Chelsea's John Obi Mikel & The Burden Of Expectation
When French midfielder Blaise Matuidi recklessly lunged into Ogenyi Onazi’s ankle during Nigeria’s Round of 16 tie against Les Blues, leaving him in a heap, there came John Obi Mikel’s moment. His moment to take the game by the scruff of its neck and stamp his authority on proceedings. It wasn’t to be however and instead the French triumvirate of Cabaye, Pogba and Matuidi were at the thick of things. The Nigerian midfield and subsequently its game plan fell flat, like a badly put together piece of architecture. In the time Onazi spent on the pitch the Super Eagles were truly on top and when they looked towards Mikel for leadership and co-ordination in the Lazio man’s absence, they found none. Coach Stephen Keshi’s introduction of Ruben Gabriel – in fairness to Mikel – didn’t help matters. In the words of the renowned English commentator John Helm – after John Terry’s 2008 UCL Final penalty miss, - “his moment of glory passed him by.”
And it wasn’t supposed to go this way.
When Mikel burst onto the scene back in 2003, he was a fresh faced attacking midfielder in the Augustine Eguavoen tutored U-17 side that represented the country at the FIFA U-17 World Cup held in Finland, scoring the equalizer in a hard-fought, come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Australia. Although the team ultimately crashed out in the group stage courtesy of an unlucky draw in the coin toss (they were level on points and other qualification criteria with Costa Rica), football fans across the country couldn’t help but notice the emergence of the young midfielder. The wider football world wasn’t aware of the precocious Jos-born teenager’s talent yet, but it was only a matter of time.
The FIFA World Youth Championship held in the Netherlands was Mikel’s finest hour - and probably still is - as he was the creative force behind the Flying Eagles’ mazy run to the Final before losing out to an Argentinean side led by a certain Lionel Messi. Mikel was at the centre of all good things the team did, with him being its main creative hub. In the team’s must-win last group game, he took and converted a crucial penalty that gave Nigeria a 2-0 lead in an eventual 3-0 win over Switzerland. Together with Taiye Taiwo, they were the leaders of the team , although Isaac Promise wore the captain’s armband. The then 18 year old was already playing a starring role for Norwegian club, Lyn Oslo and by the end of that tournament he announced himself on the world stage. He won the Silver Ball as the tournament’s second best player behind the aforementioned Messi with many in his homeland arguing he would have won the Golden Ball had results gone his team’s way on the night.
Either way, a star was born and the whole world duly noticed. Back home his native Nigeria was preparing itself for the exit of mercurial midfielder Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha following the Super Eagles’ shambolic FIFA 2006 World Cup Qualifying campaign which ended with failure to make it to qualify for the Mundial event. There had to be a change of the old guard and in Mikel, the nation had its new poster boy for the change it wanted to see in its National Team.
With all the praise showered on him above, where then did it all go wrong?
The first sign of trouble was his controversial and protracted transfer to Chelsea after he had allegedly agreed to a move to Manchester United in April 2005 months before the WYC. It was a drawn-out battle between both clubs which put him out of competitive football for almost 12 months. With him joining up with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in the summer of 2006 at a time when Frank Lampard was at the peak of his powers and Michael Ballack also joining from Bayern Munich on a Bosman, it was clear there was no place for him in the team. From an attacking point of view, at least.
There was no way Chelsea were going to put their shiny new £16million boy, a player they fought tooth and nail to secure his services, on the bench. A re-think was necessary and with Claude Makelele sold to PSG that summer, Mourinho found an answer. Or so he thought. Before Pep Guardiola revolutionized the defensive midfielder to the ball-playing player years later, the average defensive midfielder was tall and leggy with a broad frame, and Mikel with his 6 ft 2 in body surely could do a job there. If he fit the bill physically, they could mould him into a tough tackling ball winner. This was the root of Mikel’s problems. They had a new Makelele on their hands, they hoped. Mourinho goofed and spectacularly so.
While people will wax lyrical about how Kanu and Okocha wowed the nation with their skills, Mikel will never inspire poetry.
Mikel for all his qualities, does not possess the defensive nous nor pace or dynamism to play in front of a back four. With his wide range of skills, particularly his uncanny ability to pick a pass through the eye of a needle, here was a player built to spread play and dictate the pace of his team’s attack. From being an exciting attacking midfielder he morphed slowly but surely into a huffing and puffing midfielder with a first touch as heavy as stone, watching the play pass him by. His trademark quality became the ability to pick the perfect sideways/back pass. His career development was also hampered by years of playing under charlatans in charge of the Nigerian National Team. Playing as a defensive midfielder at Chelsea, he was often deployed further forward with the Eagles with other players doing the dirty work behind him. For lack of a better word, he was in a quandary.
At 27 when other players are in their prime, the major debate surrounding Mikel is what his best position is. With Chelsea bringing in Nemanja Matic in January and Cesc Fabregas this summer, Mikel’s days at Stamford Bridge are numbered. Rumours are thin on the ground as regards clubs interested in signing him and it will be unwise on his part to attempt to ‘fight for his place’ considering the plethora of midfield options available to Mourinho.
Mikel’s career has been warped in such mediocrity that it is easy to forget he is one of Nigeria’s most decorated players with a honours roll that includes domestic glory such as 1 Premier League title, League Cup, FA Community Shield, 4 FA Cup triumphs as well as Champions’ League and Europa League success. He was also an important part of the team that ended Nigeria’s 19 year-wait for an African Nations’ Cup title. On a personal level, he won the Silver Ball at WYC 2005, CAF African Young Player in 2005 and 2006 and the Chelsea Young Player of the Year twice (2007, 2008). Yet despite all these accolades, his name will never be mentioned amongst Nigeria’s greatest ever players and only few can make a case for him. While people will wax lyrical about how Kanu and Okocha wowed the nation with their skills, Mikel will never inspire poetry.
So whenever you watch the play pass him with him picking up a needless yellow after cynically breaking up play, think to yourself how he was only second best to Messi almost a decade ago and how things could have turned out differently for him.
Think of what might have been.