Messi, Ronaldo, Zlatan & Neymar: The first seasons of football's biggest stars

Getty Images
While some of the top players on the planet went straight in at the highest level of the world game, others had a much more modest introduction

While some footballers have only ever known the highest level of the world game, others have had to work their way up the ladder to reach stardom.

New Star Soccer gives you the chance to virtually experience that journey, and to give you some inspiration we have looked back at how it all started for some of football's most famous players.

What will your first season be like?


Barcelona knew they had something special in Lionel Messi, and as early as age 16 he was featuring in first-team friendlies against Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk.

That was in the 2003-04 season, and in addition to getting a taste of the top level, he also spent time honing his craft in the Spanish lower divisions. Messi demonstrated quite clearly in the early months of the season that he had outgrown the youth teams, and in November - shortly after the cameo against Porto - he made his first appearance for Barcelona C.

In his third game with the C team - who played in the Tercera Divison - Messi scored his first goal and then netted two more for good measure to earn a 3-2 win over Gramenet's B team with a hat-trick. He went on to add two more goals in the next seven games and featured against Shakhtar before getting called up to the B team in March.

That level was a test for such a young, physically immature player and Messi could not increase his goal tally, but he finished the season on a high upon returning to the top academy team to play in the youth Copa del Rey. He netted four goals in a 5-0 thrashing of Sevilla and four more in the next five games but suffered a semi-final exit at the hands of Osasuna.

Messi had played at four very different levels, but it was clear in his performances throughout that he was a special player in the making. The following season, he would quickly make his debuts in La Liga and the Champions League as Ronaldinho took him under his wing as his eventual successor at Camp Nou.


Cristiano Ronaldo Sporting

It is often said that Cristiano Ronaldo's work ethic, rather than his natural talent, enabled him to reach the pinnacle of world football, but like Messi he was very clearly identified as a teenager as a player of rare gifts.

He was also 16 when he got the call to train and play with the first team by then-Sporting coach Laszlo Boloni. "The first thing that surprised me about him was his maturity on the pitch," Boloni said. "He showed no fear. It seemed that he was a special talent. He could handle and carry the ball with ease."

Ronaldo would become the first Sporting player ever to feature at the Under-16, U17 and U18 levels as well as for the B team and first team in the same season during that 2001-02 campaign. Mirroring Messi's experience, that time playing at a range of different standards would lay the groundwork for him to become a first-team player the next year.

He made his debut in the Primeira Liga in October 2002 and scored two goals in a 3-0 win over Moreirense.


Ronaldo Neymar

For Neymar, fame came even more quickly - at least in his home country. By age 16, he was already earning 125,000 reais (approximately £30,000 at current exchange rates) a month at Santos having spent time training with Real Madrid's academy, allowing his family to buy a house for the first time.

He made his professional debut at age 17 and, being younger than the likes of Garrincha and Ronaldinho when they made their bows, was greeted with all kinds of hype that only increased when he netted his first goal in a state championship game against Mogi Mirim a week later.

Once he had received the opportunity to play in the first team, Neymar never looked back. He went on to play a remarkable 48 games in total that year (2009) and scored 14 goals, second among Santos players behind veteran Kleber Pereira.

The Brazilian had made more than 100 senior appearances and scored more than 50 goals by his 19th birthday. He is an example of a young prodigy becoming a sensation almost as soon as he was old enough to graduate from the youth teams.


Coming from a smaller footballing country like Sweden, things were not as simple for Zlatan Ibrahimovic as they were for some of the household names he now stands alongside.

Ibrahimovic signed his first contract with Malmo at age 15 and made his Allsvenskan debut at 17 in 1999, but in the small number of games he played that season he could not help his team avoid relegation to the second tier.

The striker was offered a trial at Arsenal that year but gave the Gunners a glimpse of his unique personality by turning it down, despite Malmo's struggles and the fact that just a couple of years earlier he had considered leaving football entirely to work on the city's docks.

As tends to be the case with Zlatan, though, it all worked out. At the lower level, he had the chance to take on a key role and scored 14 goals in 29 games in all competitions as Malmo were promoted back to the top flight at the first attempt.

At the start of his third season, a deal was agreed to allow him to join Ajax for over €8 million when the summer transfer window opened.


Paul Pogba Manchester United

It is one of the more baffling legacies of Sir Alex Ferguson's time in charge of Manchester United that a young jewel like Pogba, the man the Red Devils have now decided to build their team around by paying a world-record fee to re-sign, was held back to such an extent during his first spell at Old Trafford.

Central midfield was a problem area for years towards the end of Ferguson's reign, with no one quite filling the boots of Paul Scholes and Roy Keane. That much was evidenced by the way Scholes was relied upon even after coming out of retirement to help United out, with Ryan Giggs also vital in that position for several seasons in the twilight of his career.

It was hardly a secret that United had something in Pogba, but some kind of breakdown in the relationship between the player and his advisors and Ferguson prevented him from ever getting a consistent run under the Scot.

"If we hold Pogba back, what's going to happen? He’s going to leave," Ferguson had remarked in August 2011. "You know, in a couple of years' time when his contract is going to finish."

The only thing Ferguson had got wrong was that Pogba's contract only had one year left to run, and not two. He featured in seven games and just three in the Premier League after making his debut in that 2011-12 campaign and promptly followed his manager's advice by joining Juventus.


If Messi or Ronaldo were ever impatient about their progress at the various levels of the Barcelona and Sporting systems, the climb they faced to the top was nothing compared to Jamie Vardy's.

Vardy was released by Sheffield Wednesday and joined non-league side Stocksbridge Park Steels, making his debut in the Northern Premier League Division One in 2007 while earning £30 a week. He played well, but despite trials with Football League clubs his rise was hardly rapid and he spent three years there.

He helped Stocksbridge to promotion to the Premier Division before finally moving on - to Halifax Town, who played in the same league. It wasn't until 2011 that Vardy progressed so far as the Conference and full-time football at Fleetwood Town, and less than five years later he was a Premier League champion.

If any player could be referred to as a 'New Star Soccer player', it's Jamie Vardy.