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Europe's other Lionel Messis

Published: Wednesday 5 February 2014, 18.00CET
More in hope than expectation, a legion of players have been hailed as the new Lionel Messi in their home countries: travels the continent in search of little wonders.
Europe's other Lionel Messis
Xherdan Shaqiri: the Albanian Lionel Messi ©Getty Images features

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Published: Wednesday 5 February 2014, 18.00CET

Europe's other Lionel Messis

More in hope than expectation, a legion of players have been hailed as the new Lionel Messi in their home countries: travels the continent in search of little wonders.

Back in his younger days, Lionel Messi had to live up to the title of the 'new Diego Maradona'; now he is the player every stylish and skilful midfielder under 2m tall is routinely compared to. picks out a selection of current footballers who have been burdened with the 'New Messi' label in their home countries.

The Bulgarian Lionel Messi
Radoslav Dimitrov
Unusual in the pantheon of European Lionel Messis – in that he is not a tricky attacking midfielder – PFC Slavia Sofia right-back Dimitrov had his sobriquet thrust upon him by team-mates early in his career. "I had longer hair and looked like a bit like Messi, so one of my friends started calling me Messi," said the 25-year-old, who was first capped by Bulgaria in March 2013. A rather more severe haircut in recent years is confirmation that Dimitrov is not interested in reflected glory.

The Romanian Lionel Messi
Gabriel Torje
Originally dubbed the Gnome, because he is only 1.67m tall, Torje was upgraded to become the Romanian Messi after making his FCU Politehnica Timişoara debut aged 16, moving on to FC Dinamo Bucureşti two years later. Romania coach Victor Pițurcă has his fingers crossed that Torje, now 24 and a national-team regular, will thrive having been loaned to RCD Espanyol by Udinese Calcio this season. "If he manages to impose himself at club level, and manages to get regular games, he will be twice as good in every respect," he said.

The Albanian Lionel Messi(s)
Xherdan Shaqiri/Adnan Januzaj
Shaqiri has never been Switzerland's Lionel Messi, but the fluent Albanian speaker has been feted in his parents' home land – even if some have never forgiven the 22-year-old schemer for choosing not to play international football for Albania. ''They have called me many names, Messi and traitor,'' the little winger said. The hope now is that the next Albanian Messi, Manchester United FC's Adnan Januzaj – born in Belgium to a Kosovar-Albanian family – will opt to represent Albania. ''I know what Albanians want,'' said the 18-year-old. ''For now, my focus is Manchester United.''

The Greek Lionel Messi
Giannis Fetfatzidis
The Greek press were quick to tag the talented Fetfatzidis as the Greek Messi when the attacking midfielder burst on the scene in October 2009 at Olympiacos FC. Just 1.64m tall, he had to undergo growth hormone treatment in his early teens, just like the real Messi, though he has not always welcomed the comparisons. ''I don't like being likened to Messi – he is a one-off,'' said the 23-year-old, who is looking to improve the tactical aspects of his game following a summer move to Genoa CFC.

The Messi of the Adriatico Stadium
Lorenzo Insigne
The SSC Napoli forward was nicknamed 'Messi dell'Adriatico' after scoring 18 goals in 37 games to help Pescara Calcio win Serie A promotion in 2011/12. The 22-year-old returned to his home-town club the next campaign and, as with many Napoli fans, his favourite Argentinian No10 is not Messi. ''Messi is extraordinary, even if personally I still think the greatest player who ever lived was Diego Maradona,'' he said. ''One day I would like be a Napoli icon like him.''

The Scottish Mini Messi
Ryan Gauld
Dundee United FC's 18-year-old playmaker has been the talk of Scotland this term, with Gauld already being touted for a transfer abroad. ''Ryan has said he'd like to play in Spain because he knows that would suit his game better,'' said his old youth coach Jack Souttar. His current youth director Stevie Campbell can remember seeing Gauld score twice and run defences ragged at 15 in his first official match for United. ''My jaw literally dropped,'' he told ''It was one of those 'oh my God' moments.''

The Macedonian Lionel Messi
Ivan Nastevski
Small and skilled, Nastevski was designated the Macedonian Messi by local reporters following his domestic debut for FK Makedonija at the age of 17 in the 2008/09 campaign. Mooted moves to Spain did not materialise during subsequent spells with FK Vardar, FK Rabotnicki and FK Teteks, but – now 22 and playing in Greece with Ethnikos Gazaros FC – Nastevski is still hopeful. ''For now I am not thinking about the future,'' he said. ''I am training very hard and I hope God has a plan for me.''

The Czech Lionel Messi
Václav Pilař
The 1.70m-tall winger caused a stir in the Czech Republic with SK Hradec Králové and FC Viktoria Plzeň – and scored the Czech Republic's first goal at UEFA EURO 2012 – before heading to Germany with VfL Wolfsburg and SC Freiburg. The Czech Messi tag may have become wearisome since, but at UEFA EURO 2012 he told he appreciated the comparison. ''I'm not very tall so that's also a reason we are kind of similar,'' the now 25-year-old said. ''There's only one Messi but I still like this nickname.''

The German Lionel Messi
Mario Götze
Relatively small and extremely quick and clever, the 21-year-old Götze became one of the most expensive players in Bundesliga history when FC Bayern München triggered his Borussia Dortmund release clause with a €37m bid in April 2013. However, the Messi epithet was not so welcome. ''The German Messi? Me?'' he once said. ''No, I would rather be Germany's Cristiano Ronaldo!'' With six goals in 14 Bundesliga games this term, he may yet be on his way to achieving that.

The Polish Female Messi
Ewa Pajor
A revelation as debutants Poland surprisingly won the 2013 UEFA European Women's Under-17 Championship, Ewa Pajor's skill brought to mind Barcelona's little Argentinian marvel – but the KKPK Medyk Konin wunderkind is actually more of a Cristiano Ronaldo fan. ''He is my favourite player,'' she told ''He is very hard-working and I try to learn a lot from him, because I like hard-working people. I like his speed, dribbling and free-kicks – it is amazing when he shoots.''

The Israeli Messi
Gai Assulin
A vague physical resemblance and a similar array of midfield tricks prompted optimistic supporters in Israel to call the Nahariya-born Assulin the Israeli Messi. Assulin got the chance to watch his pseudo-namesake in action as a teenager on FC Barcelona's books, but after a couple of seasons with Manchester City FC the 22-year-old is now in Spain, on loan from Granada CF to second-division Hércules CF. "I don't like being compared to Messi," said Assulin in 2011. "I can never be him. He is the best player in the world; I'm a youngster trying to learn the secrets of football."

Last updated: 05/02/14 18.06CET

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