“We call him Iniesta!” Nigeria’s striker Taiwo Awoniyi beamed from ear to ear when telling FIFA.com about his teammate and playmaker Musa Yahaya. “When he holds the ball in the middle and looks up, you better be moving because he wants to get it to you.”
Yahaya is quiet and introverted. He needs to be coaxed into an interview. He’s shy, like a lot of 15 year olds, and he wraps a wide, bashful smile around himself like a blanket when talking about football. This taciturn nature, a profound modesty and humility, are qualities often associated with Spain’s Andres Iniesta, the man Yahaya’s mates can’t help but compare him to. Mostly though, Yahaya is like Iniesta because he can tear defences apart in a split second. He can score from distance, or send in a killer ball from deep. He can dribble past you like you’re not even there.
It’s a gift from God, I think.
“The guys started calling me Iniesta a few years back,” said Yahaya, who grew up hard in in the industrial northern city of Kaduna, following up on a face-to-face interview via email, a more comfortable platform for the No11. “Pretty soon everybody was calling me Iniesta.”
There are worse players to be compared to. Iniesta’s name would be in almost everyone’s top-five list. He scored the winner for Spain in the FIFA World Cup™ final in Johannesburg in 2010, has won six La Liga crowns and three UEFA Champions Leagues with Barcelona and is, generally, a revered figure in the game. Few may know, Yahaya among them, that Iniesta got some of his first tastes playing in a Spain jersey right here in UAE, when he helped La Roja to the final in the 2003 U-20 World Cup. He had a full head of black hair and he scored two goals.
Interviewed back then, Iniesta sounded a little like Yahaya sounds now: in awe. “That there might someday be kids out there with a poster of me on their walls is just too much to contemplate,” a teenage Iniesta told FIFA.com a full decade ago in Abu Dhabi.
“I like Iniesta as a player because he’s just so skillful and I pray I can be like him one day,” said Yahaya, who has four goals here at the U-17 finals in a Nigerian team brimming with talent and enthusiasm.
Playmaker and scorer in one
Yahaya is a hard player to define simply. He exists somewhere between a traditional playmaker and a deep-lying striker. His assists have been crucial to Nigeria’s success in reaching the quarter-finals, but so have his goals. “I like to score,” he said, a predictable sentiment for a player with such a wide array of attacking options playing in such a forward-thinking side. “But the role of playmaker, just behind the strikers, is something I love. I love to have the ball at my feet and to look up and play my mates in with a pass.”
His is a hybrid role. And Yahaya has a particular move in his arsenal that’s left opponents completely unable to cope. “It’s a gift from God, I think,” Yahaya said about his special move, where he dips his shoulder before bolting, like a lightning strike, the other way with the ball. It’s a simple feint, but that’s no comfort for the poor defender, who’s left rooted to the ground like the desert palm trees of UAE. “It just comes naturally to me and I don’t really even plan to do it.”
He twice thrilled the crowd with his divine feint in the Round of 16 rout of Iran in Al Ain. Midway through the first half, Yahaya left Iran captain Majid Hosseini for dead, going left and laying in a diagonal ball for Samuel Okon to score. In the second half, he pulled the same trick again, this time rounding his marker to the right and hammering the ball inside the far post from distance.
Yahaya, shy and faltering off the pitch, becomes assertive and forceful on it. And like his nickname-sake Iniesta, he dreams of world glory through football. “I want to be famous for playing football,” said the ready-smiling attacker, whose ambitions are fuelled by neither selfishness nor vanity. “I grew up a certain way, in a certain background,” he concluded, carefully avoiding words like 'poverty' and 'hardship'. “I want to use football to help my family be better.”