There exist two broad fields of thinking about John Obi Mikel. In discussion with Chelsea fans, he is a vital cog in the most dominant, trophy-winning era in the west London club’s history, a quiet, consistent, stabilising presence at the base of midfield who shielded the back four excellently while allowing the likes of Ballack, Lampard, Essien and Drogba to thrive.
For followers of the Nigeria national team, he is undoubtedly a good player, regarded as one of the nation’s best exports, but it is a less panegyrical view of a player that comes to mind; a sense of what could have been more than what he has gone on to achieve. For Nigerian fans, it is the potential that Mikel possessed as a youngster, and a particular picture, that haunts them.
On 2 July 2005, at the Galgenwaard Stadium in Utrecht, Argentina and Nigeria contested the final of the FIFA World Youth Championship, now known as the Under-20 World Cup. The match was settled by two penalties scored by a certain Lionel Messi, and despite winger Chinedu Obasi scoring a goal for Nigeria, the South Americans held on for their fifth title. Both sides had been powered to the final courtesy of standouts talent on both sides – the otherworldly Messi for the Argentines and a tall, gangly player wearing the number nine jersey for Nigeria: John Obi Mikel.
The duo would deservedly receive the Golden and Silver Ball respectively for their efforts. And joined by Bronze Ball recipient, Taiye Taiwo, the trio would take a now-iconic picture against the backdrop of the Galgenwaard turf, side-by-side with each other as they looked into the camera.
Despite being bested by the Argentine wizard and his teammates, there was reason to cheer for Nigerians. The youngsters of 2005 seemed perfectly poised to take over the flag of the West African giants from the preceding generation and, possibly, restore Nigeria’s stuttering reputation as a footballing power. That picture of Mikel, award in hand, whetted the appetite.
Going away from the tournament, it was clear that both players were special talents who would soon take residence at the top table of European football. Messi was already being heralded as the best thing to come out of La Masia in years and had made a handful of appearances for the first team. On the other hand, Mikel was playing for FK Lyn in Norway, though that was soon about to change.
His performances in the Netherlands had placed him on the radar of major European clubs, and he joined nouveau-riche Chelsea in the summer of 2006. The transfer wasn’t without its complexities. Manchester United claimed to have reached an agreement with Lyn and Mikel in April 2005; he had even attended a press conference and posed with the jersey of the Mancunian giants. Mikel, then 19-years-old, later insisted that he was only interested in joining Chelsea, despite United’s reputation for nurturing young talent as a powerhouse of English football.
On José Mourinho’s insistence, Chelsea agreed to negotiate a deal for Mikel with United and Lyn, the London side paying £16m to complete the deal – £12m to Manchester United and £4m to Lyn. With the transfer fracas out of the way, Mikel joined the revolution at Stamford Bridge in earnest. Stepping into a dressing room packed with elite talent, acquired with Abramovich’s millions and moulded in Mourinho’s pragmatic trophy-winning image, it was difficult to imagine where the young Nigerian would fit into a side that had just secured a second league title in succession.
True to script, despite a decent performance on his first start for the club against Levski Sofia in the Champions League, he struggled with professionalism. The youngster turned up late to training and couldn’t keep up with the pace of the game in England. At times, he appeared out of his depth. Fortunately, his attitude and aptitude improved as the season went on, and by the end of the campaign, he was in the starting line-up as Chelsea defeated Manchester United to win the first FA Cup final at the new Wembley and avenge losing the league title to Sir Alex Ferguson’s men.
Like a phoenix, Mikel had risen above speculation about leaving the club mere months after joining; he had won a place in what was, at that time, England’s best club side. It was a sweet victory for the youngster, a triumph of perseverance and hard work, but one that came at a cost.
It was in those early months that a positional shift that would come to define Mikel’s career began to take shape. An attacking midfielder – assured in possession, with eyes for line-breaking passes and a touch of fantasy – before his arrival at Chelsea, in Mourinho’s line-ups the young Nigerian was often utilised further away from the traditional attacking midfield position, tasked with ensuring defensive solidity and fulfilling the Claude Makélélé role in matches where the legendary Frenchman was allowed a breather. In the 2007 FA Cup final, he was fielded alongside Makélélé to allow Frank Lampard freedom.
Just six months after that victory, Mikel had his first experience with the revolving door policy at Stamford Bridge. Mourinho left the club by mutual consent and Avram Grant succeeded the Portuguese. The Israeli oversaw a rare trophyless season at Stamford Bridge, which was met with the obligatory sack despite contesting the first Champions League final in the club’s history – the image of John Terry slipping on the pitch in Moscow defining a season’s work – and coming agonisingly close to an unorthodox treble.
After Grant came Luiz Felipe Scolari, and with Makélélé leaving for Paris-Saint-Germain, Mikel was handed a prominent role in Felipão’s starting line-up. He became a prominent player, continuing to play regularly under interim replacement, Guus Hiddink, when the Brazilian was sacked nine months later.
Under Hiddink, the Blues enjoyed another memorable European run, and in the semi-final, the paths of Mikel and Messi crossed once more. Invigorated by Pep Guardiola’s vision, the Argentine was on his way to being regarded as the best player in the world, and the Catalans would deny Chelsea a place in the Champions League final for the second season in a row and a shot at revenge against Manchester United.
If Mikel came of age under to Scolari’s stoic care and Hiddink’s calming influence, under Carlo Ancelotti he lost his way somewhat, enduring a topsy-turvy season: winning a place in the line-up, losing it, and winning it again, as Chelsea won their maiden double of league and FA Cup. Nonetheless, the trophies kept flowing at a relentless pace, and at the age of just 23, the Nigerian had won every major honour in England.
Ancelotti’s entertainers failed to win a trophy in his second season and he quickly became the fifth casualty of the Abramovich era. Still resolute in his will to win the Holy Grail of a Champions League trophy, Chelsea’s owner turned to the Iberian Peninsula to raid a familiar club for his next manager, anointing André Villas-Boas, fresh off a treble at Porto and fielding comparisons to Mourinho, as the chosen one.
By now, Mikel was a key component of the Chelsea team, often found in the deepest position in midfield, his unique skillset – a strong physique, match intelligence and superb range of passing – allowing him to thrive as a destroyer, and in possession, becoming the link between defence and attack.
However, if Abramovich’s dream was to win the European Cup with Villas-Boas in 2011/12, on the evening of 12 February, that dream must have felt like a nightmare. The Blues lost 3-1 to Napoli in the Champions League round of 16 with the divine trio of Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamšík running circles around the out-of-depth English side to the delight of the raucous fans at the San Paolo.
Less than a week after that defeat, Villas-Boas was put out of his misery and in stepped Roberto Di Matteo, appointed as a stop-gap to oversee a respectable end to the season. Mercifully, the second leg was a different story. Bolstered by the structural freedom granted by the Italian, Chelsea raced into a 2-0 lead by half-time, and despite a goal by Gökhan Inler, the London side forced extra-time courtesy of a Lampard penalty before winning the tie courtesy of Branislav Ivanović.
Reinvigorated by Di Matteo’s restoration of the players marginalised under Villas-Boas, Chelsea embarked on a fairytale European run. And with John Obi Mikel reinstated in the line-up, Benfica were comfortably dispatched over two legs, despite causing the Blues trouble with their attacking play. Three years after the fiasco at the Bridge, a familiar opponent awaited Chelsea in the semi-final: Barcelona.
When the two teams last met, there was scepticism about Messi’s ability to truly master his craft and enter the pantheon of the greats, but by 2012 – at the ripe age of 25 – La Pulga was considered one of football’s immortals. In the titanic reunion that was to ensue between both sides, it’s easy to forget that seven years ago, Mikel had, if only once, stood as an equal with the Argentine superstar, bested by the tiniest of margins.
The first leg in London was decided by a moment of brilliance from Didier Drogba, poking home from close range to give the Blues a 1-0 win and a fighting chance at the Camp Nou. Spectators and pundits alike expected a convincing Barcelona comeback in the second leg, but it wasn’t to be.
Despite being two goals down and losing their captain to a red card by the 44th minute, Chelsea found a way back courtesy of a cute dinked finish from Ramires on the stroke of half-time. That night, Mikel was at his imperious best, forming a human shield to repel the Barça attack. That fierce determination would give way to elation later in the match when Fernando Torres’ iconic goal sent Chelsea through to the final of the Champions League.
Mikel and Chelsea were headed to Munich for a date with destiny. But before that, the Blues beat Liverpool in the FA Cup final with Mikel in the thick of the action. In Munich, he predictably put in a shift as Chelsea soaked up pressure from all sides of the pitch against a Bavarian blizzard. By the end of the night, Mikel Obi, just like every man in that squad, had sealed their place in Chelsea folklore forever.
A year later, the Chelsea squad was hoisting another European trophy – the Europa League – in the air after a rebuild that meant Mikel was consigned to the bench for this final. But it was still a special season for the Nigerian, who had finally achieved glory with his country.
Mikel, having made his international debut as a second-half substitute in a win against Libya, had endured a tempestuous relationship with Nigerian football until 2013: suspended for failing to appear for a tournament qualifier in 2007, overlooked for the 2008 Olympics, and missing the 2010 World Cup because of injury.
From 19 January to 10 February 2013, Mikel, forever torn between his attacking impulses for Nigeria and his deep-lying role for Chelsea, thrived in the heat of South Africa. He was instrumental as the Super Eagles triumphed over heavy favourites, the Ivory Coast, in the quarter-finals and shut out Burkina Faso in the final to lift their third continental championship courtesy Sunday Mba’s winner.
That triumph began the renaissance of Mikel’s international career – but it had an adverse effect on his club career. After winning the Europa League in 2013 under the unpopular Rafa Benítez, Chelsea brought back a familiar face to the Bridge. Mourinho returned to the Chelsea dugout and quickly set about doing what he knows best: winning. To help him do this, the Portuguese scoured Europe for a new holding midfielder to hinge his team on, settling on Nemanja Matić, who accepted a return to Chelsea halfway into Mourinho’s first season back.
By his second season back, Mourinho’s grand conception had come to life, predicated on Matić’s athleticism and supported, if need be, by the ever-willing running of Ramires. Mikel was just an extra as Chelsea raced to the title. The less said about the title defence the better – although Mikel was restored to the starting line-up once Hiddink was called upon to see the season out.
After missing the 2008 Olympics due to a falling out with manager Samson Siasia, Mikel was desperate not to miss the 2016 edition. This time, Siasia called him up, but going to Rio as one of the overage players effectively ended his Chelsea career. “For me, it was a decision I had to take because when the opportunity came up to either go to Rio or play for Chelsea,” Mikel explained to NFF Media. “I went but when I got back the manager never spoke to me again and did not even put me in the team, so I had to leave the club.”
At the tournament, due to the NFF’s lack of preparation, Mikel was forced to foot numerous bills for the under-23 team, but despite this, led the team to a bronze medal, the country’s only medal at the Games.
By January, and despite interest from European sides, Mikel left Chelsea after a ten-year spell and moved to China, where he played for almost two years. Following his spell there, he returned to England with Middlesbrough. More recently, he brought an end to his time with the Super Eagles after steering them to a second-place finish at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. He later signed a deal with Trabzonspor, helping the club to the top of the Süper Lig before the coronavirus disrupted life as we know it.
Incredulous at the decision of the Turkish authorities to keep playing behind closed doors despite the threat to life, he took to Instagram to express his anger: “There is more to life than football. I do not feel comfortable and don’t want to play football in this situation. Everyone should be home with their families and loved ones in this critical time. Season should be cancelled as the world is facing such turbulent times.” After a back and forth between him and club president Ahmet Ağaoğlu, his contract was terminated.
But that incident particularly gives an insight into the type of person John Obi Mikel is: perpetually mindful of the bigger picture and the important things in life. He also understands that sacrifice is sometimes needed for the greater good.
The eternal conundrum will continue for Nigerian fans who had hoped that Mikel would become another entertainer like Jay-Jay Okocha, but it cannot be disputed that he brought calm and poise to the Chelsea midfield, and as time went on, the Super Eagles, playing against Argentina at the 2018 World Cup despite being informed of his father’s kidnapping just moments before the match. Every time he went on the pitch, he gave his all for the cause, and for that he deserves our acclaim and celebration.
Explaining his decision to snub Manchester United for Chelsea in The Players’ Tribune almost a decade after the move, he wrote: “You know what made my mind up? Chelsea had signed three other players from Nigeria along with me. They were staying with me at the house in London to keep me company. These guys … their lives depended on the decision I was making. If I went to United, they were gone. If I went to Chelsea, they were going to have a career. No matter how long it lasted, that was important to me. Just to give them a chance, you know? I chose Chelsea, and four lives changed that day.”
That’s the man he deserves to be remembered as: a selfless champion.
By Wale Oloworekende @Walenchi_