Monday, 21 September 2015

Mikel Obi: End of an era?

Mikel Obi: End of an era?


From the back of a drab goalless draw against Tanzania the previous weekend, Nigeria football fans including my humble self were once again gathered at viewing centres, which has become a ritual during weekends, to whet their appetite for the game of soccer. On this sunny Saturday afternoon at a viewing centre close to my house, it wasn’t the epileptic Super Eagles who were on show; rather it was, after a week break, the return of the most watched football ‘drama series’, the English Premier League. 

The early kick-off pitted the blue side of Merseyside, Everton against the defending champions from West London, Chelsea at Goodison Park the home of Everton Fc. When the away team’s line-up was read, laughter erupted from opposing fans, not just because the champions didn’t start the season so well, but for the inclusion in the starting eleven of our own John Obi Mikel who is known to be a bench-warmer. The laughter was even more intense when he was pulled off at the mid-way point of the game with his team battling to overturn a single goal deficit. This summed up Mikel Obi’s recent fate in Chelsea as a square peg in a round hole and I asked have we seen the last of him and I must say no one saw this coming, not after a promising start to life the young man had.
This young man can lay claim to being one of the most decorated footballers in Nigeria today with medals at both national and club level. In a chronology, Mikel first came into the fore at the annual under-17 football championship and his, came in 2003 in Finland where he adorned the prestigious number ten shirt worn by greats like Pele and Maradona. The tournament ended on a sad note for him as the Golden Eaglets were eliminated at the group phase. The tournament gave birth to now football headliners like Cesc Fabregas, Freddy Guarin and Alex Song. For his coach Austin Equaveon, the tournament gave Nigeria a glimpse to the future of Nigerian football. Yes it did but not to many, as only a handful of the stars then, are now relevant at the world stage.  

That ‘much’ attention wasn’t on the shoulders of a lad who only turned 16 days before the tournament considering the fact that Kanu Nwankwo, Austin Okocha and Julius Aghahowa were still in their prime at the senior team. But it must be said, he had a good outing. As it pleased mother luck, his breakthrough came during the FIFA World Youth Championship now FIFA under 20 world cup in the chilly surrounds of the Netherlands. The green and white boys of Nigeria departed the country with high expectations due to the fact that their senior colleagues i.e. the Super Eagles failed to pick up a ticket for the 2006 FIFA Mundial in Germany. 

The Samson Siasia led boys didn’t fail, they fought gallantly, coming out runners up in a group which contained Brazil, Switzerland and South Korea with the likes of Kennedy Chinwo, Taiye Taiwo, Isaac Promise and bad boy Sani kaita leaving their mark in the tournament. In all the group matches and subsequent games, the standout performer was John Obi Mikel who chose the number nine shirt to ease a little pressure on him. His stamina was unmatched, his reading of the game was unparalleled, and his eye for the perfect through-ball was unequivocal. He topped the stats for successful dribbles, completed passes and assists.  He was awarded the silver ball as the second best player of the tournament behind Lionel Messi of Argentina who won the golden ball and also guided his team to the trophy at the expense of the Flying Eagles of Nigeria in one of the most bitter and controversial finals ever.

Mikel Obi was touted as the perfect replacement for then Veteran Jay Jay Okocha as he had showed that entertaining capability which was the trademark of Okocha on the pitch. I feel so ashamed for being seduced into believing he would have been what we expected of him. He earned an immediate national team call-up and took part in the Nations Cup in 2006. He had a good outing, scoring in the second group game against Zimbabwe and hopes were raised even more higher. Before then, the prestigious African Footballer of the Year Awards eluded Nigerians as the likes of Mustapha Hadji of Morrocco, Patrick Mboma and Samuel Eto both of Cameroon descent were dominating. Once again, Mikel Obi was tipped to win the prize at the later stage of his career, which I think is impossibility now. 

The Plateau State born midfielder became the subject of a transfer saga between Manchester United and Chelsea where he claimed to have been pressurised to sign for Manchester United only to have the contract terminated. Several ups and downs manifested and he finally signed for Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2006, a decision I feel he regrets now. By joining the Stamford Bridge outfit, he became the second Nigerian to play for Chelsea after Atlanta 96 golden boy Celestine Babayaro. 

It was believed that he’ll have limited playing time considering the star studded midfielders at Chelsea such as Michael Ballack, Michael Essien, Frank Lampard and Claude Makelele. Against the odds, Mikel was squeezed into the team at the expense of his long term efficiency and at some point Jose said that he has discovered gold in Nigeria and that gold was Mikel Obi. He was converted to a more defensive and deep lying midfielder who turned out to lose his attacking instincts and that urge to go forward. In fact, this new role of his saw him red carded on several occasions. 

Yes he played well in his new position but how about his national team? Mikel became a shadow of his former self whenever he plays for the Super Eagles in a more advanced role. Cases of Indiscipline and lacklustre performances overshadowed his previous show of promise. He made a case for himself when his first season at Chelsea produced two winners’ medals in the Carling and FA cup respectively and he even played a large chunk of minutes in the final of both competitions.

His case didn’t change in Nigeria as he continued with insipid showings and careless attitude to work which saw him dropped by Samson Siasia for the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. He was left bitter realising that an injury would rule him out of the 2010 world cup which he was hoping to prove critics wrong after having a fantastic season as a regular under Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea. He won his first premier league medal that year and was a vital fulcrum of the team earning praise from his manager. Nigerians gave up on him and demanded his excommunication from the National team to prevent his influence upon other upcoming stars. This actually did not happen as he was still given chance after chance to prove he can still be the man for the Super Eagles. Things even got worse for him as he and others were fingered by head coach Siasia for failure of the team to qualify for the 2012 nation’s cup and Nigerians still gave him another chance. He continued soaring higher at club level when he guided Chelsea to a first ever UEFA Champions League title in Munich in 2012, playing 120 minutes of the final after having a poor start to the season. His contract was further extended with a pay rise and redemption came at the national level. John Obi Mikel won the 2013 nations cup with Nigeria for the first time in his career and put up a man-of-the-match display in the final against Burkina-faso and he never looked back. From then on, tragedy struck.

Despite series of managerial changes at Chelsea, his role became limited in terms of appearances. He found it difficult to break in to the first team all because of his drop of form and casual displays. Even when Jose Mourinho returned to Chelsea for the second time, things got even worse for him and the only highlight was when he scored his first ever premier league goal after seven years in the game against Fulham. Back in Nigeria, there were series of debates as to why a bench warmer at Chelsea should be regarded as the corner stone of the Eagles. I was of the opinion that he should retire or he’ll be forced to retire as it is getting obvious now. Mikel today, cannot be ranked among those he started his career together with such as Messi and Aguero. He is seen as a symbol of red tape at Chelsea and a laughing stock among football fans except Chelsea fans. At some point, he was nick-named ‘Mikel Slowbi’ due to how he approaches play. Four transfer windows have recently come and gone and there’s little or no effort by him to leave Chelsea in a bid to save his career and it appears he is not bothered about the way things are going and his manager also compounds matters by sanctioning any transfer offer for the 28 year old insisting that he’ll be the next Chelsea captain and one can decode the mockery aimed at the Nigerian. 

Even after winning another premier league medal last season, he was still a peripheral figure in the team, usually called upon when there is need for a negative approach to play by his manager. Satisfied with a place on the bench, he is now a symbol of the way Nigerian Football is going and this gives a bitter taste in my mouth and also prompted me to say that it is obvious we have seen the last of a once touted gem, Mikel Obi except I’ll be proved wrong by him alone.  A week on, he also made the headlines this time not on a sporting note but a fatherly note as he welcomed a set of twins from his Russian girlfriend Olga Diyachenko. Mikel’s current form could see him play second fiddle to a player like Ukeme Davies where he to join  Akwa United.

Back to where we started, Mikel’s inclusion in the starting line-up even brought more nightmare for his team as they were walloped 3-1 by Everton and it became apparent that the young man has to consider life after Chelsea to avoid being chased by the club.  ‘ Mikel Obi is finished’ and maybe it is indeed the end of an era. Despite receiving a recall from coach Sunday Oliseh, the inevitable cannot be changed. I hope Chelsea fans don’t digest this feature a second time and before you crucify me, remember I’m a sport loving Nigerian and I wouldn’t want to see our very own blood perish.

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