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Page last updated at 22:54 GMT, Tuesday, 26 October 2010 23:54 UK

Messi mentor in X Factor search

By Matthias Krug

Lionel Messi of Barcelona and Argentina
Messi was discovered by Colomer at the age of 13

Consider a world without Argentine superstar Lionel Messi.

It is hard to imagine, but with the exception of Real Madrid supporters, millions of football fans around the planet should be eternally thankful to one Catalan of whom they have probably never heard.

Josep Colomer is the man credited with the discovery some 10 years ago - in Rosario, Argentina - of a 13-year-old youngster who would go on to rule world football.

Colomer has since made an unusual move to the deserts of Qatar for a talent development project, but the cheerful Catalan always displays Messi-like modesty as he plays down his role in the development of 'La Pulga' ('The Flea').

"Leo Messi is a discovery of FC Barcelona," said Barca's former youth director, who is now general director of Aspire Football Dreams.

"He was very small at the time of his discovery, but he was an excellent player already. Many people were and still are involved in the growing of Messi as a football player and as a person.

Josep Colomer
Josep Colomer is looking for the new Messi is Africa

"He came to Barcelona very young and as other young talents coming to La Masia [Barcelona's training facility], Leo had a long way to go before becoming the best player in the world.

"Many players are in La Masia every year, but I remember Leo as the one who loved football the most."

With Messi moving with trademark velocity through the ranks of the Barcelona youth academy, there was another player, Cesc Fabregas, who opted to leave as Colomber recalls.

"Cesc at that time had an offer from Arsenal and he told me that they promised him to train and to play with the main team," he said.

"After realising that he'd already taken the decision to leave, we agreed his transfer with Arsenal.

"Of course, I was not happy to see him playing at Arsenal, but I have a good relationship with him and I know the reasons why he left even though his heart was with Barcelona. I hope to see him back again."

Having watched Messi develop, Colomer has developed a simple blueprint for young footballers hoping to forge a career in professional football.

"Messi loves to train, he loves to play, he loves to watch and he loves to become better every day. It's maybe for that reason that he is really the best," he said.

Lionel Messi
Messi is currently recognised as the world's best player

"I think playing football is just like giving something back for Messi. He has so much love for this sport.

"I have a strong relationship with Leo even if I'm not talking to him every day."

Developed for the academy in Qatar, Colomer's work involves scouting for almost a million boys in 15 countries around the world.

The sheer numbers of the project are mind-boggling. The fourth edition of the programme will allow Colomer's expert team, helped by some 6,000 volunteers, to test around 750,000 youngsters in 60,000 games across various continents.

Children in Africa, Asia, and South and Central America have a chance to win sporting scholarships in Qatar, where air-conditioned indoor pitches in plush surroundings await the winners.

This is football utopia, a project of seemingly unrivalled intentions and unimaginable scale.

The project has been criticised as a smash and grab of young African talents, but these voices have grown quieter in recent years as the young players line up for their own national youth teams, including John Benson of Ghana and Nigeria's John Felegha.

Colomer believes the project is giving thousands of youngsters a chance in football, and shifting the balance away from agents, though the Catalan will not talk about the cost.

Qatar's immense natural gas reserves mean the country is able to invest heavily in sports infrastructure and related projects, as indicated by its ambitious 2022 World Cup bid.

I am convinced that many of these players will reach professional football

Josep Colomer

The scheme was developed by the Qatari academy in co-operation with Bonus Sports Marketing, a sports marketing agency founded by Barcelona president Sandro Rosell.

"Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence is not yet recognised as being in the forefront of worldwide youth football development but in a few years it will be," Colomer stated.

"I think it can be the new La Masia for football talents from developing countries.

"When we first came to Africa, most of the places we organised our project did not have football schools or clubs.

"They didn't have soccer balls, bibs or coaches with motivation to work with young players, but they had plenty of children who had no hope of being seen by international scouts.

"Now all of these centres have staff, are well equipped with balls, bibs and have thousands of players registering each year. But the most important thing Aspire gave to all these places was hope."

Earlier this year in Nigeria, however, hope turned to tragedy as one young talent failed to turn up for the final round of testing after contracting malaria.

"He helped me understand how life-threatening malaria is and to start preparing a malaria project to fight this disease," admitted Colomer, who is studying plans to distribute a million mosquito nets during the trials.

Ryan Giggs
There are plans to distribute a million mosquito nets to prevent malaria

But just how big are the chances of making it to the big time of professional football? And what does Colomer look for in a young player?

"I always tell my scouts not to focus on the players one by one as you will always find good things for each of them," he explained.

"We need to watch the games as if looking through a filtered glass, where only the best will really attract your attention and your eyes. These are the ones we are looking for.

"I'm convinced that many of these players will reach professional football, and I really hope these players will be role models for the rest of the participants of Aspire Football Dreams in the future.

"My dream is to see them playing for the top clubs, with behaviour like Messi, to show the world that Aspire is really giving them an excellent programme, not only in football, but also in life."

In giving hope to almost a million youngsters in under-developed countries every year, Colomer is indeed changing the face of the future of world football, 750,000 youngsters at a time.

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see also
Messi named top European player
01 Dec 09 |  Europe
Fabregas meets his makers
29 Mar 10 |  Arsenal
Wenger says Messi is world's best
07 Apr 10 |  Europe
Messi wins Fifa best player award
21 Dec 09 |  Football
Lionel Messi's 2009 in photos
21 Dec 09 |  Europe

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