It was a very promising career, and one that began with great turbulence. What seemed a ‘sweet’ battle between two English giants had soon leapfrogged into a scenario that threatened to derail the career of a wonderful prospect. As the saying goes, ‘tough times don’t last, tough people do.’ John Obi Mikel showed grit and he lasted!
Nigerians had been left in awe at the beauty of Mikel’s talent that they named him so quickly as Austin Jayjay Okocha’s heir apparent. He never assumed the role, I doubt he ever consciously saw himself as one. However, the former Plateau United player gave his all to the cause of a greater Super Eagles as the years that followed proved.
After falling behind Lionel Messi as the Silver Ball winner, the second best player of the tournament at the World Youth Championship in the Netherlands in 2005, many are of the opinion that an important element of the midfielder’s game was taken away from him at Chelsea by a manager he reveres and speaks glowingly about at every opportunity, Jose Mourinho.
It is a popular opinion that the ‘Special One’ converted Mikel from a silky attacking midfielder to a brute defensive midfielder. A string of red cards in his new position were pointers to the difficulties he faced during the period of adjustment to his new position. One thing was crystal clear however, irrespective of where he was deployed; that there was a quality that looked untapped, underutilised and almost misunderstood. He soon became a round peg in a round hole, albeit, as he established himself as one of the finest holding midfield players in the world during his over a decade stay at Chelsea.
Mikel’s sore point however came with the country he loves greatly, Nigeria. Endless rancour with the football federation in the early years of his international career and questions over his commitment were bitter pills to swallow. While he missed out on the 2008 Olympics due to club engagements and the 2010 World Cup due to injury, the pressure on Mikel hardly subsided. He was always seen as the future, a man that could make things tick, but he struggled to attain that mark, especially considering the cult hero status of the man he is seen by many to have come to replace.
Year after year, game after game, Nigerians got more convinced about what Mikel held for the country, and accepted the fact that he was himself, a whole different footballer with separate dynamics and understanding of the game. The pressure reduced, and he fitted in better. Although, he struggled to regain the creative bust he showed during his early youth days, he made up for it in how well he read a game. He was a hero in the making, Nigerians got better assured.
Having scored on his AFCON debut for the Super Eagles in a 2-0 win against Zimbabwe in Egypt 2006, Mikel was in the full glare of the continent two years later in Ghana, but failed to live up to billing in a disappointing outing for Nigeria. However, he got a goal in a 2-0 victory against Benin Republic before the team’s eventual elimination by Ghana in the quarter finals.
The new Trabzonspor midfielder never looked anything near Okocha but showed that he could be relied upon by the national team. Stephen Keshi, of blessed memory built the working mechanics of his team around Mikel and found suitable partners for him in what was Nigeria’s first continental triumph in 19 years in 2013. Mikel was brilliant throughout the tournament, shielding and keeping the flow of the Nigerians’ game under control. He never looked to possess the skills and magic of the former Bolton man, but shows a great understanding of the game whenever he’s called upon. He helped the team to qualification and a Round of 16 outing at the 2014 World Cup with this.
Mikel was also at the centre of it all again when the Dream Team VI picked up a bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He was a leader of the crop, and an apparent voice that others listened to very keenly. From lifting a whole football federation’s burden by paying hotel bills to standing up for the team when welfarism was at its lowest ebb, Mikel showed his inherent leadership qualities.
His success-laden career at Chelsea were a perfect pedestal for him to speak from experience on how sweet victory tastes. He did this with aplomb and got the backing and respect of his coaches and other players.
The former Lyn Oslo player had a difficult final season at Stamford Bridge, due to reasons he linked with his participation at the Rio Olympics. It was a sacrifice worth taking, and he left when the ovation was quite loud, with over 300 games under his belt and almost every trophy in club football won.
Mikel acknowledged at the beginning of the 2019 AFCON that it’s a good time, and indeed, a good place to end his international career after 13 years. He had started as a bronze medallist in Egypt 13 years ago as a young, exciting heir apparent to one of Nigeria’s finest footballers of all time. Within those years, he has built a reputation of greatness for himself, and has ended with another bronze medal finish in the same country he started at.
There is a joke flying around the social media about Nigeria’s penchant for the bronze medal in the African Cup of Nations and it says ”statues of heroes are always cast in bronze”. Mikel’s statue may be cast in bronze instructively or not cast at all, but he showed in his years putting on the green and white jersey that he is an apparent hero, and one that was hardly anybody’s heir apparent.