When John Obi Mikel replaced Wilson Oruma after 54 minutes of Nigeria's Nations' Cup game against Zimbabwe 10 days ago, the score was 0-0 and the Super Eagles were becoming frustrated. By the time the clock reached the hour mark, they led 2-0, Mikel having set up the first and scored an exquisite second.
There are many teenagers who are blessed with extraordinary talent, but what was so striking was the feeling that he was meant to be on the international stage. Others might perhaps have played themselves slowly into the game, but Mikel immediately appointed himself as dead-ball specialist, and it was from his right-wing delivery that Christian Obodo headed the opener.
Three minutes later, gathering the ball on the left, he meand-ered infield, fooled defender and goalkeeper with a feint to shoot, and then calmly curved a 20-yard finish inside the right-hand upright. His subsequent celebration could hardly have been more nonchalant. There was further evidence of his class in yesterday's exciting quarter-final victory over Tunisia when he stroked in one of the shoot-out penalties.
"He is definitely worth all the talk around him," said Daniel Amokachi, the former Everton forward who is now Nigeria's assistant coach. "For a player of just 18, he is very confident and comfortable on the ball."
His precociousness and his sense of belonging, inevitably, draw comparisons with Wayne Rooney. "I remember when Wayne was that young at Everton and he had that composure and that belief in himself," said Nigeria's captain, Joseph Yobo. "John's a young lad, and one of the good things about him is that he's not a quiet one; he likes to socialise with the older guys."
Mikel was an even earlier developer than Rooney, making his top-flight debut for his local side, Plateau United, as a 15-year-old. He is so young that he counts Thierry Henry as his childhood idol. He may play in a different position, but there was something of Henry in the imagination and audacity of the dummy that led to his goal against Zimbabwe.
Four days later, against Senegal, his impact was less dramatic, but, deployed in the centre of an attacking midfield trident in a 4-2-3-1 formation, he still impressed with his unhurried distribution, and set up another goal in a 2-1 win. "That position he played against Senegal is not really his strongest position," said Amokachi. "He is unique. He is his own style of footballer. He can play as the man in the hole, you can use him as a defensive midfielder and he can work easily on the left or the right."
That Mikel was in any state to play in that game is evidence of his mental strength. Earlier that day news had broken of Manchester United's letter to Fifa calling for Chelsea to be banned from transfer activity for a year and to be expelled from various competitions for their conduct in attempting to sign him.
"Everyone around him, his family and friends, have looked after him very well," said Yobo. "He has put the problems to one side, and tried to let his football do the talking."
His agent, John Shittu, was still doing a fair amount of talking this week, flashing his gap-toothed grin around hotel lobbies in Port Said, making accusations of racism, corruption and forgery against officials of Manchester United and Lyn, the Norwegian club at which Mikel was parked to gain experience and from where United tried to sign him.
The exact truth of those allegations will take some determining, but what is not in dispute is Mikel's ability. "He might be even better than people are saying," said Jay-Jay Okocha. "His kind of player is very rare, a natural talent. He is maybe the best I have ever seen."
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He is an intelligent user of the football, and has remained amazingly calm amid his contract upheavals.
Not only does Mikel have great vision, he is also capable of the "eye-dummy", fooling defenders with a glance in the wrong direction.
Strong enough to live with Papa Bouba Diop, and can be dropped to devastating effect, as Zimbabwe's goalkeeper Gift Muzadze found to his cost.
Might theoretically be his weaker side, but his passing has been just as accurate with his left, and his coach Amokachi believes that he is almost equally two-footed.
He perhaps has some developing to do in terms of power, but the finesse is fine: capable of immaculate dead-ball delivery and pinpoint finishing.
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