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.
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.
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