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Soccer signing saga

Manchester United and Chelsea are exchanging some nasty words, after each took part in some rather nasty business, in an attempt to acquire the services of Nigerian teenager John Obi Mikel.

He was born in April 1987 and emerged with Plateau United and the Pepsi Football Academy in Nigeria. By the summer of 2003, he had been invited to work out with the Manchester United team at its training base.

But British immigration laws do not permit the recruitment of minors, from Africa or anywhere else, and international soccer rules require a player to be 18 before he signs professional terms.

Mikel remained footloose until, at 17, he joined Lyn Oslo on a youth contract. Norway is becoming a half-way house for gifted young Africans.

There are Norwegian clubs willing to take in the boys, to offer them education as the country demands, and to groom them for stardom.

Lyn, it appears, had a buyer for Mikel before he officially signed a pro contract with the club in April 2005.

One week later, the boy was photographed in the Lyn office accepting a Manchester United shirt, numbered 21 bearing his name. He had been sold to the English team that wanted him all along, though he would remain in Norway until he had acquired sufficient Nigerian national team appearances to obtain a work permit in England.

Complicated? That is just the beginning.

....

Shortly after the player signed for United last April, he "disappeared." He departed from the ground as Lyn played a cup game on May 10, apparently taken away in the back of a car driven by John Shittu, one of the agents who claims to be his adviser.

Three days later, Mikel popped up in London where, on British satellite television, he said he no longer wanted to play for United and that he'd been coerced into signing the contract. He spoke of death threats coming from Nigeria and London. He said he wanted to play instead for Chelsea.

That's Rob Hughes' account in the New York Times. See this piece from The Times (U.K.) for more on the wrangling between the two clubs over the youngster. It notes that Mikel left the Norwegian club in November, which makes things even messier.

This is ugly business, akin to an NCAA recruiting war on steroids. It's made worse by the British law that pushes the deals for African youngsters underground. My guess is that United will succeed in sanctioning Chelsea to some degree, but Chelsea will get what they want: the player.