Few players go on to set the European game alight after being labelled the ‘next Lionel Messi’ of international football. In-fact, to be categorized in such a way is to be issued with that painfully symbolic kiss of death, an impending sense of doom that feels uneasy to break no matter what the circumstances.
From the vast array of so-called South American technicians and supposedly skilful playmakers, to all those players who have sought to bamboozle their opposition with daringly quick-footed movement inside the final third – there have been many alleged talents to fall victim to such an ill-fated mantel over the years, regardless of all the mounting hype and sensation that initially came their way.
In the case of one Gai Assulin, no player throughout the entire history of the beautiful game has arguably struggled so badly in light of former comparisons with the great Argentine frontman. The ex-Barcelona academy graduate and Israeli international has almost been completely removed from our collective footballing consciousness as a result of such misplaced assumptions.
His is a story of great expectations and unfulfilled potential, of intense promise yet blighted fortune all wrapped up in one luckless ensemble. For Gai Assulin, those early comparisons with Messi served only to undo all the initial potential that was once overwhelmingly apparent within his overall game…
When Pep Guardiola first took over the managerial reigns down at the Nou Camp in the summer of 2008, big things were subsequently expected of all those hopeful La Masia graduates looking to stake their claim among the Barcelona first team ranks. Alongside several other gifted youngsters within the club’s glistening academy set-up, Gai Assulin was one of those players.
And after the successes of Lionel Messi in front of the proud Catalonian faithful, Assulin certainly seemed to look the part of an exciting up and coming superstar with the ball at his feet. He was diminutive in stature, wore the unkempt grungy locks of a fresh-faced rocker – and proved adept at weaving through defenders with his distinctly lightweight touch whilst playing for the famed Barcelona B squad.
But the comparisons with Messi seemingly ran far deeper than just your standard physical resemblances. The way in which both players sought to move the ball across the pitch via perfect timing and execution proved eerily similar. Unlike most high profile technicians who seem to fall upon the use of unnecessary step-overs and superfluous tricks time and time again, Assulin’s style was all about movement – calculated and free-flowing with a dash of quick-feet for good measure.
“When they compare you with someone who is the greatest player in history they expect so much and it can be hard for you. I don’t think it’s a good comparison. I think, personally, it hurt me a little bit in the first place.”
All the essential components of an illustrious top-flight career seemed to be in place for the emerging Israeli, but it simply wasn’t to be for Gai Assulin among the Barcelona senior team. Due to the mounting expectations that weighed heavily upon the young star’s shoulders whilst plying his trade at the Nou Camp, the attacking midfielder proved unable to showcase his ability at a consistent enough rate.
The young talent was eventually forced to try his hand elsewhere after falling out of favour among Guardiola’s first team plans, but his subsequent spell under Roberto Mancini at Manchester City also failed to take off in rather unceremonious circumstances. Mancini seemingly preferred to rely upon experience over raw potential, which saw the unfulfilled frontman sadly forced to move on once again.
It is throughout this particular period in the young Israeli’s career where things seemingly turned from bad to worse for the former La Masia graduate. After representing each of Brighton & Hove Albion, Racing Santander, Granada, Hercules, Real Mallorca and Hapoel Tel Aviv with limited success – Assulin found himself residing upon the scrapheap of failed footballing talents, whilst Lionel Messi continued to shine for Barcelona among the grandest club stage of all.
It was an unfortunate outcome for a once highly rated individual, yet all might not be quite lost for this particular playmaker. Today, Gai Assulin can be found plying his trade among the lower rungs of the Spanish game, amid the not so infamous playing grounds of Sabadell FC.
At the still relatively potent age of 26-years-old, perhaps Assulin can one day establish himself as an out-in-out regular for the Israeli national team at the very least. Who knows, he may even force one or two prominent voices out there to re-think their scathing analysis of his undoubtedly disappointing career thus far.
What ever happened to Gai Assulin? Remember there being huge hype around him. Though mainly as he was left footed & had long hair like Messi
— James Hall (@James_Hall92) July 16, 2017
Although this is a player who will never manage to eclipse the achievements of Lionel Messi and everything the notorious Argentine has achieved whilst plying his trade among the Spanish game – in a world as unpredictable and downright fickle as the one of the high stakes top-flight football, anything remains possible and everything is still there for the taking…