Messi backed 10 players to reach the top… but where are they now?

Six years ago 10 kids were ‘Backed by Messi’ to become football’s next superstars… now one is in the Italian third division (south), one is a Man United cast-off in League Two, and another is… Timo Werner! So what happened to the rest?

  • In 2015 Lionel Messi picked 10 players who could be the next big thing in football
  • Backed by Messi, in partnership with Adidas, identified talented young pros
  • But what happened to those anointed by the Argentina and Barcelona legend? 
  • Sportsmail looks at where those 10 players are now – and it is a mixed picture

Making predictions about players’ futures in a sport as fickle as football is a dangerous game, but that hasn’t stopped Lionel Messi.

In 2015, the six-time Ballon d’Or winner and Paris Saint-Germain forward picked 10 players he thought had the potential to go all the way to the very top of the game.

The ‘Backed by Messi’ campaign was a marketing exercise with Adidas, but the Argentinian maestro reportedly made his own choices.

Lionel Messi handpicked young players he thought were destined for the top in their careers

Each young player was sent a pair of Messi’s new, specially designed Messi 15 boots and became part of ‘Team Messi’.

The campaign was accompanied by a barrage of breathless PR promising updates and analysis of the young pros, who were then pushing for a start in the first team, but the progress reports and the publicity quickly dried up. 

Perhaps the brand and Messi, 34, realised that not all careers run as smoothly as his 16 years in the game, almost all of them with Barcelona, in which he has amassed 158 caps for his country.

Not all careers runs as smoothly at Messi’s, however talented the player is as a youngster

Indeed, of the 10 players picked out by Messi some have flourished, but others have suffered from injuries, chaotic management, dips in form or just plain old bad luck.

One is trying to rediscover the form that brought him to international attention as a teenager in the Italian third division, others are on loans from their parent clubs, a player has only found his scoring boots in League Two… and only Timo Werner is anywhere near the top of the game.

Sportsmail tracks the progress of the players, who were Backed by Messi.

1 – Accursio Bentivegna

When Messi picked out Italian teenager Accursio Bentivegna he was in his breakthrough season at Serie A club Palermo.

Then aged 18, he looked as safe a bet as any player to succeed. But Bentivegna has suffered and even now, plying his trade in the Italian third division south, he is desperately trying to roll back the years and rediscover his early promise.

The dedicated winger had moved from the Sicilian countryside to the island’s capital without his parents at just 13 years old to realise his dream of playing top-flight football.

Accursio Bentivegna debuted for Palermo in 2014 and played with Paulo Dybala, but injuries have seen his career slide and now he is playing in the third division of Italian football

Bentivegna excelled in the youth leagues and was given his chance on the biggest stage in an early-season home game against Sampdoria.

The nervous teen was sent on in August 2014 with one minute to go, joining Paulo Dybala, now approaching legendary status at Juventus, on the pitch.

Dybala scored for Palermo in a 1-1 draw on a day Bentivegna still remembers fondly.

It was ‘the dream of a lifetime’ Bentivegna told Italian media last month. ‘My legs were shaking at the very thought of entering the field.’

But while Palermo was a springboard for Dybala, it was not for Bentivegna. Despite so much promise, the tricky winger couldn’t sustain his bid for a first-team place. He established his spot on the bench, but only started one game, a 1-0 home defeat to Sassuolo.

In two-and-a-half years he made just eight appearances for Palermo, and played 159 minutes.

As with so many young prospects, injuries played their part and at the time he would have wanted to push for a place, Bentivegna was unavailable.

And then there was the incredible instability at Palermo, which makes it almost impossible for a young player to gain momentum. The club burned through seven managers in 2015-16, which should have been the season he established himself. Spectacular chaos, even by Italian football standards.

The winger dropped into Serie B, with Ascoli and Como, playing 26 matches before he stepped down further into the regionalised Serie C, where he is now in his second season with Juve Stabia, on the Italian west coast, just south of Naples.

Injuries have been a blight on his career, which clearly hurts to this day.

‘Before the season began, I bet with myself. ‘I want to take back everything I lost along the way in these unfortunate years’,’ said Bentivegna in August.

And to his credit, he is doing just that. Bentivegna has clocked up 14 appearances for Juve Stabia and scored three goals in the southern region of Serie C this term.

2 – Marcos ‘Rony’ Lopes

If there was ever a player who looked destined to hit the heights of the game, then it was Marcos Lopes.

Lopes, nicknamed ‘Rony’ after the great Brazilian striker, Ronaldo, looked another safe pick for Messi and his Adidas backers.

The forward was riding a wave that had taken him through the famed Benfica academy to Manchester City for a fee of £790,000, and he’d already played in the first team, becoming the Blues’ youngest ever goal scorer.

Marcos ‘Rony’ Lopes became Manchester City’s youngest scorer at 17 years and eight days after finding the net against Watford in the third round of the FA Cup (pictured in that game)

Hence, it is surprising that Lopes has only gathered two international caps for Portugal and not secured more serious silverware in his career to date. Now, he can’t get a game, or even a squad number, at Sevilla.

Lopes joined City at 15 in 2011 and made his first team debut aged 17 years and nine days under Roberto Mancini in 2013. It was a fateful night and despite only appearing as an 88th-minute substitute in the FA Cup third round against Watford, Lopes still scored in a 3-0 win to claim the club record

Roberto Mancini brought Lopes into the first team squad and he joined a pre-season tour in 2014 to the UAE

Even now, the Brazil-born player looks back fondly on that moment as ‘one of the best of my career’.

A year later he produced his finest City performance against West Ham in the semi-final of the League Cup when he set up both Sergio Agüuero and Alvaro Negredo for goals in a 3-0 win on the night and a 9-0 demolition on aggregate.

The emergence of Lopes led City icon Rodney Marsh to take to Twitter and announce the arrival of a new Blues legend.

Meanwhile, back in the youth ranks with City’s Elite Development Squad, Lopes single-handedly dismantled Bayern Munich in the UEFA Youth League, scoring a hat-trick in a 6-0 win.

‘Lopes led the destruction,’ the Manchester Evening News purred the following day. And the youngster was picked out for his ‘thumping’ finishes and his ‘outstanding’ control.

Even so, he made only five first-team cup appearances and after a loan spell with Lille, Lopes was sold in August 2015 to Monaco for £9million.

He did enough in France – scoring 21 goals in 82 games for Monaco – to earn a big-money move to Sevilla, with the legendary sporting director Monchi sanctioning a £22.5m fee.

Lopes set up two goals in the second leg of a League Cup semi final against West Ham

In Spain, he claimed a Europa League winner’s medal in 2019-20, having played in the group phase of the competition.

But sadly, it has never quite worked out for Lopes at Sevilla. He was sent out on loan to Nice and when he returned in the summer, the Spanish press declared that the ‘worst recent investment of the Monchi era’ would need to move on again.

He had hoped to return to Benfica, but Sevilla want to recoup more than half their money, and he is now on loan at Olympiacos in the Greek Super League, where he has one assist in eight matches this season.

3 – Kenedy

A fully paid-up member of Chelsea’s ‘loan army’, Kenedy has never made the grade with the Blues.

When Messi picked him out in 2015, the Brazilian had just made an exciting £6m move from Fluminense, four-time Serie A champions in his homeland.

But his Chelsea career has misfired. He scored a goal and an assist on his debut in a 4-1 Carabao Cup defeat of Walsall in 2015, but in all he has made just 27 senior appearances for the Blues, netting three.

Kenedy signed for Chelsea in  August 2015 but he has never been able to establish himself

Since his arrival in Europe, he has played for almost as many clubs as he has had positions, clocking up five teams in six years as a Chelsea player.

However, he has had successful spells on the loan road, notably 18 months at Newcastle and last season in La Liga with Granada, where he played 44 times and scored eight goals with six assists from the left and right wings.

Despite an option to buy, Granada didn’t, and Kenedy is now out on loan again, this time back in Brazil with Flamengo, where he is in and out of the side.

Kenedy, 25, was handed a one-year contract extension in the summer, which will expire in June 2023. But it is hard to see how he would add to Thomas Tuchel’s impressive squad and yet it is difficult for him to secure a permanent move away.

Kenedy is now on his fifth loan in six years and is back in Brazil with Serie A side, Flamengo

The problem is Chelsea paid a decent fee for the youngster in 2015 and will want a return on that when they sell him. But the Premier League is the richest in the world so fees and wages tend to be high for clubs elsewhere. And the exchange rate does not help, either.

These football economics killed a permanent deal with Flamengo this summer.

‘It’s a very difficult negotiation,’ Flamengo director Bruno Spindel said in July. ‘An athlete who was transferred for a very high fee to Chelsea.

‘We’d like to have him, but because of the financial situation, the value of the Euro, everything that happened, we see it as a difficult situation.’

4 – Maxwel Cornet

The recently recruited Burnley winger has maintained a good level since he was picked out in 2015, but he may be about to kick on in the Premier League and realise the potential Messi identified.

Always passionate and driven, the Ivorian, 25, refused to sign a new contract at his boyhood club Metz and joined perennial challengers, Lyon, in Ligue 1, aged 18.

It was at this moment Cornet was ‘Backed by Messi. While doing well in the years that followed, including clocking up 24 caps and six goals for the Ivory Coast (after representing France at every age group), he has never set the world on fire.

Maxwel Cornet was a surprising signing for Burnley but he is flying in the Premier League

Cornet was a favourite at Lyon, but he struggled to hold down an attacking role in the team

Cornet scored nine, 10 and 13 goals in his first three seasons in Ligue 1, mostly as a winger.

But he didn’t do enough to hold down his attacking position as competition for places increased in the forward line with the arrival of Memphis Depay from Manchester United. Cornet was converted into a left wing back.

Determined to succeed, he kept his place at the Groupama Stadium and in international football with the Elephants, and thanks to his tenacity and desire he remained a fan favourite.

His move to Burnley was a surprise, with other European clubs interested, but his strength and pace means he is well suited to the demands of the Premier League, where he has been restored to an advanced position.

Four goals in six games suggests he may be about to realise his rich potential in England.

5 – Jeremie Boga

Another Ivorian, and another exciting Chelsea youth product, Boga has turned himself into an impressive performer in Serie A for Italy’s upstarts, Sassuolo.

Boga’s story is one of bad luck and struggle, but he has now worked himself into a position where the biggest clubs in Europe are taking an interest.

As a youngster the player was loaned to Rennes and Granada and on his return to Stamford Bridge he was handed his Chelsea debut, aged 20.

Jeremie Boga has forged an impressive reputation in midfield at Serie A side, Sassuolo

His one and only appearance for the Blues was an ignominious 3-2 home defeat to Burnley on the first day of the 2017-18 season. Fate ruined his big day and who knows, perhaps a Chelsea career?

As a youngster he made his Chelsea debut against Burnley but was taken off after 18 minutes (pictured in his only game)

The left-sided midfielder was withdrawn by manager Antonio Conte after only 18 minutes in a tactical reshuffle, following Gary Cahill’s sending off.

Boga never got another chance at Stamford Bridge, where he arrived aged 11 after moving to London from Marseille with his family, and he went out on loan to Birmingham City a few weeks later.

At St Andrew’s, the youngster was initially ever-present, but after a 6-1 thumping at Hull City he was dropped for two months and put on a fitness programme. To his credit, he returned with a great attitude, good performance and decent goal in a 1-1 draw away to Sheffield United in late November. And he’s never looked back.

Boga signed for Sassuolo ahead of the 2018-19 season for around £3m and has been a regular starter throughout most of his last three seasons, helping the ‘Neroverdi’ to two eighth-placed finishes in the Italian top tier.

Chelsea retained a buy-back clause for £13m but chose not to exercise that option in the summer of 2020 as the club invested heavily in attacking talent bringing in Kai Havertz, Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech in a £270m splurge.

Now aged 24, Boga is considered one of the best dribblers in Serie A and has been compared to Eden Hazard. He has 18 goals and 10 assists in 98 games for Sassuolo. And is tipped for a big move.

6 – James Wilson

Hailed as one of the most exciting prospects in the Manchester United academy, James Wilson was riding high in 2015 when he was picked out by Messi as a star of the future.

In fact, no one doubted the stellar trajectory of Wilson’s career having already broken into the first team. But the centre-forward is an example of how fickle football can be.

The lad from Stoke-on-Trent found himself in the starting line-up at Manchester United under Ryan Giggs towards the end of the 2013-14 season and scored twice within an hour on his debut at home to Hull City in a 3-1 win.

Former Manchester United starlet James Wilson suffered injuries, but is back among the goals

The next season, Wilson made 13 Premier League appearances and a successful career at the top end of the game beckoned.

The following year, he was rewarded by Louis van Gaal with a four-year deal and the Red Devils sought to further his development with loans, firstly at Brighton and then Derby County.

But disaster struck at Pride Park, where Wilson suffered a ruptured cruciate ligament in October 2016, aged 20, wrecking his United career.

Wilson was out for 15 months before he had an unproductive loan at Sheffield United and spells at Aberdeen and then Salford City, in the fourth tier.

At the Peninsula Stadium he was reunited with coaches and former players from his United days, including Giggs, Phil Neville and development coach Warren Joyce.

During his development at Manchester United he was sent on loan to Brighton (pictured) and then to Derby, where he suffered a serious knee injury which ruined his Old Trafford career

Wilson is loving life at Port Vale where he has netted eight times in 17 games this season

Despite appearances and goals, it didn’t work out at either club, but the story has a happy ending. Wilson, now 25, has found a home in every sense, returning to the Potteries to lead the line for Port Vale.

He has netted eight times in 17 games this term and according to manager Darrell Clarke, Wilson is back in love with the beautiful game, scoring a hat-trick in a 5-1 FA Cup win over Accrington Stanley and helping to fire Vale to second in League Two.

‘He is a great lad, he is a model pro,’ said Clarke. ‘He has been at some big clubs and is enjoying his football. That is the remit I gave him when I brought him here – enjoy his football, work hard for the team, which he has done on every occasion, get his training plan right, which I think is very important for him, and we know he has that ability to score goals.’

7 – Timo Werner

Despite his struggles in front of goal for Chelsea, it would be churlish to argue with Messi’s assessment of a young Timo Werner.

The German forward has reached the top of the game, even if he is synonymous with glaring misses at Stamford Bridge.

Spotted at the aged of 18 with VfB Stuttgart, Werner scored seven in 36 appearances for Die Roten (The Reds) in 2016-17, before setting the Bundesliga alight with RB Leipzig.

Timo Werner has been the most successful of the 10 players Backed by Messi in 2015

At the Red Bull Arena, the left-sided attacker used his pace and direct running to score 95 times in 150 matches.

Add to that 21 goals in 47 caps for Germany and Werner has enjoyed plenty of success. And at Chelsea he has bagged Champions League and UEFA Super Cup medals.

However, he has still failed to convince his critics in England. Werner has struggled to reproduce his best form at Chelsea under either Frank Lampard or Thomas Tuchel. His record at Stamford Bridge is a modest 14 goals in 62 games.

The forward took Europe by storm at RB Leipzig, scoring 95 times in 150 Bundesliga matches

Following Werner’s first season in the Premier League, the Chelsea website reflected, candidly: ‘There were ups and downs, but Werner can look back on a promising… first season.’

This time around, in an injury-affected campaign there have been more downs than ups and Werner is being linked with a possible move in January. Wherever he ends up, there is surely more to come.

8 – Gyasi Zardes

The centre-forward Gyasi Zardes was an odd choice for Messi’s ‘stars of the future’ given he was already 24 when the list came out and had made his debut for the United States.

Zardes, now 30, has no doubt had a successful career in the MLS and gathered 65 caps, scoring 14 international goals since 2015.

However, it has not all been plain sailing since Messi picked him out.

Gyasi Zardes has amassed 65 caps for the United States scoring 14 international goals 

However, Zardes, now with Columbus Crew, was already a well-established pro when picked

At LA Galaxy, where he became the first homegrown player to score in the MLS Cup Final in a 2-1 win over New England Revolution in 2014, his minutes reduced in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, as injuries took their toll and he lost his spot at centre-forward.

However, Zardes was re-energised following a move to Columbus Crew where he scored 20 goals in 36 matches and received the 2018 MLS Comeback Player of the Year Award.

This season, the California-born striker scored nine in 21 matches, but Columbus only managed a bottom-half finish in the Eastern Conference.

9 – Khiry Shelton

The American winger has had a good career, but is another who has come up short against Messi’s ‘next big thing’ tag.

In fact, Shelton, 28, is an example of how hard it is to excel at the elite level of the game, to dazzle even more than the other brilliant stars around you, and most importantly to steer clear of injury.

In 2014, Shelton bagged 10 goals and 12 assists for Oregon State University and achieved Player of the Year honours in the Pac-12 Conference, a regional group of western states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.

Khiry Shelton has maintained a good level since he was ‘Backed by Messi’ in 2015

When he was Backed by Messi the following year, he was 22 and was in his first season at New York City. He was the club’s first ever draft pick.

His first goal for NYCFC came at the Yankee Stadium in May 2015 when he picked up a pass in injury time from the all-time Spanish great, David Villa, and scored the equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Chicago Fire.

His breakthrough season came in 2016, when Shelton assisted six goals from the left wing, as many as Andrea Pirlo from the right, and he scored four, under the management of Patrick Vieira.

He was a consistent performer in New York, scoring six and assisting seven goals in 57 appearances, but he suffered lengthy spells on the treatment table in the 2015 and 2017 seasons, which hampered his progress.

Shelton tried to break into European football with Paderborn in Germany (pictured)

A move to Sporting Kansas City followed and Shelton played 20 times in a campaign that saw his side top the MLS Western Conference in a record-breaking season.

The next year he made an attempt to break into European football. US-born, Shelton moved to Germany, the country where he spent the first seven years of his life, the son of a US Army platoon sergeant.

He joined Paderborn in northern Germany, where he played in Bundesliga 2 before becoming the 53rd American to appear in the Bundesliga, making two appearances in the top flight. When he headed back stateside he rejoined Sporting Kansas City.

And Shelton has been back on form this term, making 31 MLS appearances, scoring three and making four goals, as his side finished third. He is yet to win a senior cap.

10 – Aleksey Miranchuk

The Russian centre-forward shone brightly in Moscow at the beginning of his career, but has faded since his move to Serie A and Atalanta.

The exciting Italian outfit had hoped he would enhance their fluid, all-out attack when he joined from Locomotiv Moscow for £13m in August 2020, but that is not how it has worked out.

And he is another player who, so far, has failed to meet Messi’s expectations, but for Miranchuk it is hard to pinpoint what has stood in his way.

Aleksey Miranchuk came to the attention of Messi and Adidas while at Lokomotiv Moscow

Last week, the player’s agent, Vadim Shpinev, appeared to admit defeat with the Nerazzurri.

‘I will be in Italy from 20 November and I will have a meeting with the Atalanta management to discuss Miranchuk’s future,’ declared Shpinev.

And in case there was any doubt what he was talking about, he added: ‘[Miranchuk] likes Italian football and in Italy there are 19 other clubs.’

The problem for Miranchuk has been that he has failed to take his chances in the starting line up and as a result has not managed to dislodge the resurgent Josip Ilicic.

What brought Miranchuk to Messi’s attention was his breakthrough season at Lokomotiv in 2014-15, aged just 17, when he made 17 Premier Liga appearances and scored a solo goal to win the Russian Cup final in extra time, defeating Kuban Krasnodar.

Now Atalanta he struggled to make an impression, but did play (number 66) against United

The Argentinian’s belief in the striker has been partially realised, lifting the Russian Cup three times and winning the Premier Liga once, in 2017-18.

He also has 41 caps for Russia and six goals.

He has rarely been prolific in front of goal but in the 2019-20 season he achieved 16 goals in 32 games for Lokomotiv, including two in the Champions League, scoring home and away against Juventus. His performances that year secured his move to Serie A.

But this term he has managed just 182 minutes in 12 Serie A matches.

The Italian press believe the Russian has ‘never got into gear’ in Bergamo. But the local paper, Il Giorno Bergamo, believes a ‘change of air’ will do him good.

‘At just 26, the Miranchuk star can shine again,’ the newspaper optimistically reported last week.

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