While it is every young footballer's dream to be blessed with talent and assured of a glittering future, it is even more flattering to be compared with one of your heroes. Nevertheless, there is a flip side to fame and recognition, as proven by the many young footballers who have been prematurely saddled with such complementary titles as 'the new Zidane', 'Pele' or 'Maradona'. At best, labels like these are a heavy burden to bear. At worst, they can have a damaging effect on a young footballer's career.
Nevertheless, a combination of immense ability and a strong character can help to keep a young player focused. One bright prospect lucky enough to have both these qualities is Nigeria's Rabiu Ibrahim. Aged just 16-and-a-half, the livewire midfielder's performances during Africa's showpiece youth tournament have earned him a reputation which extends far beyond the borders of Nigeria. Long known as 'Maradona' to his youth team pals, Rabiu is today considered by all of Nigeria as a worthy successor to none other than Augustine Jay-Jay Okocha. Admittedly the youngster has a few mountains to climb before he reaches the heights achieved by his celebrated predecessor, but his performances in the national shirt would suggest he has a glowing future ahead of him.
Aware of the expectations placed upon his shoulders, Rabiu is nonetheless ready to take up the challenge and fulfil the potential that so many people see in him. "My first goal is to help Nigeria win the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Korea," he states confidently, convinced of his team's pedigree. "Then, I'm going to work hard to try to become one of the best players in the world."
The midfield maestro, who was in sparkling form during the CAF U-17 Championship 2007 in Togo, has continued to impress his admirers back home right from day one of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007. Spearheading the Nigerian charge in the game against France, the youngster led the opposition defenders a merry dance with his mazy runs and unexpected passes, even scoring the winning goal in a 2-1 win over Les Bleuets.
Rabiu was at his impudent best against Japan in the second Group D match. Despite not finding the net, he was involved in all of Nigeria's best moves. Spreading panic in the opposition rearguard with his incisive dribbles, blind passes and slide-rule passes, Rabiu was instrumental in helping Nigeria to a convincing 3-0 victory which ensured their qualification. Anxious to protect his prize asset ready for the knockout phase, Yemi Tella lined up a second-string team for the final group match against Haitil, resting a number of big names including the inspirational playmaker.
The Nigeria coach nevertheless delighted the spectators at Jeju stadium by giving his star midfielder a run-out for the final 25 minutes.
Getting the better of Jay-Jay
At 1.67m tall, Rabiu is one of the smaller members in the Nigeria U-17 squad. The Kano-born midfielder currently plays for FC Gateway in the Nigerian national championship, although his performances for the Golden Eaglets have already attracted the attention of European scouts. In fact, by the start of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, his club had received no less than 14 offers from other teams around the world. Despite interest from the likes of Real Madrid, Arsenal and Chelsea, he was eventually snapped up by Sporting Lisbon, who are waiting to whisk their new recruit off to their training academy once the curtain falls on Korea 2007.
Bertram Ekenwa, Rabiu's agent and guardian angel, justifies the decision to join Sporting by pointing out the club's reputation for developing young players. "He's a young lad who still needs to develop his talents and who will definitely become one of the best midfielders in the world," he explained on the day his protégé put pen to paper. "Sporting has one of the best youth development programmes in Europe and it will be easier for Rabiu to break into the first team, perhaps even the starting eleven, quite quickly." Former Lions Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani would certainly all agree that at Sporting, age is no barrier to success.
The Sporting Lisbon supporters will have plenty of chances to marvel at the qualities which have earnt Rabiu favourable comparisons with Okocha. While he excels at one-touch football, his long-range passing is even better. A playmaker in the traditional mould, Rabiu has all the qualities of the great man: vision, precise passing, long-distance shooting and perfect technique. The Eaglets' young number ten even shows the same nonchalant style so typical of the former Bolton and Paris St Germain midfielder. During matches, Rabiu frequently treats spectators to an array of tricks including backheels, ball juggling and outrageous dummies, with varying degrees of success...
Only time will tell if the young Rabu can live up to his billing as the next Jay-Jay Okocha. In the meantime Rabiu intends to go one better by clinching a title which eluded his illustrious forebearer: the FIFA U-17 World Cup. In order to claim this prize, his team must first overcome Colombia. The task promises to be much easier provided that their midfield linchpin is firing on all cylinders when the whistle blows for kick-off this Thursday.