By Oluwashina Okeleji
By the end of the 2012 European season, John Obi Mikel had won everything there was to win at club level. Premier League titles, FA Cups and then, in Munich, a much-coveted UEFA Champions League crown, becoming only the third Nigerian footballer ever to claim that honour. Yet, there was something missing: the love and adoration of his nation.
Mikel came into the public consciousness at the 2005 FIFA Under-20 World Cup, a generational talent who inspired that group to the final, only to be undone by two Lionel Messi penalties. For a country coming off its most talented set of players, Mikel offered hope that the years to come would not be fallow.
However, that hope was not fulfilled, as Nigeria’s football plunged into an ever deeper darkness. With many reluctant to accept a drop-off in quality, it was easier to blame a lack of commitment, and Mikel was roped into that impression.
It did not help that the Chelsea man’s disposition – quiet and introverted – so starkly clashed with that of the average Nigerian, who is convivial and outgoing. So, a desire for privacy was, for a long time, conflated with apathy. Mikel’s reluctance to play on artificial surfaces, citing doctor’s orders on back and knee problems back in 2011, as well as a widely reported incident involving a camp deadline, further fuelled this notion.
However, since 2012, the Super Eagles captain has spent the second half of his career stringently refuting all such perceptions of him and now stands very much in credit with fans of the national team. It has taken tremendous self-sacrifice, an alteration in his personality and mien, and a measure of success in green and white, but there is no more loved Nigerian footballer today.
First came the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, an unlikely triumph with an inexperienced team led by the late Stephen Keshi and calmly marshalled by the passing and vision of Mikel, playing a properly disciplined role in front of the defence for arguably the first time in his national team career.
Then, a first World Cup appearance in 2014, after injury had ruled him out four years earlier. A Round of 16 marked Nigeria’s best performance at a World Cup since 1998; the performances may not have been as eye-catching, but the results certainly stacked up well, and any mental associations of Mikel to failures of the past were consigned to the rubbish heap.
As his contributions on the pitch came more to the fore, so did his leadership qualities. In 2016, with Chelsea coming under new management with Antonio Conte, Mikel may have been forgiven for wanting to win the Italian’s confidence. Instead, having confessed a desire to play for Nigeria at that summer’s Olympic Games, he went ahead to lead the team in Rio, a move many believe put an end to his decade-long stay at Stamford Bridge.
Most notably, the captain put up over £30,000 of his own money for logistics, including feeding and transportation, in order to tide the team over some of the most inept preparations ever: who can forget the embarrassment of the team arriving mere hours to its opening game against Japan, en route to winning a bronze medal?
I caught up with him for an interview with the BBC World Football show and asked if he would trade his Olympic Bronze for a place in the Chelsea squad under Conte: “NO! Never…” he replied.
“I think one thing you have to do in life as a man is that when you make a decision or sacrifice you have to deal with it. You have to stand by your decision. You have to live with it. At the end of the day, it is your decision. You make your decision – you surely live with it. I have no regrets, not one single regret going to the Olympics. And I will not trade my Olympics medal for anything. I deserve it, it’s what I deserve, I work hard for it, so why would I trade it for something else – a place in the Chelsea squad – no, that is impossible.”
It was a move which earned him a great deal of goodwill and made his doubters reconsider. When Gernot Rohr was made coach of the Super Eagles in 2016, the choice of captain was an obvious one; the one man who had the stature, as well as the antecedents, to command the respect of his peers in the dressing room.
His revelation, following the World Cup defeat to Argentina, that he had played the game under grave emotional strain, aware his father had been kidnapped for ransom, offered definitive proof of his leadership qualities, and mental fortitude.
From someone who divided opinion for so long, Mikel has resoundingly won over the affections of a nation by his patriotism, selflessness and commitment. He may not have matured, in terms of raw ability, into the player many hoped he would when we first set eyes on him in 2015, but in the darkest times, he has grown into the player Nigeria needs.
On the continent, he has equally earned his spot as one of Africa’s most decorated footballers alongside Samuel Eto’o, Yaya Toure and Nwankwo Kanu. Mikel’s Nigeria career will be remembered as both brilliant and quite unblemished.
Originally published in TheGuardian