But the club are also looking to South America in their long-term planning. They have recently brought in two teenage attacking right-backs — Yan Couto from Brazil and Peru’s Kluiverth Aguilar — and they are on the verge of bringing in a 17-year-old mini-Messi: Dario Sarmiento of Estudiantes.
Tagging youngsters as “the new Messi” is unimaginative and cruel. It proved too much for Juan Manuel Iturbe, who was born in Argentina and grew up in Paraguay, and carried round the burden for a while. Now in Mexico, he wandered all over Europe without being able to live up to the expectations. Also in Mexico is Sergio Diaz, a Paraguayan who was racking up the senior goals at the age of 16 before being picked up by Real Madrid. He ran into injury problems, and though time is still on his side — at 22 he is five years younger than Iturbe — he is clearly not going to be a phenomenon.
The road between promise and reality is long and winding, and full of potholes. There are obvious dangers in going overboard about Sarmiento, a player with less than 10 senior games and no goals to his credit.
On the other hand, his potential is breathtaking and the similarities with Messi striking. One famous name of the Argentine game certainly seems to be convinced. Alejandro Sabella had an illustrious playing career, with spells with Leeds and Sheffield United as well as Estudiantes, the club he coached to triumph in the 2009 Copa Libertadores. He was also in charge of Messi’s Argentina when they reached the final of the 2014 World Cup.
Sarmiento told ESPN Argentina that Sabella sought him out, went down on his knees and told him that he was going to be a star. Sabella was excited by Sarmiento’s left foot, by his poise and balance, by the way he can take three opponents out of the game with a quick burst, but also by his capacity to see the passes around him and take calm decisions. And while he looks like the smallest member of a boy band, he is stronger on the ball than he appears.
It may be cruel, but to ignore his similarities with a teenage Messi, who Sarmiento has grown up idolizing, would not be human.
Even if a big money offer does come in from Man City, Sarmiento cannot make a move across the Atlantic until he is 18, which means that he will probably stay at Estudiantes for another year. This is good news. Before the coronavirus shutdown in March, he was being brought along gradually, mostly coming off the bench in the second half, picking up experience at a manageable speed.
Sarmiento is in good company too, with former Argentina internationals Gabriel Milito for a coach, Javier Mascherano for a teammate, and Juan Sebastian Veron for a club president. And just possibly in the future he may even have Messi as a teammate at Manchester City.