.

    "But with his football IQ, he was able to create a role in the team that only he was able to adopt. He'd come off the line – full-backs didn't want to be that high up the pitch and wingers didn't want to drop that deep to pick him up.

    "He was able to just be free, but not shirk his defensive responsibilities. In those areas, knowing where to pick up the ball, his intelligence for that is second to none.

    "His football IQ is as good as you'll see. If you think, there are not many times David Silva gets tackled."

    When he arrived, players of Silva's ilk were cast somewhere between a curiosity and a luxury in the English game. Glance through top-flight squads today and most feature someone trying their hand at the art he mastered.

    Elite games in England today are frequently won between the lines and in the half-spaces, as much if not more often than by a ball over the top or via a conventional winger hitting the byline. This shift and expansion in the Premier League's stylistic palate owes much to Silva and feels like his lasting gift, threaded through the division as quietly and subtly as one of his passes.

    "He definitely changed the way people view the Premier League and that role," Lescott added.

    "I spoke to Steven Gerrard about him and he said to play against David was unreal. So that's the ultimate kind of praise.

    "Robert Pires was similar but was more direct than David. In terms of that role, David made it okay for you not to always go on the outside. That's not something he was taught at City, he just understood the game well enough in order to do it.

    "He's definitely, definitely one of the all-time greats for Man City and the Premier League."

    CITY'S GREATEST?

    Having shared an era with Toure, Vincent Kompany, Kevin De Bruyne and the club's all-time leading goalscorer Sergio Aguero at City, it is Silva who is most often suggested the successor to Colin Bell – the ex-England midfielder widely viewed as the club's finest ever player for the best part of half a century.

    While those celebrated team-mates have dealt in huge moments, Silva was there for all of them, astutely pulling the strings and knitting the whole tapestry together. Gerrard is far from alone in his admiration. He is the players' player.

    Now 34, Silva's diminished capacity for the physical work he has always relished has given City an insight into a future without him. He is not a guaranteed starter against Madrid, Guardiola having carefully managed his workload in the most demanding games this season.

    De Bruyne has proved a statistical marvel this season, Phil Foden is blossoming and Guardiola can also call upon the lavish gifts of Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva in his creative department. And yet, as Silva adopted a bit-part role, a yawning gap to Liverpool has opened up quickly.

    Seeing him depart a European champion would be the perfect fuel to begin the task of bridging it. But even in that best-case scenario, City will soon have confirmation Silva is impossible to imitate – just as Lescott learnt all those years ago.

  • Rumour Has It: Coutinho close to Arsenal move, Barcelona reach agreement with Ter Stegen Rumour Has It: Coutinho close to Arsenal move, Barcelona reach agreement with Ter Stegen

    Philippe Coutinho's move to Arsenal is seemingly getting close.

    The Brazil international has been on loan at Bayern Munich from Barcelona in 2019-20, but is expected to leave Camp Nou permanently.

    A return to the Premier League has been mooted.

     

    TOP STORY – ARSENAL DEAL FOR COUTINHO IS 'ADVANCED'

    A deal sending Coutinho to Arsenal from Barcelona is "more advanced", according to Sport.

    The former Liverpool star would head back to England less than three years after leaving Anfield.

    Coutinho has scored nine goals in 34 games for Bayern in 2019-20.

     

    ROUND-UP

    - There could be good news coming for Barcelona. Mundo Deportivo reports Marc-Andre ter Stegen has agreed to extend his deal at the club for five years, but there is still no financial agreement between the parties.

    - Jerome Boateng's Bayern Munich future seems uncertain. Sport Bild reports the Bundesliga champions want to sell the defender, who would like to extend his contract beyond 2021.

    - Takefusa Kubo looks set for another loan spell away from Real Madrid. AS reports Kubo will join Villarreal on loan for 2020-21, having spent this season at Mallorca.

    - Are Liverpool looking for a back-up for Andy Robertson? The Athletic reports the Premier League champions value left-back Jamal Lewis at £10million, but Norwich City will not even enter talks for less than £20m.

    - Contracted at Manchester United until 2022, Tahith Chong could be heading elsewhere to gain experience. Sport Bild says Werder Bremen are in talks with United over a loan deal for the attacker.

    - After losing the Championship play-off final, Brentford may also see a star depart. The Guardian reports Crystal Palace are battling with Aston Villa to sign Ollie Watkins, who scored 26 goals in 49 Championship games in 2019-20.

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.