EXCLUSIVE By Lolade Adewuyi in Kaduna Follow on Twitter
Many people could swear that they had seen the next Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha when Rabiu Ibrahim burst onto the scene in 2007 as a member of the victorious Nigeria U17 side.
The diminutive 5’7in tall midfielder had it all – the swift turn, the array of juggling skills, the gait, vision and joy to watch that made for comparison with the Nigeria legend.
All that was left for him after the Golden Eaglets triumphed in South Korea was to take his place in the Super Eagles and coolly replace Jay Jay.
However, his fate was not written so smoothly and the now 24-year-old would have to go through difficulty before reaching for the stars.
A spell in Portugal with Sporting Lisbon without making it to the senior side led to further travels across Europe as he moved to PSV, Celtic and Kilmarnock in search of fulfillment.
After nearly seven years in the wilderness and a shocking incident where he collapsed on a pitch in Scotland, Ibrahim made his way to the cold of Slovakia where he found a home with AS Trencin.
He ended last season with his first true silverware since that victory in Asia in 2007. Playing 17 games (12 starts) and scoring four goals in a team that had compatriots Kingsley Madu and Emmanuel Edmond, Ibrahim and Trencin won the Slovakian Super Liga for the first time.
He also scored a goal in the Slovak Cup final as Trencin defeated Senica via penalties after full time ended 2-2.
With this confidence, Ibrahim arrived the Super Eagles camp after being called up by coach Stephen Keshi for Friday’s 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying game against Chad in Kaduna.
“I had a great time last season where we won the League and Cup in Slovakia. I did very well and I’m happy about it,” Ibrahim told Goal at the Africa Continental Hotel. “I have overcome the injuries, I’m very fit now and there are no problems.
“I feel very happy to be invited and if given the opportunity I would give my best and work hard for the team to help it win more trophies,” he said.
Finally emerging from the burden of being compared to the great Okocha at the beginning of his career, Ibrahim talks about a bitter-sweet experience.
“I felt so happy and at the same time it was quite heavy for me because Okocha was a huge player and one of the best in the world,” he said.
“I always looked at him as my legend but at the same time the task was big because he was a great player. “
He goes philosophical about the past and its problems. “I take everything as part of life but I’m happy I’m back and better now.”
The spirit in the Nigeria camp is very positive, says Rabiu Ibrahim
Under Keshi who has not had a traditional creative midfielder since taking over the role, Ibrahim could be set to fill in that gap.
“I have this strong feeling that I would have the opportunity to play as a playmaker or elsewhere, all I really need is the opportunity to prove myself,’ he said.
Ibrahim’s confidence is backed by the knowledge that there is a lot of positive vibes among the players after Nigeria’s failure to qualify for the last Afcon.
“I like the spirit in the camp, everybody seems to be nice and there’s no group in the team.
“The captain is a great leader and he carries everyone along. It helps the young and the new players to be treated equally. Team work starts from the camp before we take it to the field,” he said.
Born in Kano, about three hours away from Kaduna in Nigeria's arid north, Ibrahim is feeling at ease with local fans cheering his impressive feints during training inside the Ahmadu Bello Stadium.
“It’s like I’m back home to play in front of my northern people and I’m really pleased with the support they have given us during training. I am happy and I would say we need more support on Saturday,” he said.
Many hope that Ibrahim can finally cast off the shadows of Okocha and become his own man.