16 December 2012

Nigeria: Lionel Messi and Mikel Obi Are On My Mind!


I have two things and two people on my mind.

There is simply no getting away from the issue of Lionel Messi these days. Once again, for the second time in 8 months I must add my own voice and pay tribute to this little Argentinian football player that is re-defining the meaning of genius.

In April of this year, on this page and in this column, I wrote and described Barcelona FC as the greatest team in history, and Lionel Messi, the greatest player.

Reactions were fast and furious: my assertion was premature; Messi had not won the World Cup with his country's national team like Maradona and Pele; Messi had not played enough games or scored enough goals like Pele and Gerd Muller; and so on and so forth. The critics were obviously looking more at the statistics than what Messi was doing in the football theatre on the ball and with the ball.

Permit me to recall my words in April.

",,,,in this football orchestra, one man stands out. His presence has illuminated the game of football like no one else in this generation and arguably in history.

I saw the great Edson Arantes de Nasimento (Pele) play. Physically, Pele is the most complete player ever.

Maradona came slightly after my time in football but I watched him play through most of his career for club and for Argentina. He was an artistic genius also.

I also watched Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini, George Best and Zinedine Zidane; all at their best.

However, with the ball at his feet, I have not seen any player consistently do magical things from match to match the way Lionel Messi, the little Argentinian who plays in the heart of Barcelona's attack, does.

Still only in his early 20s, the world has been watching some of the most brilliant football ever put up by a single player.

Some argue that, unlike Pele, Maradona and Zinedine Zidane, Messi has not led Argentina to winning the World Cup yet. True. I do not, however, think that takes away anything from the little genius's consistent, commanding performances every week.

He always gives the impression that he can do virtually anything with the ball at his feet. He is so quick off the mark that defenders are left for 'dead' when he takes off. He rides tackles like no one before him. There has to be a whole 'battalion' of defenders swarming around him all the time to reduce, not eliminate, his impact.

Messi is always so tightly followed and tackled that it is amazing that he rarely gets injured. For periods during a match he 'disappears' from the action either out of frustration from endless attention by defenders or to create some space simply as a tactic. His left foot is a magnet for the ball and football's deadliest 'weapon of mass destruction', as shown by his mounting goal tally every year in all competitions except the World Cup. I have a feeling that the world has not seen everything to see in this little genius called Lionel Messi."

Now, the world admits I was being prophetic.

8 months after those words were expressed by me, the world is now forced to look beyond the statistics. At 25, with many more years still left in his feet and goals in his boots, Messi has already re-written football history. At the last count this past week he has scored more goals than anyone else in history, and achieved this feat in less number of matches than the man that held that record for decades - Gerd Muller of Bayern Munich and Germany. When Messi is crowned the World's best player again this year, he would be setting another milestone as the first person in history to be crowned the World's best 4 times. And, hopefully, he still has a good many years still left in the game!

Writers are now grappling with vocabulary to aptly capture Messi's week-in, week-out performances at club and, now, national team level. One analyst actually reflected my own thoughts on the matter with the humble advice that we all forget about words and statistics, for they don't do justice, and concentrate on simply watching and experiencing Messi at play. Watching him these days has become an experience to be etched in the inner recesses of the mind forever, to be recalled and retold as folklore to future generations.

Messi's genius at goalscoring is confounding. Consistently, he has scored with his head, with his 'weaker' foot, from every conceivable angle in front of goal, flicking, chipping, shooting, bending, volleying, and so on. Now, the statistics no longer matter any more. What has captured the imagination of the world, is his artistic expressiveness - the manner of his play, the ball glued to his feet in intricate dance movements that are diminished by words attempting to describe them. There is no one else to compare his style of play with in the history of the game, not Pele, not Maradona, not Best!

Lionel Messi, week after week, is doing to football what Picasso did to art, what Albert Einsten did to science, and Mandela is doing to humanity!

Thoughts of him bring up the second thing on my mind - Afcon 2013.

Between Messi and Mikel Obi! Can Mikel do it for Nigeria?

What has Messi got to do with Africa's greatest football show? The answer is Mikel Obi, the Nigerian defensive midfield player making his mark quietly in the colours of Chelsea FC and the Super Eagles.

7 years ago, Messi and Mikel, both 18 years old at the time, competed on the same stage for who would be the Best Young player in the world. That epic 'battle' was fought at the 2005 World Youth Championship in Holland. Messi and Mikel both captained their national under-20 teams to the championship. Argentina and Nigeria met at the finals. That encounter provided a sneak preview of the future.

On the night of that memorable encounter Argentina won with two moments of magic provided by Lionel Messi. He conjured the two penalty kicks that separated the two teams. They were moments of sheer magic, in the dying minutes of a hard-fought match, that saw Messi and Mikel struggle for the dominance of the midfield. Messi's goals provided the slim edge over a Mikel who conducted Nigeria's midfield with the elegance, confidence and efficiency of a maestro. So good were both players that at the end of the championship Messi was crowned king, and Mikel the second best player of the championship.

Since then both players have charted their different paths, meeting again this past season in the semi-finals of the European Club championships, where Mikel and Chelsea FC had the upper-hand over Messi and Barcelona FC in terms of the final result.

As the African championship draws closer the Nigerian football space is saturated with the mounting pressure for the Super Eagles to win Afcon 2013.

Mikel Obi, playing consistently these days at his best again since 2005, is likely to regain his 2005 leadership of the national team and lead Nigeria's onslaught.

I am thinking.

2005 happened 7 years ago.

Mikel, who led Nigeria to confront Messi in the finals of that championship will probably be leading Nigeria for the first time at this level to Afcon 2013. The man is getting used to winning championships these days. His team, Chelsea FC, against all odds and playing against the best team in the world became European champions. As I write this Chelsea FC are also attempting to win the World Club championships even with a team that is struggling this season to win matches in the English Premiership. There is something about Mikel that is confounding.

He is a regular fixture in the Chelsea team. With a quiet mien, very conservative, consistent and economic performances, and an elegant and majestic control of the Nigerian midfield, he could just be the joker around which Nigeria's hopes of winning the African championship will hinge. He is on my mind.

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