'The world's next Messi' - What happened to ex-Arsenal wonderkid Miyaichi?

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Before joining Arsenal, Ryo Miyaichi was compared to Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi. Ten years and three anterior cruciate ligament tears later, he is fortunate to be playing football at all.

Miyaichi was touted for big things from a young age – his father was a professional basketball player in the family's native Japan – and he was signed directly out of high school after impressing legendary Gunners boss Arsene Wenger.

Yet his time in north London would result in as many serious injuries as first-team games, and the sense of a generational talent never realised.

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Things started well enough in Europe – shortly after penning his first professional contract at Arsenal in January 2011, he was sent on loan to Feyenoord, where he had trained as a 14-year-old, as well as with Ajax.

His skills over a 12-game stint in Rotterdam made him a cult hero and earned him the nickname 'Ryodinho' from the Dutch media.

In summer 2011, Miyaichi was granted a work permit to play football in the UK after evidence supplied by Arsenal and the Japanese FA convinced administrators that he was an "exceptional talent", meaning the usual rules around registering young players did not apply.

It was easy to understand why.

At youth level – whether in the Arsenal ranks or playing at the 2009 Under-17 World Cup with Japan – Miyaichi had already showcased his precocious dribbling skills, speed and confidence on the ball.

The peak of the hype around Miyaichi came towards the end of the 2011-12 season, though, after a productive loan spell at Bolton.

Despite the club suffering relegation from the Premier League, he had impressed, even being named Wanderers' player of the month for February.

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Giddy reports labelling him 'the world's next Messi' soon followed.

But then, his injury nightmare began. Just four substitute appearances into a loan spell at Wigan in 2012-13, an ankle injury ruled him out for the whole campaign.

While the Latics were lifting the FA Cup, Miyaichi was watching on TV.

Like so many players who suffer poor or injury-afflicted loans, he became not only forgotten at his temporary home, but also by his parent club, despite having returning to London to recover from his knock.

Being sent on loan to two Lancashire sides battling unsuccessfully against relegation did have some logic, as Arsenal tried to toughen Miyaichi up, but while his Messi-esque skill was often in evidence, strength was not. He was out-muscled and eventually bullied out of Premier League football.

Following a season in the Arsenal reserves, then a year back on loan in the Netherlands with Twente, where he provided zero first team goals or assists, Miyaichi was released.

Miyaichi signed for 2.Bundesliga club St. Pauli, and took the No 13 shirt. Unluckily enough, one week before the start of 2015-16, he tore his left ACL, meaning he did not make his debut in Germany until nine months later.

He returned for the following campaign, becoming a squad player, but, in the summer of 2017, he ruptured his right knee this time, and missed the entire season.

It says everything about his misfortune that in his first three seasons with St. Pauli, he completed 90 minutes once.

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St. Pauli showed admirable commitment to Miyaichi, extending his contract in August 2017, with managing director Andreas Rettig stating: “Ryo has unbelievable bad luck, and we do not want to leave him alone. [We want to] show that we are behind him.

"We hope that this decision will help Ryo to return to his old level of performance.”

Miyaichi himself said: “It’s great to see such support. I am very grateful to the club and will give everything to get back to the grass as soon as possible.”

He managed to stay fit for almost the entirety of the next two campaigns, but was no longer the livewire winger being compared to South American greats.

Instead, he was a utility man, deployed in every position from second striker to central midfielder. For a couple of games early in 2019-20, he was even deployed at right-back.

St. Pauli narrowly avoided relegation from Germany's second division that season – but their escape came without any involvement from Miyaichi, who had cruelly ruptured his knee for a third time.

Miyaichi was eventually released by St. Pauli, after missing 104 games across six seasons for the German side, playing in only 80.

Miyaichi returned to Japan, joining Yokohama F. Marinos, and he is back playing in his preferred position as a winger, but only in a limited role.

Sadly, across 17 games for the J-League side, he has yet to complete 90 minutes once.

In total, Miyaichi has been sidelined for 157 senior club games in his career due to injury, with his time out totalling more than three-and-a-half years from the short lifespan of a professional footballer.

Miyachi is still only 29, though. If he can stay fit, he should have at least a few good seasons left in football.

Only the hardest of hearts would begrudge him that.

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