Tuesday’s World Cup showdown in Saint Petersburg will very likely mark the closing chapter of a not-quite rivalry that began in the Netherlands 13 years ago between two prodigious talents.
Both Lionel Messi and John Mikel Obi have gone on to win multiple titles at both club and international level.
One notable exception, however, is the one they’ll be competing in on Tuesday, when Nigeria and Argentina clash in the World Cup.
They first met as teenagers at the cadet World Cup, and over a decade later, this may well be their final meeting.
Messi and Mikel first crossed paths at the FIFA U-20 World Youth Championship Final, where both arrived with huge expectations.
Messi was the great new Argentinian hope, following a few ‘new Maradonas’ including the likes of Juan Roman Riquelme and Ariel Ortega.
Mikel was the subject of a three-way international transfer wrangle that involved Manchester United, Chelsea and Lyn Oslo. He was heralded as the next Jay-Jay Okocha, the heir apparent, and Nigeria’s new midfield general.
Messi, had four goals heading into the final, against Mikel’s solitary strike, although the Nigerian’s influence on his team was unmistakeable.
There was also the Golden Ball at stake. The winner would likely take all, both trophy and MVP award.
Messi opened the scoring with a penalty. Chinedu Ogbuke then answered for Nigeria, with Mikel involved in the buildup, finding the late Olubayo Adefemi with a precise wide ball for a cross.
However, Argentina had the last laugh.
Sergio Aguero tricked Olubayo into sticking out a foot, and Messi buried the resultant penalty kick.
Argentina won the title, Messi claimed the Golden Ball and Mikel had to make do with a silver trophy and silver medal.
The Nigerian still remembers that like it was yesterday, as he recounted to The Guardian.
“Before the game people said that I was going to win the Golden Ball for being the player of the tournament,” said Mikel, “but then Messi scored twice, both of them penalties, Argentina won 2-1 and I got the Silver Ball.
“Messi has kept on stealing awards from me!”
They could have met again three years later at the Olympic Games in Beijing, but Mikel missed that tournament, where Messi again led Argentina to gold against Nigeria.
Their next meeting was a friendly in Bangladesh in 2011. Messi captaining Argentina for the first time, again masterminded a 3-1 win over a senior Nigeria team captained, also for the first time, by Mikel.
A late injury denied Mikel a place at the 2010 World Cup where both men would have met again, but they were to come face to face at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Not only did the Argentinian magician, at the peak of his powers, boss the entire game, he scored one goal and set up another. Again, Mikel ended up on the losing side.
The Super Eagle’s sole significant triumph came during Chelsea’s Champions League-winning campaign of 2012, when Mikel was part of a heroic effort as the Pensioners silenced Messi’s Catalan giants in the semi final.
With both players now 31, this looks likely to be the final meeting between them at this level or any other.
Mikel will relish one final opportunity to avenge 13 years of heartbreak and close the book with one last, swashbuckling word, by sending Messi and Argentina home from the World Cup.
Messi may have enjoyed the better of this rivalry, but as Mikel may prove on Tuesday, he who laughs last laughs loudest.