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 walk straight on to their team bus.
Yet Alex Iwobi and Ola Aina blocked his path, pushed him to speak and watched on 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 for Nigeria at the Africa Cup of Nations. It was the forward’s goal four minutes before half-time against Angola that secured his country a place in the semi-finals, taking them one step closer to lifting the trophy for the first time since 2013.
The focus ahead of this competition was on a different Nigerian international who plays in Serie A. Victor Osimhen, the reigning men’s African Footballer of the Year, was directly involved in 31 goals last season as he led Napoli to the title. Lookman scored 13 times and registered eight assists to help Atalanta qualify for the Europa League.
It was Osimhen who was supposed to dominate this tournament. He performs an important role for Jose Peseiro’s side, harassing defenders and galloping into space, but he has not scored since a 1-1 draw with Equatorial Guinea in their opening game. Guess who provided the cross.
Lookman poses a bigger threat than Osimhen right now. The 26-year-old has scored all three of Nigeria’s goals in the knockout stages and 50 per cent of their overall total (six) in Ivory Coast.
“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 international tournament at senior level. In 2017 he started for England against Venezuela in the Under-20 World Cup final. Seven members of that squad have been capped at least once under Gareth Southgate, but Lookman chose a different path.
He turned down multiple approaches from the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) before finally 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 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 of Nigeria’s 1-0 victory over Angola, he instructed left wing-back Zaidu Sanusi to make more overlapping runs. When he moved over to the right wing, he told Osimhen to vary his movement.
Lookman was thrust into the spotlight in England when he jumped up two divisions to join Everton from Charlton Athletic in January 2017 for £7.5million ($9.5m). He was only 19 at the time and scored on his Premier League debut in a 4-0 victory over Manchester City.
The forward has played for Fulham and Leicester City in the top flight, too, but his best moments have come for foreign clubs which means he goes under the radar in the country where he grew up. He scored five goals in 11 appearances during a loan spell with German side RB Leipzig and then struggled when he moved permanently. In November 2020, he attempted a panenka when Fulham were awarded a 98th minute penalty in a league game against West Ham United. Lookman’s effort was saved and Fulham lost 1-0.
Since he joined Atalanta in August 2022 for €15m (£12.8m; $16.2m), Lookman’s career has soared. The forward has scored more league goals (20) in the last 18 months than he managed in the five previous seasons combined (15).
Shining at AFCON is the latest step on his journey. “You can see a different Ademola now,” 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 on to 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 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 the tournament.
(Top photo: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)