By the end of the 2012 European season, John Obi Mikel had won everything there was to win at club level. Premier League titles, FA Cups and then, in Munich, a much-coveted UEFA Champions League crown, becoming only the third Nigerian footballer ever to claim that honour.Yet, there was something missing: the love and adoration of his nation.
Mikel came into the public consciousness at the 2015 FIFA Under-20 World Cup, a generational talent who inspired that group to the final, only to be undone by two Lionel Messi penalties. For a country coming off its most talented set of players, Mikel offered hope that the years to come would not be fallow.
However, that hope was not fulfilled, as Nigeria’s football plunged into an ever deeper darkness. With many reluctant to accept a drop-off in quality, it was easier to blame a lack of commitment, and Mikel was roped into that impression.
It did not help that the Chelsea man’s disposition – quiet and introverted – so starkly clashed with that of the average Nigerian, who is convivial and outgoing. So, a desire for privacy was, for a long time, conflated with apathy. Mikel’s reluctance to play on artificial surfaces, citing doctor’s orders on back and knee problems back in 2011, as well as a widely reported incident involving a camp deadline, further fuelled this notion.
However, since 2012, the Super Eagles captain has spent the second half of his career stringently refuting all such perceptions of him, and now stands very much in credit with fans of the national team. It has taken tremendous self-sacrifice, an alteration in his personality and mien, and a measure of success in green and white, but there is no more loved Nigerian footballer today.
First came the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in 2013, an unlikely triumph with an inexperienced team led by the late Stephen Keshi and calmly marshalled by the passing and vision of Mikel, playing a properly disciplined role in front of the defence for arguably the first time in his nation team career.
Then, a first World Cup appearance in 2014, after injury had ruled him out four years earlier. A Round of 16 …read more
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