This article chronicles some of the African players considered to have been the continent’s answers to football’s demi-deity Lionel Messi.
Once upon a time, you couldn’t move for young hopefuls belaboured with a moniker likening them to Messi’s predecessor Diego Maradona.
Stars like Javier Saviola, Pablo Aimar and Ariel Ortega never managed to emulate the former Albicelestes captain. Ali Karimi, “The Asian Maradona,” and Jay-Jay Okocha were national heroes but never left the indelible mark on the game that they perhaps ought to have done.
Today, Messi is the inspiration, replacing Maradona as the icon to millions—in Argentina and beyond.
Naturally, a whole swathe of youngsters worldwide wear and have worn “the New Messi” tag. Among these hopefuls are a collection of African players who have been likened to the Barcelona superstar to varying degrees of resemblance. Arsenal flop Gervinho, for example, wore the moniker earlier in his career before inconsistency made a mockery of the comparison.
The coming slides profile some of the continent’s youngsters to have worn the “Messi” tag.
Liquid Football were just one site to identify young attacker Jean Marie Dongou as the “African Messi.” The Cameroon youth international is a product of La Masia, the fabled Barcelona academy that produced talent such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas.
Not to mention Messi himself.
While this ostensible connection to Messi is obvious, Dongou is most often likened to Samuel Eto’o, and “The Next Eto’o” is a nickname regularly associated with the exciting youngster.
Goals are his key currency, and the striker was recently top scorer in the prestigious Next Gen Series, a youth tournament to highlight some of the globe’s finest talents.
Beyond his ability in front of the goal, Dongou has already demonstrated some of Messi’s versatility. He is able to operate on either flank, where his devastating pace has already proven to be a valuable asset.
More Eto’o than Messi, the precocious Dongou could soon be troubling the top end of footballing competition.
After several years of courtship, Celtic finally signed Rabiu Ibrahim in January 2012. Despite securing the Nigerian to a three and-a-half year contract, it soon became apparent that the move had come too late.
Two years previously, the midfielder had been one of the most sought-after young talents on the planet. He was a bona fide wonderkid, and clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal were reportedly after his signature.
Instead, his career took a downward spiral, via Sporting Lisbon, PSV and then Scotland. By this time he was a shadow of the player who had regularly been included among lists of the world’s most exciting talents.
At only 22, it’s not “game over,” but Ibrahim has a long road ahead if he wishes to even begin to emulate Barcelona’s Argentine.
Another Nigerian youngster to be licked with the “African Messi” tag is Michel Babatunde, a player once revered for his dribbling ability. This midfielder, like Ibrahim, has spent extensive time away from the spotlight since his initial explosion onto the scene.
Babatunde began his career at Nigerian side Heartland before making the move to Ukraine and the steel city of Kryvyi Rih. The years have been ones of steady, rather than meteoric, improvement, although he currently finds himself a free agent following his club’s financial troubles.
His progress has been recognised by national team boss Stephen Keshi, who called Babatunde back into the national side earlier this year. The left-sided player appeared briefly in the Confederations Cup, but his outing left a lot to be desired.
Messi, he is not.
At the end of last year, certain Nigerian media outlets began reporting on a new “African Messi” who could be the most exciting of the bunch.
Reports linked young wonderkid Emmanuel Bakare with Premier League and North London giants Arsenal, suggesting that the 14-year-old’s representatives had already been contacted by Arsene Wenger and Co.
Details are scant, but Nigeria Magazine reported that the “wing wizard” dazzled with his “fanciful trickery” and offered “good pace.”
It remains to be seen whether Bakare can even begin to live up to the enormous expectations already set for him, but the early—very early—signs are positive.
It isn’t just West Africa that produces prodigal young talents who hold the “African Messi” moniker.
In recent years two precocious players have emerged from Tunisia and Egypt to claim, albeit briefly, this flattering comparison.
Oussama Darragi’s career has never quite hit the heights that were initially expected of him. After serving his stewardship at Esperance, he moved to Swiss side Sion. Normally an excellent kindergarten for African talent, the Swiss League just didn’t work out for the Tunis native.
After only one season in Valais, he returned to Esperance.
Now 26, it is unlikely he will get a further opportunity to build on his brief European career to date.
Then there is Mohamed Salah—a player who looks to have a sparkling future in the upper echelons of European competition.
Nicknamed “The Egyptian Messi,” there are a multitude of similarities between Salah and his Argentine inspiration.
The pair are both fleet-footed versatile forwards, capable of setting up their teammates or scoring themselves. Both possess excellent awareness, terrific balance and a sublime command of the football.
Like Messi, Salah has excelled in the false nine position, although he has predominantly been utilised in wide berths by club side Basel.
Unlike the aforementioned Darragi, Salah has thrived in Switzerland, and if he does make a move anytime soon, it will be to a major European league rather than back to Africa.
Maybe youngsters will be christened “The Next Salah” in years to come.