Anyone hoping to see the future should catch the latest instalment of Chelsea v Barcelona in the Champions League. On Wednesday night, with a bit of luck, the world’s two best teenage footballers will meet. Chelsea’s Nigerian John Obi Mikel and Barcelona’s Argentine Lionel Messi are a new model of footballer, an advance on anything we have seen before.
We have still barely glimpsed Mikel. He has yet to play a full game for Chelsea. His fellow 19-year-old Messi has also played less than he should have. To understand their significance we must return to their first meeting, in the Dutch town of Utrecht one summer’s afternoon last year. Argentina and Nigeria were playing in the World youth cup final. I watched the game with the ideal guide: beside me in the stands was Piet de Visser, who scouts for Chelsea, though he tries to keep that secret.
“Are we going to pray? They always pray,” says the birdlike old Dutchman. On cue, the Nigerian team huddle for a pre-match prayer. Nobody knows youth football like De Visser. He is in his 70s, cancer has robbed him of his stomach and gullet, and he has had five bypasses but he still travels the world cataloguing teenagers. Chelsea’s owner, Roman Abramovich, understands his worth. When the chef on Abramovich’s yacht served soup that was too thick for De Visser’s insides, the oligarch summoned a new dish. De Visser thanked him in his own brand of English: “I scout you another Ronaldo before I die.”
Even before the final, Chelsea had already signed Mikel. So, however, had Manchester United. The Nigerian could hardly pass a contract without signing it. Earlier he had somehow joined the Norwegian club, Lyn, where his team-mates couldn’t understand what such a prodigy was doing in an Oslo suburb. Later Mikel disappeared from Norway with one of his various agents. Still De Visser watched him with proprietary interest. Eventually Chelsea would capture Mikel, paying £4m to Lyn and £12m to United.
Going into the final, Messi was the surprise of the cup. A muppet with a brown flowerpot haircut, he looked like a child who had won a competition to train with the Argentine team. Inevitably, he had begun the tournament on the bench. But allowed on to the field, he had swiftly scored four goals.
That day the first half belonged to Mikel. The two are refined playmakers and bionic men but the Nigerian is both at once. “Boy, oh boy, how that boy can play football,” squeals De Visser as Mikel liberates himself from amid four Argentines. Like most great players, Mikel accelerates on receiving the ball, whereupon he simply strides past opponents. He is so big that it is hard even to foul him. De Visser notes that Mikel can dribble past an opponent on either side, a rare gift. He also provides most of Nigeria’s passes.
At first glance, Mikel and Messi look like members of different species. Messi is the youngest and smallest man on the pitch. Mikel could probably eat him for his pre-match meal. Yet they are from the same mould: the 21st-century global footballer.
Good players from outside Europe can usually dribble, an art form that is stamped out of European kids in favour of teamwork. Mikel and Messi learnt to dribble at home. But both came to Europe young enough – Mikel at 17, Messi at 13 – to learn when not to. Already great individuals, in Europe they became great collective footballers too. The combination distinguishes them from their predecessors. Pele never played for a European club. Diego Maradona and Ronaldinho were both 21 and already largely shaped by the time they reached Europe. Mikel and Messi are the first generation of greats to be formed on two continents.
Messi can dribble but, when that’s not on, he passes perfectly. He also frequently robs Nigerian defenders of the ball. “One of the few strikers who can press,” comments De Visser.
Argentina get a penalty. Messi takes it. He waits until the keeper dives, then softly rolls the ball into the other corner. “Yes, he is so good,” exclaims De Visser. Then Argentina get another penalty. Again Messi takes it. De Visser commentates: “Such a cool frog. He waits for the keeper. If the keeper stands still, Messi has a problem.”
This time the keeper knows not to dive. But when he fractionally shifts his weight on to his right leg, he is lost anyway. Messi taps the ball into the other corner.
Late in the game the neutral crowd does something I have never seen before: it begins clapping in unison to the beat of the action. People sense they are present at something special.
Argentina win 2-1 and after Messi nearly adds an overhead volley in the last minute, De Visser remarks: “Aaah! Gold.” Mikel leaves the field shouting at the referee and quarrelling with a Nigerian official. If Chelsea’s manager Jose Mourinho is watching, as he presumably is, he must be proud.
The awards ceremony is comical. Messi pops up to receive the Golden Boot as the tournament’s highest scorer and then again seconds later to pocket the Golden Ball as best player. Mikel is named second-best.
A month after that match, Messi made his senior debut for Argentina. He rose so quickly that the destiny of this summer’s World Cup was possibly decided one night in March, during his previous encounter with Chelsea, when he tore a hamstring. His season was over. In May, when he joined the Argentine squad preparing for the World Cup, he was a titchy teenager still recovering from injury. Inevitably, he began the tournament on the bench. Hierarchies in football depend on seniority as much as on talent. But Argentina paid for under-using their most gifted player. Had they unleashed Messi upon Germany’s lumbering central defenders in the quarter-final they lost, everything might have been different. Or as De Visser observed that afternoon in Utrecht: “Not normal, huh?”