IKENWA NNABUOGOR chronicles former Super Eagles’ captain John Obi Mikel’s glorious football journey that started unsong in Jos, blossomed in England and signed off in glowing colours without blemish after 17 years of meritorious service…
It was just one of those typical grass to grace stories associated with football stars that climaxed into a global brand the world would always stand up for and John Obi Mikel’s was destined to end in glory.
Such was the sweet story of the Jos-born star who rejected his tough beginning and signed off his soccer career as one of his country’s best.
Fresh from secondary school and looking forward to taking his game out of the Jos wilderness, Mikel needed the grace of his country’s junior national team to break the barrier for himself and by extension, his family, and the rest, is history.
Mikel is the first of the global football success story to come out of the famous tin mining city of Jos, also known for producing top football players, notable among whom are Segun “Mathematical” Odegbami and “School Boy International” Benedict Akwuegbu.
Former photo-journalist and bosom friend, Chinenye Kanu, who was one of Mikel’s early contacts outside of Jos, remarked Mikel was no doubt, a precocious kid whose fame was destined by God.
Kanu, who worked as photo-journalist at National Mirror noted he encountered Mikel in Lagos in his very first trip out of his Jos base, as U-17 national team player, an innocent young secondary school leaver who was supremely talented to exploit football as the veritable means to escape from poverty and the shackles of tough Jos life.
“You could tell he would be look sought after seeing him play,” Kanu continued.
“He was a small boy, frail looking, innocent but very talented, I knew we had another Super Eagles’ captain in the long run.
“The coaches were so impressed with what they saw of him and no long the team was built around him and the rest, they say, is history.”
True to Kanu’s prediction, Late coach Ganiyu Salami was presented with this raw gold as the U-17 national team battled their way through the African qualifier tournament in Swaziland (now E-Swatini) to the U-17 World Cup finals in Finland and the stories thereafter attracted millions of admirers to this precocious talent of a kid.
There was no doubting his special talent in the underachieving coach Austin Eguavoen side in the finals proper in Finland in 2003 and it wasn’t long Chelsea took up the troubles of this special talent and made fortunes out of him and of course, the London giants.
But before his celebrated association with the Bridge, Mikel had caught the eye of Manchester United, with whom Chelsea were later to ve locked in the game’s biggest legal battles for the ownership of the supremely youngster that needed the timely intervention of the FIFA ruling to quit putting this precocious kid’s career on hold.
South African side Cape Town Spurs were the very first foreign side that were interested in the kid midfield general after he helped his Eaglets’ side dispatch their South Africa counterparts but it was at the defunct Norwegian side Lyn Oslo he was briefly “parked” before he would finally land at the Bridge to begin a career that began and ended in numerous glories.
Mikel’s troubles with the Chelsea/Manchester United legal tussle over his ownership while the case was argued in the FIFA courts were the least of his headaches while he continued shining in his national duties for the U-20 national team and even the senior side at the 2006 African Cup of Nations finals in Egypt under Eguavoen.
With Chelsea settling the lingering transfer saga and paying a total of £16m transfer fees – £12m to Manchester United, £4m to Lyn Oslo, Mikel officially became Chelsea player on September 12, 2006 to begin a career that added lots of club and individual honours to his personal cabinet.
Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho would welcome his Nigerian star to the Bridge and moulded him into one of the world’s most sought after holding midfielders in the world.
It appeared Mikel would not look elsewhere whilst at Chelsea and managers after Mourinho came and left, he remained to become a true Chelsea legend winning a mouth watering nine titles including the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa Cup titles.
Mikel would go on to spend 11 seasons at Chelsea and made a whooping 372 appearances, including 249 league appearances, making him one of the most celebrated foreign and African players with the most appearances.
Chelsea’s foreign players’ stories would not be complete without a worthy mention of Mikel as the fans sang his praises season after season, until he went to China in 2017 to end his Chelsea sojourn after 11 years.
Mikel’s Chelsea sojourn had a “blemish” after all – it wasn’t all goal-filled as the 91-capped former Eagles’ captain didn’t bother to keep a date with goalkeepers, the act he mastered very well pre-Chelsea as he kept his part of the “deal” with Mourinho to keep things tighter at the rear.
Mikel’s Chelsea’s goal sheet wasn’t blank after all, a paltry six in all appearances and amusingly one in 249 league appearances – but there was a reason for that – he spent more time breaking up opponents’ plays/rhythms, shielding the back four, mopping up than sniffing for goals, strictly and professionally adhering Mourinho’s instructions.
Mourinho has been roundly fingered as reason for drying up Mikel’s Chelsea goals having met him a scoring midfielder to limiting his surges upfront and keeping him defensively busy screening the back four and seldomly wandering upfront in search of goal. He was not interested.
Mourinho “killed” whatever was left of offensive Mikel, leaving him instructively deep lying and eventually making him have fun with his new role that even made Mourinho and Chelsea turn deaf ears to suitors.
Mikel wasn’t bothered about goal scoring at Chelsea but was a different Mikel at Eagles, popping up offensively to range for goals, while keeping an eye in his defensive duties, though, he would later in his Eagles career enjoy the midfield combo of battle-ready Wilfred Ndidi, whom he entrusted the midfield defensive duties for while he refused to invite Luciano Pavarotti to conduct the orchestra in the middle of the park for his country.
His Eagles’ goal rooster wasn’t bad for a midfielder, six in 91 appearances summed up his much talked about Eagles’ sojourn that also had him lead his men to a bronze medal finish, his third in his Eagles’ career, before his signed off from the national team just after Egypt 2019 AFCON.
His 91 caps, according to the apex football body NFF records, remain the highest till date for a midfielder, making him one of the accomplished Eagles’ midfielders ever.
His number 10 shirt had a lot of tradition tied around it, and Mikel refused to hold in trust, owning it 100 percent and not allowing any room for fans to answer questions of quality of ability of a true number 10.
The ghosts of great number 10 wearing Henry Nwosu, Etim Esin and Austin “Jay Jay” Okocha didn’t need to be exorcised as Mikel wrapped him in glory leading his men as well as inspiring the team to numerous victorious which climaxed into the 2013 AFCON title win in South Africa.
Added to his glorious Eagles’ outing, is the honour of playing for all the levels of his country’s national teams from U-17 to Super Eagles, including the Olympic team, making him one of the two players to achieve this enviable feat – the other being his former U-17 mate and bosom friend Chinedu Obasi.
Smart Mikel chose the loudest ovation to announce retirement, just at 32, at Egypt 2019 – when he would have lasted a lot longer to hit a century mark and join compatriots Joseph Yobo, Vincent Enyeama and Ahmed Musa in the Century Club.
Apart from club, national, international and individual honours that his career has come to garner, Mikel’s distinct leadership qualities cannot be wished away.
Astute leader of men he was, Mikel not only captained Eagles, he was also given the responsibilities at Middleborough and Stoke City on his return to England.
Boro grabbed him over to England after spending two seasons at Tianjin Teda in the Chinese top flight after which he returned to England, this time at Stoke City after a season in Turkey with Trabzonspor.
Mikel’s club football career was 95% percent Chelsea with very little impact achieved at Tianjin Teda, Stoke, Trabzonspor and Middleborough and it appeared there was hardly any club football life for Mikel other than Chelsea.
Many had also argued it would have been best for him to finish his career at Chelsea but in life, indeed, there’s time for everything.
Having added a whooping 11 laurels to his honours’ cabinet all from Chelsea, his Turkish Cup medal with Trabzonspor, could look very insignificant especially when juxtaposed with his UEFA champions League medal as well as three English Premier League titles.
But that’s the sweet story of Mikel’s club football career and stories will continue to be told of one of the best midfield players in world football.
Ikenwa Nnabuogor writes from Lagos State, South West, Nigeria.
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