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The men who discovered the modern greats

Credited with discovering Lionel Messi, former Barcelona boss Carles Rexach turns 70 today; UEFA.com salutes the coaches who unearthed our biggest stars.

Carles Rexach and his most famous footballing discovery
Carles Rexach and his most famous footballing discovery ©Getty Images

Carles Rexach, who turns 70 today, spent 14 years haring up and down Barcelona's right wing, and assisted Johan Cruyff during one of the club's golden ages, but discovering Lionel Messi is now what he is best known for.

While working under Cruyff, Rexach arranged for Messi to have a two-week trial on the recommendation of José Minguella, the agent who brought Diego Maradona to the club.

He only watched him play for a few minutes, but it was enough. "As soon as I saw him I said this boy cannot get away from us," Rexach recalled. "He played at a different speed. From a very young age you could see he was not a normal player."

©Getty Images

UEFA.com salutes the coaches and scouts who earmarked the modern greats for stardom.

Gianluigi Buffon
"AC Milan turned him down because he had flat feet but I immediately noticed his talent," said Ermes Fulgoni, the Parma goalkeeping coach who clocked Buffon's potential.

"He started working with me when he was 12–13 and people laughed because I kept repeating that he would become one of the best in the world," added the former amateur No1 who also discovered Salvatore Sirigu, among others.

"I left my family at 13," Buffon recalls. "Fulgoni's belief and confidence were crucial for my career."

Antoine Griezmann
Griezmann had already been turned down by a number of clubs when Frenchman Éric Olhats, Real Sociedad scout since 2003, spotted the 14-year-old at a tournament near Paris. "I saw him control and pass the ball – it looked so easy.  So I asked myself: 'How good could he be once his body develops?'"

The 54-year-old remains a key advisor to Griezmann, who has never hired an agent. "He doesn't always do what I say, but he likes knowing what I think of things," Olhats explained.

Eden Hazard
Captain of Belgium's 'Golden Generation', Hazard has never played a top-flight game in his homeland, having been picked up by Jean-Michel Vandamme, head of the LOSC Lille academy, while playing youth football with Tubize. "I saw a player who analysed the game much quicker than his opponents," said Vandamme. "When he signed his first contract, he told me he would be in the first team at the age of 16. I thought he was crazy, but he did it."

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Zlatan Ibrahimović
Johnny Gyllensjö, now retired, spent 15 years as a youth coach at Malmö. One of the hundreds of players he monitored was Ibrahimović. "As far as I know the club never really scouted him," said Gyllensjö. "He and his close friend just showed up one day."

Before long Ibrahimović started to make an impression. "I had never seen a youth player with the same capacity as Zlatan," recalled Gyllensjö. "He was a lanky 14 or 15-year-old with exceptional technique. There were two things that made him special: one was his enormous will to win, the other his drive to constantly improve. He always wants to be better than he was yesterday."

Robert Lewandowski
Lewandowski was at tiny Varsovia Warszawa in the Polish capital from 1997 to 2004 and Krzysztof Sikorski, one of his very first youth coaches, had a significant influence. "He was very thin," Sikorski told UEFA.com. "His legs were like sticks and I was always scared that the other players would break them. I wanted him to be physically stronger and even advised him to eat more bacon! I remember one season my team scored 158 goals; Robert got half of them."

Thomas Müller
Scout Jan Pienta had previously spotted the likes of Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger and could not help but notice the 11-year-old Müller at a regional youth tournament, in which he scored eight goals in a single game. "At that age, you are looking for work ethic, reaction time and of course decent technique," Pienta remembered. "Thomas was impressive. It is hard for a defender to get a grip on Thomas because he follows his instinct and has such good stamina."

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Cristiano Ronaldo
"Nacional owed Sporting about €25,000; they couldn't pay, so they asked if we would accept a very good player to settle the debt," said Sporting scout Aurélio Pereira about the circumstances that brought Ronaldo into his orbit. "You could see his winning mentality straight away. This 12-year-old kid arrived here and imposed himself in such a way that it gave me the confidence to present a proposal to the board to get his playing rights. Initially they thought it was crazy, but it was worth the effort."

Wayne Rooney
The striker turned Everton scout Bob Pendleton's head at the age of eight while playing for Copplehouse Colts' Under-11 team. "I noticed this little striker trying something different every time he touched the ball," he remembered of the player, who he took to the Toffees soon afterwards. "With young Wayne, you immediately knew he had something special. Coaches who'd been around for years were talking about him. Referees would ring me up after games to talk about him."

©Getty Images