It is almost a decade since Mohamed Kallon became the youngest player to score an international goal. At just 16 years, three months and nine days old, he popped up to score for Sierra Leone against Burkina Faso at the 1996 African Cup of Nations in South Africa. There have been countless highs and lows during his subsequent journey to the playing fields of Europe, but now he stands at the threshold of perhaps his greatest triumph as his latest team, Saudi Arabia's Al Ittihad, face Al Ain in the final of the Asian Champions League.
When the Asian champions announced they had signed Kallon just weeks before beginning the defence of their title, it sent shockwaves throughout the continent. Between March and May seven sides had initiated their way through a gruelling group phase only for Al Ittihad, who received a bye into the quarter-finals, to steal their thunder by unveiling a striker who had rubbed shoulders with the likes of Ronaldo, Roberto Baggio and Christian Vieri and, at 26, was at the peak of his powers.
It was also highly unlikely that the African striker would need much time settling in. Coming from a Muslim nation, his travels had already taken him to a string of clubs: Al Tadamon in Lebanon; Lugano in Switzerland; Bologna, Genoa, Cagliari, Reggina and Vicenza during a seven-year period in Italy where he was initially farmed out by Internazionale; and in Monaco, from where he arrived in the summer on a year's loan.
Under the Saudi sun
Confident, clever and lightning quick, within a fistful of games Kallon has emerged as Al Ittihad's most potent striking weapon. Like his side, he appeared rusty in the quarter-final first leg against China's Shandong but since then his performances have risen several gears. He opened his account as the Saudi side cruised to a 7-2 return leg victory and drove in a majestic free kick in the 5-0 semi-final first leg rout in Busan. Now well oiled, the Sierra Leonean bagged both goals in the second leg in front of the home fans.
"It's very important for me to score but it's more important for the team to win," said Kallon, on the right track with his words too.
Cameroonian Joseph-Desire Job and Brazilian winger Tcheco , who, like much of the strong Saudi contingent, was part of the 2004 championship-winning side, complete the club's foreign trio. It is no secret the African pair have been sizeable investments but, as their name suggests, Al Ittihad's strength lies in the union of players.
"Hopefully Kallon and Job will be a good addition to the team but while both of them are important they can't do everything alone," said inspirational captain Mohamed Noor. "Winning championships requires team work and that's what we want to do."
Sierra Leone's finest
Given god-like status in his much troubled homeland, Kallon was catapulted into the world headlines following that fateful strike in South Africa ten years ago. While remaining a loyal servant to his country, the Sierra Leone captain has played under a whole host of coaches including Giovanni Trapattoni, Hector Cuper and Didier Deschamps but, despite threatening to on several occasions, he could never quite step out of the long shadows of the star-name strikers from Brazil, Argentina and Italy at Inter. His highest goal tally remains at 11, achieved at Reggina in 1999/2000 and equalled last season at Monaco.
His eight-month ban - later reduced to six months - for testing positive for nandrolone two years ago was a serious blow to his chances at the Giuseppe Meazza. And for a player that had acted paternally as well as philanthropically towards his national team-mates in one of the poorest countries on Earth, the drugs ban shocked a whole people into deep mourning.
But, showing a strong character, the Sierra Leonean has reacted to adversity remarkably well. Last summer he penned the "richest contract I have ever signed with a club" when joining Monaco and after initially sparkling in France, Kallon has joined Al Ittihad's charge for a second successive Asian crown and a chance to compete with champions from all around the world in the FIFA Club World Championship TOYOTA Cup Japan 2005.
Now, undisputedly his team's number one striker, Kallon is on the crest of his greatest ever achievement in the game and he is lapping up the attention.
"The AFC Champions League is of course different from the European version but Asian football is on the rise at the moment and the quality is fast improving," he added. "my next goal is to score against Al Ain."