Ibrahim remains supremely confident

From time to time you get a picture of a player that becomes his defining image. At 21 Rabiu Ibrahim already has that image.

Unfortunately for Ibrahim his image is a reminder of the promise he showed as a fresh-faced 16 year old with the world at his feet during the 2007 World Under-17 World Cup.

As a teenager, he was named as one of the best young talents in world football but his career has since stalled.

Perhaps we have been too harsh in judging him as none of his team mates from 2007 have hit the heights one might have expected.

It’s not that Nigeria has forgotten about Ibrahim. The paucity the Super Eagles have suffered in creative midfielders made Ibrahim a shock call-up to their training camp before the 2013 Cup of Nations. The Cup of Nations is a tournament he’s flirted with before.

At 16, Ibrahim was called up by then Nigeria boss Berti Vogts for the Africa Cup of Nations but was forced to withdraw through injury.

“When I was 16 I got the call I wanted but I couldn’t use it because of the injury so it wasn’t a good time for me.

“This year I was so close. But they called me at the last minute and I arrived late.

“Because I haven’t been playing they hadn’t seen me. They wanted to see I was still the same player and I did well in training. But they assured me I’m still in their plans for the World Cup qualifiers. Nigeria are first in their group and doing well.

“I would have been in the Nigeria team a long time ago but haven’t been playing for my club.

“That disappointment will just make me more determined to get back in. I’m a fighter.

Ibrahim joined Kilmarnock in the Scottish Premier League in January after spells at Sporting Lisbon, PSV and Celtic.

There is something about him that makes his managers enthuse over his ability.

When he signed for Celtic this time last year, Neil Lennon couldn't help find comparisons with Shunsuke Nakamura. One year on, having brought him to Rugby Park on a two-year deal Kenny Shiels also thinks that he's pulled off quite a coup for Kilmarnock.

Ibrahim has perennially been on the cusp of breaking through to the big-time, boasting an impressive pedigree. Capped at Under-17, 19 and 21 level for Nigeria, at club level there are the three clubs already mentioned which mean he’s enjoyed some of the finest development schools in Europe.

It's that leap into regular top-level football that's eluded him, whether at international or club level. He's personally attributed this to the level of competition faced, citing Joao Moutinho in Portugal and Ola Toivonen in Holland.
At Celtic it was even more complicated, in that Lennon tends to rearrange the shape of the team to accommodate his strongest players, rather than swap individuals like-for-like.

Predominantly left-footed with a low centre of gravity, Ibrahim prefers drifting into central attacking areas - whether deployed as a classic number ten or out wide. Ibrahim is, however, more slightly built, less able to shrug off the ubiquitous heavy Scottish football challenge, but extremely tricky and with a keen eye for the pass.

Standing at 5'7", Ibrahim appears even smaller on the pitch. Lennon's growing disposition for bigger, stronger players not only contrasts this height difference, but also serves to explain Ibrahim's inability to be given more chances.

His one full start was against Arbroath in December - a dreary 1-1 that Celtic dominated possession-wise, while being wasteful in attack. Given Ibrahim's very role was to provide that extra something in the final third, it seemed that the big opportunity slipped by.

While featuring regularly and successfully for the development squad, his competitive zenith in Glasgow was an impressive 15-minute cameo in May last season. While Anthony Stokes had already given Celtic the lead, Ibrahim replaced Commons on the flank, bringing zest to a fading front-line.

After some tricky work in the St Johnstone box, he looked to have set up Gary Hooper to kill off the match, though the goal was disallowed for offside. It was an apt nearly-moment - technique and vision apparently in buckets - only to fall short at the last.

Not that any of that has dampened his confidence in his ability.

"I'm a creative player; very stylish and very confident. I'm an amazing player, so I have a lot to offer."

“I wouldn’t say I was frustrated at Celtic because it’s a great club. Neil Lennon’s a good man who always encouraged me. But the opportunities just weren’t there for me.

“I improved as a player at Celtic, they taught me a lot. But my direct competition was Scott Brown, Beram Kayal, Joe Ledley and Victor Wanyama – they’re all great players.

“At Kilmarnock I’m hoping to show Celtic what they missed. I want to play for myself and the team – and help us win more trophies.

“I can only improve by playing every week. Without games you can’t have confidence so I need games to develop.”

Ibrahim admits the competition for places at Celtic made it impossible to make the breakthrough.

“I watched Kilmarnock in the League Cup Final against Celtic and enjoyed the way they played.

“I had the option of going to Russia and would have earned more there. Sometimes, it’s not always about the money. The atmosphere is great at Kilmarnock. It’s like one big family and I just want to get back playing.

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