Barcelona sign 'Irish Messi' Zak Gilsenan, aged nine
Zak Gilsenan wins place at prestigious academy with seven-goal blitz
It is every young footballer's dream: to attract the attention of Barcelona, one of world's most famous and most successful teams.
And an Irish boy has caught the eye of more than one football club at a particularly young age – Zak Gilsenan is just nine. But because he has already made an impact, reportedly scoring seven goals in a trial match in Spain, he is being called the "Irish Messi" after Lionel Messi, the Barcelona star who is one of the world's top footballers.
Zak's parents say they are prepared to move from Castleknock in Dublin to Spain if their son's dreams develop. He has won a place at FCBE Scola, the football academy which turned out not only Messi but also other legends such as Xavi and Andres Iniesta, who played such an important role in Spain's majestic victory at Euro 2012. Ireland's dismal performance in the same tournament has only enhanced the glamour of Spain as the preferred destination for young soccer hopefuls, who in the past have tended to aim for top English clubs.
Zak's father Stephen, told the Irish Sun: "I know Zak is young to be doing this but kids are like a sponge at this age. People say we are mad but in Barcelona he will be educated in the best footballing techniques. All we can do is go and see how it develops. We know it's ruthless over there. We don't want him turned into a machine, we just want him to enjoy it."
Young footballing prospects who attract Barcelona's attention are inevitably compared to Messi: a few months ago a "Japanese Messi" emerged.
He is, however, at the age of 11, something of a veteran compared to Zak, who is already being marked out as "a midfield ace" as well as a natural striker.
Children as young as six attend the soccer academy which, following the training methods of Barcelona's youth teams, is regarded as one of the reasons behind the Spanish club's international prominence.
The academy is also big on imparting intangible values which it lists as "tolerance, respect, solidarity, comradeship, citizenship and integration."
Mr Gilsenan added: "We were living in Australia when Zak was spotted by Spurs, who were running football camps over there. We came home with the intention of letting Zak go to Spurs, but in the meantime we had a call from Barcelona.
"One of their former players saw him playing in Oz and recommended him. They offered Zak a trial in May and it was a great experience. It consisted of over 400 boys from all over the world. He was asked back in June when it was cut down to 90.
"Then in a match between the top 16 players, Zak just ran riot and scored seven goals. He was phenomenal. Then we heard back two weeks ago and they offered him a spot."