The forward’s career stalled after his Barcelona debut but he enjoys his journeyman status and wants another challenge
When Gai Assulin’s mentor and idol reunite at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday as Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain meet in the Champions League, the man himself will be 10 miles away playing five-a-side with friends. The 30-year-old began his career under Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, earning the nickname the “Israeli Messi”, but finds himself without a club.
Liverpool’s Thiago Alcântara has described Assulin as “the most talented player I’ve ever seen in La Masia”, the winger impressing in the B team as he helped Guardiola win his first title and the chance to replace Frank Rijkaard as head coach. Assulin was rewarded with a debut under Guardiola in the Copa del Rey but he did not make another first-team appearance before moving on a free transfer in 2010 to City, where he did not get a look in under Roberto Mancini, who had little interest in the club’s youngsters. The early pressure of being synonymous with Lionel Messi was not a tag Assulin particularly enjoyed as he looked to come out of the Argentinian’s shadow.
“They like to compare in football; it is something they do all the time and for me it is a big compliment, but Messi is the greatest footballer in history,” Assulin says over lunch in Bramhall, Stockport. “Sometimes it is not good if you take it in the wrong way, as the expectation is for you to go on to the pitch and do the same as Messi all the time. Whichever club I went to, they saw I was compared with Messi, so they thought I was going to be Messi and score 50 goals a year, so that comparison at the time was not as positive.
“Right now, after being at so many clubs, I see it as something positive and I take it as something that hasn’t been said about so many players. Messi is the best in history, so it’s nice to be compared to him for something that I did right at the time.”
Assulin departed Crema in Italy’s Serie D at the end of last season, the sixth country ticked off in his career, and has since been at home in Cheshire with his partner and eight-year-old daughter. While searching for his next move, Assulin has been doing the school run, coaching, playing five-a-side and helping with his partner’s children’s clothes shop. On an indoor pitch at an industrial estate in nearby Cheadle Hulme it is not hard to spot the man with La Masia education among those from Moston and Moss Side.
“Football is something irreplaceable,” Assulin says. “It is the thing I love the most in life and I will always love it and I will do it whenever I can. Even though I am not with a team now, I try to play and to train to do it as best I can. Coaching is something that I am building for the future, when I can’t play football any more.”
Since leaving City in 2012, Assulin’s CV has taken on an eclectic look, including a short spell at Kazakhstan’s Kairat Almaty, alongside Andrey Arshavin, and Romania’s Poli Iasi, but he has always tried to stay true to his La Masia credentials. “Everything I did in my career is obviously connected to the football I learned in Barcelona and especially coached by Pep. He showed me the movements and how to tactically be on the pitch. Whenever I play, I try to get those elements into my game; the movements, going one against one, helping the team defensively, so all of that I learned in Barcelona. I was very happy to learn from the best.”
Assulin’s story is often told as unfulfilled potential, a talent’s career played out thousands of times on Football Manager. The reality is that Assulin has enjoyed the ups and downs that come with such a tumultuous industry as professional football.
“I grew up as a kid in Israel, in a small town and my dream was to play first-team football for a professional club. I gave everything with my dad, who pushed me the most because he really believed in me. I never thought in a million years I would be playing for the first team at Barcelona – that was so far from my dream. I only dreamed to play for a normal club, but things got better and better, so I have achieved that, so that will always stay with me. I was the youngest player to represent the Israel national team, which is an unbelievable achievement.”
The next step is unknown for Assulin, who hopes to stay in England to be closer to his daughter after many years away. “She has seen me score a few goals in Italy and Israel and she is very proud of me,” he says. “She wants me to keep playing football as she wants to tell her friends that her dad is in football but she also wants me to stay in Manchester.”
He wants a chance to keep his childhood dream alive for another season, whatever the level. “You get into a moment you can’t find a club – it’s football and it’s happened to a lot of players – so there are a lot of thoughts in your head, naturally, and you think negative things: ‘What should I do? Should I stop?’ But it is not an option for me, as football is everything.”