As I picked up a newspaper on Sunday, I was faced with the spotty adolescent face of Manchester United’s latest teenage ‘sensation’, Federico Macheda. After making a cameo appearance from the Old Trafford bench (cushioned armchairs in actuality), the 17-year-old Italian showed a neat touch and a curling shot to clinch the game for his team against Aston Villa. Six days later, on he came again, to send United supporters into raptures with another screamer — albeit deflected — goal within a minute of stepping on the pitch.
The youngster had arrived.
So there it was, the latest Old Trafford prodigy, the latest homegrown talent (kind of). Cue the press exaggeration and the comparisons with the greats of the game. In this case, he was dubbed the ‘new Cristiano Ronaldo’, a comparison inspired by comments from former Lazio youth coach, Volfango Patarca. A rather far fetched link in many respects, the youth coach pointing out that the players are both “tall and languid, speedy too”.
The young star doesn’t seem to possess any visible lack of confidence either, a cocksure swagger that undeniably draws resemblance to the World Player of the Year. Two goals and less than 45 minutes on the pitch, this 17-year-old is being compared to the best player in the world over the past few seasons. Pressure indeed. Hyperbole indeed.
It is a mark of the current euphoric footballing climate. As every new gem appears on to the footballing screens, they are so often dubbed as having the patent characteristics of a past legend. Be it Maradona, Pele, Cruyff, or a more recent star, Ronaldo, Cantona, Inzaghi. There have been some contemptible, some disturbing, and some valid claims on up and coming players, made by both media and by supporters. It is a nostalgic yearning to see the legends reappear — a brief glimpse of a newbie that invokes visions of a past or current favourite — the same angle of flair, the same drop of the shoulder, an aura or temperament.
The comparisons carry great burdens, and here are some the chains that have been slung round the necks of some of the up and coming world stars. Likened to greats old and current, hailed as the equivalent of legends gone by (and even those still going by).
Lionel Messi – “The New Diego Maradona”
This one had to come first. More or less every small, swift, talented Argentinean forward that arrives onto the footballing scene is likened to the national legend. Saviola, Tevez, Pablo Aimar, Sergio Aguero, all proposed to be the new ‘Maradona’. But none has come as close to Diego’s perfection in technique, vision, flair and style than Lionel Messi.
The mazy run against Getafe where he left six players in ignominy before slotting to the ball into the empty net, really set the comparisons in full swing, being almost identical to that stunning goal scored by Maradona against England in the 1986 World Cup (the second one, settle down). The press in Spain labeled him “Messidona”, his celebration, his rounding of the keeper and defenders, his chic movement, all almost indistinguishable from one of the best players ever to grace the world game.
When Messi collects the ball and sets off on one of his balletic dribbles, it is as though the ball is glued to his boot, and it is merely a game of playground ‘tig’. Defender just trying to get a touch to him as he weaves around them. A game of ‘tig’ with a remarkably rapid little youngster sporting a boyish grin. One where even if you do catch him, it is pretty unlikely that you will be able to dispossess him, or even knock him over with his incredibly low centre of gravity. Add to that the accuracy of his shooting and then his passing, as well his weighted through balls that drift perfectly into the path of his teammates and you end up with one of the most complete players in the world today.
Still only 21 years of age, the little magician still has many enchanting years of ahead of him to add to his Ballon D’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year tally. He certainly has the trademark skills once exuded by his national coach. The up and coming World Cup in South Africa may be where he really stakes a position as the unprecedented best in the world.
Abou Diaby – The new Patrick Viera
Having seen both of these players on a number of occasions, the resemblance is scarliy similar. Those marauding runs from midfield, the incredible presence in the centre of the park. They share comparable appearance, size and brio. One was an Arsenal great; the other sure has the potential. Abou Diaby has played all over the park for Arsene Wenger, however it is in that role once governed by Viera, that has seen his best form. After storming forward powerfully against Newcastle this year, smashing the ball into the roof of the net, even his manager was quick to point out the similarities, with “the same stature, the same size”.
Diaby does not yet have the positional command that his predecessor displayed in such abundance, something Wenger again pointed out, stating that “Abou is only 22 and there is still a lot of room for him to get where Patrick was as a player”. However, under the guidance of Arsene Wenger, many believe he has the potential to be reach the levels of this member of ‘invincibles’, and play a dominate role in the team like the former club captain.
Lassana Diarra – The new Claude Makelele
This contrast has been around for a while, first made when Diarra first hit the scene as a Chelsea youngster, Makelele was still safeguarding the club’s defense with experience and assurance, but with growing age. The fact that they looked remarkably similar, played in the same position, and were both French, meant the link was inevitable. Diarra often discarded the association, insisting that despite being flattered by the class of his mentor, he had his own unique playing style and talent.
He was sure to his word, and his start to world football has been an eventful, but so far fruitful one. With a spell at Arsenal which had little involvement in the first team, there were doubts over his potential instigated by Wenger’s decision to let him go. It is not often the judicious Frenchman releases a young star of the future. The likes of Aliadiere and Pennant left the club and have done little to nothing since.
After impressing heavily in the South Coast at Portsmouth, January saw a multi million Euro switch to Real Madrid for the French midfielder. A club where, ironically, Makelele enjoyed some of the best of his footballing years. His position provides cover to the back line, just like Makeleles, but he appears to be more creative with the ball, willing to play himself out of trouble and attempt more ventures into attack. He is also a more versatile player, having played at fullback for club and country in the past.
For the moment at least, he looks well on course to have a career as rewarding as that enjoyed by his former teammate.
Wayne Rooney – The new Paul Gascoigne
If the chants that rain down from the Old Trafford terraces are to be believed (well, ok, drizzle down; it is Old Trafford after all), then someone has seen the white Pele plying his trade in Manchester red. A much less poetic, but far more common comparison is marking the Scouse hothead as today’s Paul Gascoigne.
Wazza is the new Gazza, at least that is the view of many of the nations’ tabloids. Partly due to a rather bulky physique, and their roles as lovable rogues, the player’s parallel in class and power is incontestable. Wayne torments opposing defenders and midfielders in the same way that Gascoigne did as his best, almost impossible to derail at full flow, and with technique superior to his peers.
One key difference however, one that has undoubtedly shaped the careers of both superstars, is that Wayne Rooney decided to sign for Sir Alex. In a move that Gascoigne marks as his greatest regret, the Geordie famously went back on his word to the Manchester United gaffer to sign for rivals, Spurs. Under Alex’s tenure, Rooney has thrived.
Despite still possessing his bullish rage, the England International Player of the Year has grown and grown since signing for the club. From pinpoint long range passes that split Premiership and Champions League back lines, to remarkable composure and speed, Rooney is starting to make the most of his rich potential. Something Gascoigne never quite managed with his off the field troubles and some questionable career decisions.
As Rooney frequently appears in the defenders’ nightmares, Gascoigne makes his appearances in the North East clinics. The likenesses are there, but Gascoigne may simply be a constant reminder to the young Manchester United forward, in keeping his career on the right track.
Rafael Da Silva – The new Cafu
A predictable comparison, one many made before they even saw him pull on a Manchester United shirt.
Right back, Brazilian, he was always going to be compared with Cafu. So were Maicon, Dani Alves and Kleber, so why not him? Having played a handful of games for the first team this campaign, it does look as though this particular twin has what it takes to be a top player. His position seemed unknown at first, yet Sir Alex described him as a “natural fullback” after some impressive displays at the back. He looks an excellent prospect. His effervescent performances and roadrunner sprints down the touchline really do spark memories of the veteran Milan star’s early days. He has pace and energy to burn, and an eye for goal, shown by his stunning strike against Arsenal earlier in the campaign.
Questions have been posed in terms of his defensive awareness, very similar to Cafu in his early days at Roma. Cafu grew into the mindset of the Italian game, becoming a solid yet marauding fullback and a crux in many a league, Champions League and World Cup campaign. In Sir Alex’s words, the veteran has the “engine to get up and down the pitch”. He also feels that Da Silva has what it takes to be a world class player, pinpointing his “great enthusiasm and stamina” as key ingredients. He will stand a great chance of developing under the watchful gaze of Sir Alex, and growing into a top wingback.
The comparisons look promising for now, but there is a long way to go for the diminutive Brazilian before he can amount the accolades to contest his compatriot.
An Expectant Arena
These are just a pick of the most widespread comparisons amidst the current crop of talent. There are many developing and gifted wonderkids in the world of football, all watched scrupulously by the millions of supporters around the globe. Many won’t make it. Giovanni Dos Santos was tipped as the new Ronaldinho, yet is now struggling to break into the Ipswich Town team. Michael Johnson of Manchester City was also citing recollections of the great Colin Bell earlier last season, before enjoying not a single appearance in the current campaign.
It is a tough road and a competitive one for the footballers out there. The media and fans are desperate to see a new legend from the current generation. Is there a new Pele just learning the joys of shaving in Brasilia, or a new Raul scrapping in the streets of Malaga? Who knows for sure. One thing is certain, the media, the supporters, and a brand new string of comparisons will be waiting eagerly around the corner.