Lionel Messi opened the scoring, and just two minutes into the match Nigeria were staring a demoralising defeat in the face.
The last Group F game at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil could have been an uninspiring stalemate, with both sides having already qualified for the round of 16. Instead, Argentina and Nigeria went at each other’s throats, playing out one of the best games of a memorable tournament.
The Super Eagles rallied after Messi’s early strike and, although they eventually lost 3-2, it marked the beginning of Ahmed Musa’s career as we know it. The diminutive CSKA Moscow winger grabbed both of Nigeria’s goals: the first a delightful curled effort into the far corner, and the second a low shot past Sergio Romero after deceiving the goalkeeper with a clever feint. Musa had been making waves in Russia before the World Cup, but it was on that fine summer day in Porto Alegre that he announced himself on the biggest stage.
It all began for Musa in the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) when he started out at Kano Pillars FC as a scrawny teenager with pace to burn and tricks aplenty. The English Premier League prides itself as the most physical league around, but a cursory glance at Nigeria’s elite division can make the richest league in the world look like a friendly competition.
The NPFL is a bruising 20-team battle, with little in the way of refinement. It was here that a 17-year old Musa thrived despite his obvious physical limitations. At 5 foot, 7 inches, he is hardly the most physically imposing player, but his single season with Kano Pillars saw him score 18 goals as his side narrowly lost out on the league title. Musa’s haul broke a 20-year record in the NPFL scoring charts, impressing the European scouts who had followed his progress over the season. But winning over the winger’s father over took some time, with Musa senior preferring his son study medicine instead of pursuing a football career.
Musa is now set to become Leicester City’s record signing when he completes a reported £16m move from CSKA, but the fleet-footed 23-year-old could have arrived in England much earlier. Arsenal and Tottenham made enquiries at the beginning of 2012 when he was at VV Venlo, but CSKA stole a march on their rivals with a €5million bid – a bargain even at the time considering Musa’s CV. For a relatively small fee, the Russian club acquired a record-breaking Nigerian goalscorer, a 2011 Africa Youth Championship winner, and a player who had taken the Eredivisie by storm, his brace in Venlo’s 3-2 win over Feyenoord saving his lowly club from relegation in the 2010/11 season.
The question surely being asked by Leicester fans and neutral observers alike is what exactly Musa will bring to Claudio Ranieri’s title-winning squad. The brief answer is that they’re getting a tricky winger with an eye for goal whose experience, which includes four Champions League campaigns, belies his relatively tender age.
Musa decided to shun a Premier League move in 2012 because he didn’t feel ready for the cut-throat climate of Premier League football. In hindsight it has proved to be a measured decision. He would have struggled to command a starting place back then, and would probably have been farmed out on loan, perhaps never having the chance to prove himself at the highest level. The four years he has spent in Russia have done his career a world of good.
Musa played predominantly as a right winger for Venlo, but upon arrival in Moscow he was switched to the left as his preferred position was already occupied by ex-Manchester United midfielder Zoran Tosic. Musa took to his new position with ease and, with CSKA manager Leonid Slutsky recognizing his young charge’s adaptability, the Nigerian was utilised in a variety of positions to equally devastating effect.
With Ivorian striker Seydou Doumbia frequently injured or out of form, Slutsky had another light bulb moment. Why splash out money on a new striker when he already had Musa? The coach began to deploy the youngster through the middle, but at first he didn’t convince, snatching at chances and wasting gilt-edged opportunities when through on goal.
Slutsky did not give up and nor did Musa. With determined application, Musa became a more rounded finisher, playing a starring role in CSKA’s consecutive title wins in 2013 and 2014. Unsurprisingly, he now credits Slutsky with transforming his career. “I am eternally grateful to Slutsky,” Musa once said of his former coach, who managed Russia at Euro 2016. “He made me a real footballer.”
Leicester start next season in the uncharted territory of the Champions League, and Musa’s vital experience in the competition is surely part of the attraction. In 24 Champions League appearances, he has scored six goals – a return that doesn’t quite shout ‘prolific’, but is respectable considering CSKA’s overall performances.
Without his goals, the club would not have reached the group stage of last year’s competition. Following the 2-2 home draw with Sparta Prague in the qualifiers, Slutsky’s side trailed 2-0 in the second leg in the Czech Republic. It was then that Musa spectacularly intervened, scoring twice to spark a stirring comeback as CSKA finished 3-2 victors.
The situation was even trickier in the play-off round as CSKA lost 2-1 in Lisbon to Sporting and then conceded in the first half in Moscow. With elimination almost certain, Musa laid on two assists for Doumbia, before firing a late winner that sealed qualification with five minutes left on the clock.
For Nigeria, Musa is a seasoned international with 11 goals in 58 caps to his name. In a national team setting where players have been known to shirk their responsibilities, he is one of the most dedicated players in the Super Eagles camp, and not once has he declined to represent his country.
For a few months in 2015, he was named captain of the team before stepping down of his own accord to hand the armband to the more senior John Obi Mikel. The Chelsea midfielder may be the de facto leader, but when Nigeria begin their charge for World Cup qualification later this year, it is the 23-year old Musa who will be fronting the pursuit of a place in his adopted homeland of Russia.
Musa’s versatility means he can play anywhere across the front three, and it will be interesting to see if he becomes a member of a deadly attacking trident with Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. It is likely that Leicester will persist with their pulsating counter-attacking style, particularly in the Champions League where Musa’s pace and ability to beat defenders will prove to be crucial advantages.
Mahrez has already shown that size is not necessarily a prerequisite for putting the fear of God into Premier League defences, and Musa, though willowy in frame, can mirror the Algerian’s impact. He is set to become an important fixture of Ranieri’s side through his unique blend of pace, flair, and immense dedication to the cause.