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The Speedster That Bounced Back




In a summer of cricket that produced many exciting new discoveries, the one with perhaps the most long-term potential is that of fast bowler Lungi Ngidi, who has overcome tough times to take his place in the country’s Test side.

Ngidi is potentially the long-term successor to Morne Morkel, who announced his retirement from the international game in February, and is likely to form a fearsome attacking duo with Kagiso Rabada in the coming years – both are able to clock speeds of 150 kilometers per hour.

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The 22-year-old is part of a new wave of black cricketers earning their stripes in South Africa’s national side, with the sport finally able tap into a segment of the population that had been excluded from the game for so long.

Aside from Rabada and Ngidi, Temba Bavuma and Andile Phehlukwayo have played Test cricket in the last year, while Khayelihle Zondo recently made his debut in the One Day International format, and Junior Dala and Aaron Phangiso played as well in the Twenty20 games against India in February.

It is a radical change from the days when Makhaya Ntini furrowed almost a lone career as South Africa’s only international black cricketer, joined ever so briefly in the national team by the likes of Monde Zondeki, Mfuneko Ngam and Thami Tsolekile.

Much needed transformation within the sport has had some role to play, but few would argue that all the recent recruits to the national side have not deserved their elevation and most grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

Ngidi, perhaps more than anyone, took advantage after he became an injury replacement for Dale Steyn in the second Test against India in Pretoria in January.

On a wicket more suited to spin bowling, he returned excellent match figures of 7/90, including the prized wicket of the best batsman in the world, Virat Kohli, with a vicious in-swinger that trapped the Indian captain leg before wicket.

It was not Ngidi’s first appearance in the national team; his promise was spotted 12 months earlier when he was selected for three Twenty20 clashes against touring Sri Lanka.

And he excelled there too, taking 4/19 in second match as the bounce extracted from his tall frame and good pace left the visitors hopping around the crease.

But a back injury immediately after that kept him out of the game for six months, and took him from an incredible high to a desperate low.

It was during that time that he struggled to keep his fitness levels at the required level, leading to some tough words at his franchise team, the Pretoria-based Titans.

“It was very difficult but it was worth it in the long run and a lot of credit must also go to the trainer and physiotherapist at the Titans for the work they did with me,” Ngidi told reporters.

“And the coach [Mark Boucher] as well – we had some hard but honest chats behind closed doors and that also helped me much in the long run.

“That was probably one of the biggest challenges of my career… coming from a high to a low in a short space of time. Being selected to play for South Africa and then getting injured, it was tough.”

“I thought I was doing all the right things but it was not going my way. During my time away from the game I got a lot of time to reflect and now I realize that I am actually stronger than I thought.”

Ngidi has his roots in Durban – his mother Bongi was a domestic worker and his father Jerome a caretaker at a local school. His life changed when he was selected for a scholarship to the prestigious Hilton College, a school known for producing international sportsmen in all codes.

“From a young age he was a natural talent, not just a cricketer, but a very talented rugby player and a swimmer,” Hilton College Executive House Master Sean Carlisle told FORBES AFRICA.

Aside from Carlisle, Ngidi was also under the tutelage of former Zimbabwe international all-rounder Neil Johnson, who had many years as a top professional.

“There was obviously lots of raw potential there at school level. He was probably a bit frustrated then as at school he suffered a lot of injuries, but the natural ability and the massive potential was clear for everybody to see,” says Carlisle.

“What was evident too is that he stood up in pressure situations. When things were tight in match situations, he came to the fore and that gave you an indication that he could handle bigger pressures later in life.”

Carlisle believes that it is Ngidi’s calm and grounded personality that will see him successful. He is not prone to flights of fancy or the belief that he does not have to work hard to achieve his goals.

“That is probably one of his greatest assets, that he is humble and down to earth. Right from the start, he was very grounded and really was one of those all-round, well-mannered and well-groomed guys. You could say he was, and is, a real good guy.”

Carlisle is rightly proud of his former pupil, even if he himself admits he is a little bit surprised at how well Ngidi has taken to international cricket.

“We have been following him and seeing how well he has done at Tuks [the University of Pretoria], and then in the Twenty20s. But to be honest, all of us are slightly taken aback at how quickly and how well he took to Test cricket.

“He is just an incredibly rounded, humble man and we could not be prouder. The cricket side is fantastic, but for me it is the human element that will make him special.”

With Morkel out the picture and the future of Steyn in serious doubt, Ngidi has the opportunity to lead South Africa’s pace attack with Rabada for the next decade or more if he can stay fit.

“I’m so proud of him, he’s already a role model for millions of South Africans,” Ngidi said of Rabada, just a year his senior. “I’d love to emulate his achievements one day but, for now, I’m just happy to be chasing him.”

– By Nick Said


More Olympians In South Africa’s Pools




Chad le Clos recently returned from the Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast, where he grew his legend further with three gold medals, a silver and a bronze.

He has now set his sights on the World Swimming Championships in Hangzhou, China, in December, as well as the next Olympics in Tokyo in two years’ time, where he expects to face greater challengers as a new group of young swimmers emerge.

The 26-year-old’s favorite medal from the Commonwealth Games did not come from his individual haul of golds, but was rather the bronze he collected in the 4 x 100-meter medley race, which gives an insight into his psyche. Swimming is mostly an individual sport, but Le Clos is clearly a team player.

“Truthfully, the best race for me was the relay on the final day when we got the bronze,” Le Clos tells FORBES AFRICA.

 Chad le Clos is thinking of life outside of the pool and hoping to launch swimming academies across South Africa. Photo Provided.

“We had guys that weren’t meant to be swimming in those events, they were specialists in other disciplines.

“Earlier, we had finished sixth or seventh [in the heats], so to touch in third ahead of Scotland in the final was amazing and it felt like a gold medal to me.

“It was really tough, but the guys put it together when it mattered and that makes it really special.”

Le Clos confirmed his status as South Africa’s premier athlete in the pool with golds in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter butterfly events, as well as a silver in the 100-meter freestyle.

“The butterfly treble was great because nobody has done that before and it was a big goal of mine. To win my third consecutive 200-meter butterfly gold was also very special as it means I have now been Commonwealth Games champion for eight years, which is a big achievement.

“So from a personal point of view I was happy with my individual achievements, though I also believe that we should have medalled in the 100-meter freestyle relay.

“But it was maybe not the team that should have gone, none were specialist 100-meter freestyle swimmers and although everybody did great times, it wasn’t enough, which was a big disappointment for me.”

Le Clos is already South Africa’s most decorated Olympian with a gold and three silver medals, a haul he is looking to add to in Tokyo, something he says will be increasingly difficult with a new generation of swimmers coming through.

“You can see them emerging and wonder how good they will be in two years,” Le Clos says.

“There is an 18-year-old Hungarian boy [Kristóf Milák] who is already just one second off the world record in the 200-meter butterfly. I think I will have to swim pretty close to the world record to get gold.

“But it is also exciting for world swimming and the sport. You need new stars and as an individual that pushes you to work even harder. It is a major source of motivation.”

Le Clos is no veteran, but he has already been in the South African swimming team for close to 10 years and is thinking of life outside of the pool with the recent launch of the Chad Le Clos Academy in his adopted hometown of Cape Town.

READ MORE: Swimming Against The Tide

His dream is to have academies all over South Africa, as well as internationally, with five more planned to open before the end of the year.

“It has been a passion project of mine for the last five years and finally we have managed to get it off the ground,” he says.

“We want to start with kids as young as five years old, initially showing them how fun swimming can be before later on developing individual programs that will help them achieve their swimming goals.

“And those goals don’t have to be to make it to the Olympics. It might just be to swim for their school, or make it to the national finals. But obviously it is a dream of mine to develop boys and girls to swim for South Africa at the Olympics, that would just be unbelievable and something I would cherish for the rest of my life.”

Le Clos has helped develop the swimming program for the Academy, the first of which is based in Claremont in the Mother City, which he says is very different to how kids are traditionally trained in South Africa.

“I have always been of the opinion that we push kids too hard in their early years. So by the age of 17 or 18 they are burned out in the pool, or they have left the sport before then because it is all too much.

“The example I always use is if you have two boys, both aged 11, one is a swimmer and the other a rugby player.

“Traditionally, that swimmer would be in the pool doing 65 kilometers a week, the same training schedule as myself, Cameron van der Burgh or Tatjana Schoenmaker would do when we train for the Olympics.

READ MORE: How Far Would You Swim To Conquer Your Fear?

“But you would not ask that 11-year-old rugby player to train against The Beast [Springbok Tendai Mtawarira], it would be madness.

“So it is all about pacing the training correctly to ensure that our swimmers peak at the right age and continue to have the love for swimming. They must want to get into that pool, not see it as a chore and something they dread.

“We also teach the kids respect for the sport and respect for their coaches, no matter what background they come from or how talented they are. That is very important to me.”

The ongoing drought in Cape Town has scuppered plans for a purpose-built facility for the first academy, but that will come, according to Le Clos.

“There has been an amazing response so far and it is the program that we will franchise out. Hopefully we will have another five opening in the next six months all over South Africa.

“We will be training the coaches according to our program, and the hope is to take it international, but for now we just want to have it running smoothly in South Africa first.”

Le Clos believes he has another “six or eight” years left to compete in the pool and hopes one day to perhaps have one of his pupils as a national teammate.

“I said to my Dad [Bert] the other day how it would be a dream of mine to walk a kid to the Olympics. It would mean so much to me. Maybe that will happen while I am still on the national team, and we swim together, wouldn’t that be something?”

– Nick Said

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Nigeria; Where Football Is Life




Xavi has just got the ball from Sergio Busquets; Casillas makes the run to the edge of the penalty area as he receives the ball, dribbles past one opponent before playing a through-ball for Zidane, who lays it on for Iniesta on the left wing. Iniesta curls in a cross; Christiano Ronaldo rises at the far post to meet it with a powerful header –goal! The stadium erupts in thunderous cheer with cameras synchronizing in a blinding daze of flashes.

Unfortunately, this is not the commentary for a charity match with legendary players from the upper strata of football. There are no cameras in sight and instead of pristine, beautifully landscaped Astro Turf, we have sandy and rocky grounds.

Representing their icons are Obinna ‘Xavi’, Balo ‘Sergio Busquets’, Tola ‘Casillas’, Dayo ‘Zidane’ and Kola ‘Ronaldo’. We are in Lagos, Nigeria, watching the final game between two under-17 teams in the local league cup. The winner gets bragging rights as well as some products from a local FCMG brand.

Football is an overwhelming moment of beauty, spirit and pride and in the most populous country in Africa, that passion is palpable. Gianni Infantino, FIFA President, who was in Lagos at the maiden edition of the AITEO-Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) Awards this year, summed up this love perfectly.

“I was told that in Nigeria, football is passion, but it is a lie because it is more than that. In Nigeria, I was told that football is love, but it is a lie it is more than that. In Nigeria, I was told that football is a religion, but it is a lie. It is more than that. In Nigeria, football is life,” he says in his opening address to a room full of corporate executives, the upper echelons of power in government as well as the hall of fame of Nigerian football.

“Football is also business; when we can harness it properly, a lot of money can be made for the country through the game.”

The country’s love affair with the sport has blossomed over the years into an obsessive relationship. At a buka (local restaurant) in Surulere, a waiter is nearly slapped by an angry fan when he mistakenly changes the channel from a game between Chelsea and Man U to Soundcity, the indigenous 24-hour music channel that is a favorite of most of its diners.

After a heated exchange, the manager apologizes for the interruption and the game is back on. Commonsense is restored. Although this is a repeat match, the men watch intensely with the same passion and vigor of a live game.

“We found that football is the main pull for customers to our restaurant. They are passionate about football. It has turned into a family. Our customers come from all over Lagos to watch the games and once they are here, they have to eat and drink so it’s a win-win for us,” says Nnamdi Mayowa, owner of the restaurant.

As he speaks, a cheer rings out from outside the restaurant. Hordes of football fans have gathered to also catch a glimpse of the action and as any good football story goes, it all began with the kick of the ball in 1945.

That year, the Nigerian Football Federation was introduced as the governing body for the sport. Nigeria subsequently began participating in Africa’s Challenge Cup in the 1960s. Since then, the national team known affectionately as ‘The Super Eagles’, have had a fair number of successes. They won bronze medals in the 1978 and 1979 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) and in 1980, they won the championship in Lagos.

In 1984 and 1988, Nigeria subsequently captured silver medals in the tournament. Football had come to stay and with it a number of international stars were born and shipped to some of the world’s most successful football clubs with lucrative deals.

Then came the dark years. In 2010, Nigeria finished bottom of their group in South Africa with just one point from three matches after losing to Argentina and Greece and drawing with South Korea. In response, the then President Goodluck Jonathan banned the team from competing in the sport for two years. Then followed their exit at the 2014 World Cup where they lost to France, and a subsequent failure to qualify for the 2015 and 2017 editions of the AFCON. Nigerian football morale was at an all-time low.

Finally, a shimmer of light emerged at the end of the tunnel. The Super Eagles breezed through their group stage of the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers to earn a spot as one of only five African countries to make it to Russia 2018.

They were unbeaten in six matches with four wins and two draws, scoring 12 goals and only conceding four times, an incredible feat that took the team, led by German tactician, Gernot Rohr, to their sixth FIFA World Cup.

For Nigerians of this era, there is no sporting moment more significant than this triumph, especially as it is achieved against a backdrop of a sputtering economy that has gripped the country since the fall in crude oil prices and the Foreign Exchange (FX) fiasco of 2016 and 2017. The 2019 elections are also on the horizon and with it, greater economic uncertainty for Nigerians. The country has been increasingly marred by public dissent reflecting the mounting anger over an absentee president. To make matters worse, Nigeria has more than 300 tribes, making a consensus of any kind at the best of times, almost impossible to reach.

“We call football the unifying factor. When Nigeria is playing everyone comes together, we forget our tribes, we forget our differences, we even forget our religion. We all hug together when we do well and we all sulk together when we lose. Football is also business; when we can harness it properly, a lot of money can be made for the country through the game,” says Akin Alabi, founder of NairaBET, a leader in a wide range of betting opportunities on all sports.

Having attended two World Cups, South Africa in 2010 and Brazil in 2014, Alabi firmly has his eyes set on Russia.

“I want them to get to a quarter appearance. That will be the best-case scenario for me because I do not think we have gotten further than that,” he says.

However, he is quick to point out that this is not Nigeria’s strongest team.

“I think our 1994 team was fantastic. We do not have the caliber of players we had then, but no one has the perfect team out there. This is a national team and not like pro football where you can take money and buy whichever player you want. You have to make do with those that are available from the country you are from. So we are hoping it goes well,” says Alabi.

He believes the prospects of an African country actually bringing back the cup is far-fetched. Countries like Germany for example have a well-oiled football development machine, which helps them churn out a lot of quality players, which any African team cannot match right now.

“The German team is called a German machine for a reason, they have a well-oiled team and continuity. Their manager has been there for years on various World Cups so everything is run professionally. In Nigeria and Africa, when it is time for a match, we just invite players to run and play so that cannot work. We need better development in terms of processes,” says Alabi.

However, Brian Okonkwo is adamant Nigeria will go all the way to the finals. But then again, he would be. As a member of the Nigeria Football Supporters Club, he has dedicated his life to the advancement of the sport that saved his life as a troubled youth.

“When I was younger I used to be in an armed robbery gang and we did a lot of bad things to innocent people. I was on a fast track to jail or death but luckily, someone from my family was able to help me turn over a new leaf by introducing me to football,” says Okonkwo.

He has been present in all Nigeria’s five World Cup appearances in the past.

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“I think we have everything it takes to bring this home for our people, the team simply needs the support of the country behind them and that is our job. We are with them all the way and we need the resources to enable us to do our job,” says Okonkwo.

According to the Club’s National Chairman, Samuel Ikpea, the club will take 1,000 people to Russia to cheer and support the Super Eagles. This means 1,000 visa applications, 1,000 hotel rooms and 1,000 mouths to feed for the duration of the Russia 2018 tournament.

“Football is a passion of the nation and we do this job out of love for the sport. We have been in this business for a long time and we are already sourcing for funds to ensure that we get to Russia. Unfortunately, it is difficult because we have not been able to receive any funds from the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) or the ministry of sports since this new government came,” says Ikpea.

According to Ikpea, this differs to the previous government who invested $140,000 to help them cover expenses to support the Super Eagles in the last World Cup.

“Teams like Nigeria come into the World Cup and historically something happens. They look great in the qualifiers then everything falls apart, something happens with the federation, somebody doesn’t get paid and now all of a sudden this team is in disarray going into the competition,” says Marcus Dawson, a sports commentator for Metro TV.

In the absence of adequate infrastructure, and in spite of the paucity of training facilities, football is played on streets, paths or fields. The potential of the sport has not been realized in the country due to the lack of support from corporate organizations that only see football as a CSR initiative instead of a lucrative business venture.

As a result, the NFF is fighting to ensure the team has adequate resources to efficiently compete in Russia. According to Amaju Pinnick, President of the NFF, the organization is working on generating $2.8 million for the Super Eagles’ participation in the games.

“Failure is not an option in the FIFA World Cup and we need to come together to ensure we provide the team with everything they need to make it through,” says Pinnick.

The organization receives support from private organizaitons like Aiteo who have a focus on developing the quality of football in Nigeria. So far, Aiteo has paid the sum of $600,000 and $890,000 to cover its contractual obligation of providing support to the technical crew of the Super Eagles for the whole of 2018, well beyond the World Cup, according to Deputy Managing Director, Francis Peters.

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This however pales in comparison to investment in sports by their European counterparts. In a little more than a decade, Germany has invested nearly $1 billion in its youth soccer programs, with academies run by professional teams and training centers overseen by the national soccer association, the Deutscher Fussball Bund, according to a report in The New York Times.

Also of grave concern was the issue of the selection process for the team, which sparked widespread debates across the country. Like the case of Sone Aluko, a professional football player, who is a striker for Fulham FC but could not make it on the coveted team shortlist.

“The NFF is not responsible for making the selection of who joins the team. That is the decision of the coach. I know the story of Sone but unfortunately we are just focused on getting the team ready for Russia 2018,” says Pinnick.

Colin Udoh, a leading journalist and sports presenter, shares his insights on the team selection methodology used by the coach.

“It is the coach that selects not the federation even though they have some sway in the decision but ultimately it is the call of the coach. But yes, Sunday Oliseh, who was the previous coach, said he likes to pick players from the top division and I think most coaches in Nigeria want players who are playing at the highest level and the very best in the world rather than those playing in the lower division,” he says.

Secondly, Udoh claims that most European coaches like Rohr will not admit this is what they do. An additional criteria, which Rohr has also added to this team’s selection process evident in the team representing the Super Eagles, is the attempt to lower the average age of the players to 23 years except for John Mikel Obi, Leon Balogun and the goalkeeper where he is trying to integrate a bit of experience into team. So on these two key criteria, most players like Aluko unfortunately will fall out of contention.

“He is not in the top division and he also happens to be 28 years. I would pick him in a heartbeat but unfortunately I am not the coach. If you look at the way the team have qualified for the World Cup, you cannot argue with the results. Apart from that one loss against South Africa, Rohr has masterminded the success of the team to qualify for the World Cup and it is going to be hard to argue with that result,” adds Udoh.

It has been a long road to get here. Nigeria could qualify through the group stages by having the best balance of exciting promise and solidity. In every nook and cranny, and from every social stratum and walk of life, one thing is undeniable, and that is the game of football permeates every aspect of Nigerian culture, and Russia 2018 is another opportunity for the country to put away the differences and unite for this all-important goal.

After all, football in Nigeria is life.

Nigeria’s supporters celebrate after their team scored the opening goal against Burkina Faso during the 2013 African Cup of Nations. Photo Getty Images.

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Cover Story

Nigeria’s John Mikel Obi Counts Himself Lucky




By the time the next World Cup rolls around, Nigeria captain John Mikel Obi will be 34.

Considering coach Gernot Rohr’s deliberate moves to lower the average age of the Super Eagles (Nigeria’s national football team), it’s doubtful if the silky midfielder will still be suiting up in green-white-green by then.

It would appear that Russia 2018 will mark one final top-level hurrah in Mikel’s illustrious career, one that has seen him win everything in European club football and represent his country at all levels and in every major competition.

Like many former Super Eagles’ captains before him ahead of a major championship, Mikel, who now plays in the Chinese Super League with Tianjin Teda, is coy about his post World Cup plans.

“I don’t know what I will do after the World Cup,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.

“I think we have to focus on doing well first and making the country proud.”

Despite all he has achieved, there is still some debate as to whether the former teenage prodigy has fulfilled his potential, but Russia presents him with an opportunity to forge a legacy and grow his legend further.

It’s a sign of how highly he was thought of when he first burst on the scene that this is even a debate after he has racked up an impressive collection of trophies, including multiple Premier League titles with Chelsea, the FA Cup, UEFA Champions League, Europa League, and the Africa Cup of Nations titles.

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At Mikel’s first international game, an African Under-17 World Cup qualifier against South Africa in Kaduna, visiting coach Serame Letsoaka said of the emerging starlet:

“Your number 10 is a special player, he has the potential to be a great player.”

Letsoaka was not alone. By the time the country returned from an ultimately unsuccessful
FIFA Under-17 World Cup Finals in 2003, Mikel was already marked down for greatness in Nigeria.

Less than two years later, that attention went global when he became the subject of a three-way transfer controversy involving Chelsea, Manchester United and Norwegian club Lyn Oslo.

By the time the dust settled, Mikel ended up at Chelsea, where many Nigerians still believe his creative juices were squeezed and stifled by manager José Mourinho.

For Mikel himself, the argument is moot and he seems satisfied with his achievements, though leading Nigeria past the quarter-finals of the World Cup would perhaps even be the highlight.

“I think I have been lucky. I have had a good career, played for one of the best football clubs in the world, with some great players and won a lot of titles. I think that is a great honor for me.”

And he has gone from budding starlet to senior player in a captaincy role that always comes with great expectation and responsibility.

It is something that he has taken on and he knows that leadership on and off the pitch will be as important as anything else in Russia.

“I remember when I came into the national team as a young player, a lot of the older players helped me. Now, we have a young team, time has gone so fast and I have to help these guys too.”

Promoted from the Under-20 squad after helping Nigeria to a silver medal and winning the Silver Ball behind Lionel Messi at the FIFA World Youth Championship in 2005, Mikel was named in Nigeria’s squad for the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations and announced himself with a goal and assist after coming on as a substitute.

Already heightened expectations went into overdrive. With midfield legend Austin Okocha (Nigerian former professional footballer) on his last legs, Mikel was immediately installed as the next Jay-Jay.

Mikel, with a more direct, technical skill-set, is the direct opposite of Okocha’s more flair-oriented toolbox, which not only made that characterization unfair, but also spawned that unending debate about (un)fulfilled potential.

And it is. Since being named captain two years ago, Mikel has shown a level of leadership and drive that few believed he had.

Those qualities, both on and off the pitch, contributed in large parts to Nigeria’s uncharacteristically drama-free World Cup qualification campaign.

On the pitch, and unshackled with the freedom to roam handed to him by Rohr, Mikel drove the team forward almost by sheer force of will, with his goals against Algeria and then Cameroon major turning points in Nigeria’s qualification run.

READ MORE: The Grounded Super Eagle Who Wants To Fly To The Next World Cup

Off the pitch, Mikel’s quiet diplomatic approach with officialdom to resolve team issues contrasted with the confrontational methods of the past and helped forge harmony within the squad.

“He is our captain and he is very important for us,” Rohr never tires of saying at every opportunity, clearly delighted to be working with a personality he feels is similar to his own.

Such is the respect Mikel commands within the squad that he is almost like a centrifugal force whenever he is present. And even when he is not, his aura still hovers around the team.

In two recent friendlies against Poland and Serbia in March, there seemed to be a general consensus that the team lacked cohesion without the captain.

In his absence, the Super Eagles struggled to maintain any semblance of fluidity or create opportunities.

Which may be why he almost feels a heavy responsibility to guide this young side, who will have one of the lowest squad average ages, to a good tournament.

But it hasn’t just been words. He has done it already, dipping into his own pocket to pay the team costs as they prepared for the Olympic Games in 2016.

Not many expect Nigeria to go beyond their best previous World Cup outing of the Round of 16. But if there is one thing that Mikel’s career has shown, it is that collecting trophies have become second nature.

His first World Cup tournament ended in a first-round exit, albeit by a drawing of lots. What odds that his last, where Nigeria faced Argentina, Iceland and Croatia, would finish at the other end of the spectrum?

– By Colin Udoh

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