Solomon Okoronkwo always seems to have a smile on his face when the ball is at his feet on the training pitch. In between jokes and provocative dribbles around his mates, the big man listens intently to every word from coach and former Super Eagle idol Samson Siasia. During games, he is the embodiment of professionalism, oozing pace, technical ability and vision in a Nigeria team that have lit up these Beijing finals in their hunt for a second Olympic Football gold.
"Our group was a really tough one," the Hertha Berlin goal-getter tells FIFA.com. "First we had the Dutch with all of their stars, then we had the tricky Japanese and the Americans, who are physically strong and better than most people might think."
Sealing their passage to the quarter-finals on Wednesday in Beijing with a 2-1 win over the USA, the Nigerians now face a last-eight date with near neighbours Côte d'Ivoire in an all-West Africa clash that has mouths watering in the coastal resort city of Qinhuangdao. Having to face an in-form Salomon Kalou, currently banging in the goals, it's a good thing the Enugo-born Okoronkwo and his mates are settling into their natural rhythm.
"We're playing the ball around on the pitch; one touch, two touch. We don't want to hit it up the field and run after it. To me, that's not football," added big Solomon, who has had a hand (or rather a foot) in virtually every meaningful Nigerian attack here in China. "With me, Victor [Obinna], Peter [Odemwingie] and the other guys in the team, our understanding is growing with every game. We are getting stronger and we're playing better football."
When talk starts of matching the achievements of the 1996 Dream Team, who won gold in Atlanta, Okoronkwo is quick to pull the hand brake and inject a little perspective into the conversation. "We are trying our best to go as far as we can," he says. "We can't really start talking about medals at this point, because every team left in this tournament can hurt us."
This analysis includes, assuredly, a Côte d'Ivoire side that nearly undid Argentina in their opener and have been winning fans in China with their stylish brand of attacking football.
Playing for his idol Siasia, whom Okoronkwo rates as "the best," the Germany-based forward is also keenly aware of the expectations coming from back home in Lagos, Abuja and across the length and breadth of football-crazy Nigeria.
"All the people back home are praying for us and watching the games on TV," he says with a proud smile. "Our families, our friends, they are all behind us and willing us on to the gold medal. I am talking to them all the time, through email and on the phone. It's a great source of strength."