They both came face-to-face for the first time at the World Youth Championship WYC in The Netherlands in 2005 and Lionel Messi inspired Argentina to a 2-1 win over Nigeria. The Argentine was voted the tournamentâ€™s Most Valuable Player while John Mikel Obi was second. The 2008 Olympics Games football final presented another opportunity for the two gladiators to confront each other and it was Messiâ€™s pass that proved too decisive as Obiâ€™s U23 team was yet again on the losing side. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil set another stage for Messi -Mikelâ€™s confrontation and two goals from the La Albiceleste talisman ensured they got the better of the Super Eagles. With both players at the twilight of their career and probably a last confrontation at the last Group D match between Nigeria and Argentina next week. Can Mikel finally break Messiâ€™s hoodoo at the global stage? Kunle Adewale reports
The stage was the Galgenwaard Stadium in Utrecht, in Netherlands, the tournament was the 2005 World Youth Championship (WYC) and the two finalists were Nigeria and Argentina. Many had billed this as a Lionel Messi versus John Obi Mikel clash and with the Barcelona man somewhat starved of service, it was the Nigerian who caught the eye first. Appearing to float on grass and glide past players, he was the focal point of the Flying Eagles attack, threading passes through to strikers at will. His team mates though were not immediately on the same wavelength.
With his vision, bursts of pace and disconcerting drop of the shoulder, Messi was always a threat at the other end, and, against the run of play, he manufactured a goal out of nothing.
Two penalties in each half from the exceptional Messi proved enough to defeat a Nigerian side who, for long periods of the match, appeared to have the power, skill and desire to become the first African winners of the competition. For his sensational efforts, Messi picked up Adidas Golden Shoe and Adidas Golden Ball awards.
Obi settled for the Adidas Silver Ball that set the stage for many showdowns to come between them.
Three years on, at the football event of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it was the diminutive Argentine that proved the pivotal influence laying on a goal for Angel di Maria and regularly tormenting the Nigerian defence. Though, Mikel was not part of the team due to squabbles between him and Coach Samson Siasia, but the fact remains that Messi had wreaked another havoc on Mikelâ€™s â€˜kinsmenâ€™.
At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Argentina and Nigeria were again grouped together and while Messi had already become an integral part of the La Albiceleste, Mikel failed to make the Super Eagles team. Again, it was Messiâ€™s Argentine team that ran away with a lone goal victory in the group while the Eagles failed to qualify from the group stages.
Like decimal, it occurred again that when the draws for the 2014 World Cup were made, Argentina was drawn in Group F alongside Nigeria for the umpteenth time and Mikel was available to relish another confrontation with his â€˜old foeâ€™-Messi, and the Argentine superstar once again inspired his nation to a 3-2 victory, with both teams qualifying from the group.
Late last year, in an international friendly encounter in Russia, Nigeria recorded its first victory against Argentina, coming behind from two goals down to record a 4-2 victory. However, both gladiators were absent.
While many Nigerian soccer fans must be thinking they have had enough of being paired with the South American giants, Nigeria and Argentina would be battling for supremacy in Group D at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
With Messi and Mikel at the twilight of their career, this may well be their last confrontation and the big question on the lips of observers is whether Mikel would finally break Messiâ€™s hoodoo at the global stage.
“It has been long story dating back to 2005 when Flying Eagles of Nigeria lost 1-2 to Argentina in the final match of FIFA U-21 Championship in Holland and since then nothing has changed. I think it is time for me to take my revenge considering the quality and determination of the present generation of players in camp.
“Lionel Messi, no doubt is world best footballer and he has won and lost matches playing for the national team except Nigeria. He has stolen a lot from me and I want to assure Nigerians that the judgment day is at hand with the World Cup tournament in Russia,” Obi told THISDAY.
Mikel, however, recorded one significant victory over Messi at the club level. It was the semifinal of the 2013 UEFA Champions League in which Obi inspired Chelsea to beat Barcelona 3-2 on aggregate and went on to lift the trophy.
However, while Messi turned himself to a cult figure at Camp Nou and had gone on to win the World Footballer of the Year Award five times, Mikel has since left main stream Europe to ply his football trade in China after failing to pin a regular shirt at Stamford Bridge.
With both gladiators at the twilight of their career (Obi 31, Messi 30), the last Group D game at the Saint Petersburg Stadium, is presenting what perhaps maybe their last confrontation at the global stage.
Both Argentina and Nigeria did not have the kind of start they had hoped for after they were held to a draw by Iceland and defeated by Croatia 2-0 respectively. Both sides are now condemned to winning their last game.
It however remains to be seen if Mikel can have the last laugh over Messi.
Obi is still very much convinced that Nigeria could still qualify in spite of the 2-0 loss to Croatia in the first game, saying: â€œAll is not lost yet, itâ€™s sad we had a bad start with the game against Croatia, but we still have two more games to make up for our initial error.â€
Super Eagles players argued among themselves over the tactics used by head coach, Gernot Rohr, after their 2-0 loss to Croatia in their World Cup opener last Saturday, leaving the team bottom of Group D with zero point.
â€œWe have been talking about the formation and how we were set up. The arguments havenâ€™t ended since the defeat because just like Nigerians, we are also bothered over the loss,â€ one of the players saidâ€‹.