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Counting on Mikel to be a Messi

There is simply no getting away from the issue of Lionel Messi these days. In April I described Barcelona as the greatest team in history and Lionel Messi as the greatest player.

The 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. The critics were obviously looking more at the statistics than what Messi was doing with the ball.

Now, it is obvious I was prophetic.

Eight months later, the world is looking beyond the statistics. At 25, with years still left in his feet and goals in his boots, Messi has already re-written football history. At the last count he has scored, arguably, more goals in one football season than anyone else in history. He achieved this feat in less matches than the man who is generally believed (in the absence of acceptable universal data) to hold the record, Gerd Muller.

When Messi is eventually crowned the world's best player again this year, he will be setting another record as the first person in history to be crowned the world's best four times. Hopefully he still has time on his side to add to that number before he quits the game.

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

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

What has Lionel 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 and the Super Eagles of Nigeria.

Seven 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 in an encounter that provided a sneak preview of the future. On the night, 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 brilliance and sheer magic in the dying minutes of a hard-fought match that saw both players struggle to dominate the midfield.

Messi's goals provided the slim edge over Mikel, who had conducted Nigeria's midfield with the elegance, composure, confidence and efficiency of a maestro. So good were both players that, at the end of the championship, Messi was crowned king and Mikel was named second best player.

Since then both players have charted different paths, only meeting again this past season in the semifinal of the European Club Championships, where Mikel and Chelsea had the upper hand over Messi and Barcelona in terms of the final result.

Messi will not be at Afcon 2013. Mikel will be.

There is increasing expectation and mounting pressure by Nigerians for the Super Eagles to win Afcon 2013.

That’s where Mikel comes in. Nigerians are counting on him playing at his best again these days, to use his vast experience and leadership to lead Nigeria's onslaught.

The man is getting used to winning championships. There is something about Mikel that is special and confounding.

He brings all of that to the Super Eagles. With his quiet mien and conservative but consistent performances, Mikel Obi could just be the joker up the sleeve with which Nigeria can win the African championship. He is on my mind.

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