Wearing a black cap backwards and closely guarded by a member of Nigeria’s coaching staff, Ademola Lookman tried to sneak past the media and straight onto their team bus.
Yet Alex Iwobi and Ola Aina blocked his path, pushed him to speak, then watched from a few metres away like a pair of mischievous older brothers. Journalists flung their microphones and cameras in Lookman’s direction while Iwobi started cracking jokes, mockingly calling his team-mate “cute” and telling him to talk louder.
The situation became too overwhelming and the winger darted off before any questions could be properly asked, giving the reporters a brief taste of what defenders experience when they try to mark him.
Lookman’s reserved persona off the pitch completely contrasts with his electric performances at this Africa Cup of Nations. It was the forward’s goal, four minutes before half-time, against Angola last night that secured his country a place in the semi-finals, taking them one step closer to lifting the AFCON trophy for the first time since 2013.
The focus ahead of this competition was not on Lookman but a different Nigerian international forward who plays in Serie A.
Victor Osimhen, the reigning men’s African Footballer of the Year, finished as the division’s top scorer with 26 league goals last season as he led Napoli to the Italian title, while Lookman was scoring 13 times and registering six assists to help Atalanta to fifth place and Europa League qualification.
It was Osimhen who was supposed to dominate this tournament. But while he performs an important role for Jose Peseiro’s side, harassing defenders and galloping into space, he has not scored since a 1-1 draw with Equatorial Guinea in their opening group game. Guess who provided the cross for that one.
Lookman poses a bigger threat than his more illustrious team-mate right now. The London-born 26-year-old has scored all three of Nigeria’s goals in the knockout phase and 50 per cent of their overall total (six).
“Mola’s sharp, man,” defender Calvin Bassey tells The Athletic. “He is the starboy. He is a baller, but take away his goals and look at the work rate. He tracks back, same as all of our attackers, and that’s the foundation which sets him apart from other players on different teams.
“I’ve been lucky we’ve been on the same team (in training). He’s hard, he is tricky. He is not going to let you go easy. It’s a good challenge. It keeps me and all of us on our toes.”
This is Lookman’s first major tournament at senior level.
In 2017, he started for England as they beat Venezuela in the Under-20 World Cup final. Seven members of that England squad have gone on to be capped at least once by senior team manager Gareth Southgate, but Lookman chose a different path.
He turned down multiple approaches from the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) before finally switching allegiance and making his debut in a World Cup qualification play-off against fierce rivals Ghana in March 2022.
“Ademola is fantastic,” Nigeria’s captain William Troost-Ekong says. “I always rated him. I’m happy he is playing on our team and not another team. He is bossing the role.
“All the front three are working hard. Victor is carrying a lot of weight and maybe occupies two or three players at a time which creates a lot of space for (Moses) Simon and Ademola. It’s not nice to play against Nigeria.”
Lookman holds a strong bond with his team-mates — especially the other British-born players, including Aina and Iwobi. He might be quiet at times, but there is a video on social media of him singing Lonely At The Top by Nigerian artist Asake in front of the entire squad a few weeks ago.
Ademola Lookman performing Lonely At The Top by Asake.pic.twitter.com/7bw1OVezQN
— 🐬 @𝗼𝗻𝗲𝗷𝗼𝗯𝗹𝗲𝘀𝘀𝗯𝗼𝘆 (@OneJoblessBoy) January 13, 2024
On the pitch, he is not afraid to hold them to account. In the opening 15 minutes last night, he instructed left wing-back Zaidu Sanusi to make more overlapping runs. When Lookman moved over to the right wing, he told Osimhen to vary his movement.
Lookman was thrust into the spotlight in England when, at age 19, he jumped up two divisions to join top-flight Everton from boyhood club Charlton Athletic in January 2017 for an initial £7.5million ($9.5m), then promptly scored on his Premier League debut in a 4-0 win over Manchester City.
He has since played for Fulham and Leicester City in the English top flight, too, but his best moments have come with continental clubs, which means he goes under the radar in the country where he grew up.
Lookman scored five goals in 11 appearances on loan to German side RB Leipzig for the second half of the 2017-18 season, but then struggled after he joined them permanently that summer. In November 2020, also while on loan, he attempted a Panenka when Fulham were awarded a stoppage-time penalty in a league away game against West Ham United. His effort was saved easily and Fulham lost 1-0.
Since he joined Atalanta in August 2022 for €15million (£12.8m/$16.2m at current exchange rates), Lookman’s career has soared — he’s scored more league goals (20) in 18 months with the Bergamo-based club than in the five previous seasons combined (16).
Shining at AFCON is the latest step on his journey.
“You can see a different Ademola now,” Nigeria midfielder Frank Onyeka tells The Athletic.
Lookman is a valuable asset to Nigeria because of his ability to play anywhere across the front line. He thrives cutting inside onto his right foot, but the goal he scored against Angola saw him ghost into the box and produce a powerful finish on his left.
Bassey and Troost-Ekong praised Lookman’s defensive contributions, but Peseiro’s 5-2-3 system is supposed to limit the amount of tracking back he does. There were still several occasions, though, where he chased after an opponent and made an important tackle on Friday evening.
“Playing with him, you appreciate him more,” Iwobi says. “He is a threat all the time. He can receive the ball between the lines or make a run in behind. Look at him, the starboy.”
Lookman might not like the extra attention, but he is putting forward a strong case for being one of the best players at this tournament.
(Top photo: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)