The story of John Obi Mikel is something of a legend in these parts. A quick recap wouldn’t hurt. In the summer of 2005, a disheveled teenager with abundance of overflowing talent was born. The FIFA Youth Championship held in the Netherlands was a “born again” experience for the young Nigerian. Possessing the skills of a man several years his senior, he became the world’s most sought after teenager after starling displays in the tournament where he won the Silver Ball – just behind on Lionel Messi lad for being the competitions’ second best player. It is important to note that Nigeria did reach the final as well.
Suddenly, there was hope. The Jay-Jay Okocha hole in the Nigerian first team was waiting to be plugged by Mikel Obi. The fact that Manchester United and Chelsea were in a heated fight to sign the Nigerian only lend credense to his growing stature. Everyone was talking of Mikel. His hairstyle became street anthem. Mikel was going to get Nigeria back to it’s glory with them tingly feet.
Fast-forward 13 years later and Mikel is the first name on the team-sheet. Not particularly shocking given where he started and the journey through 13 years. Chelsea did win his signature after an almighty scrap battle between the London club, Manchester United and Mikel’s former team Lyn. But with Lampard , Essien, Makelele and Michael Ballack in Midfield, it was a herculean task getting into the team. He was afforded scanty minutes and was – unforgivably – an understudy to Makelele. The young man struggled for an consistency and rhythm, earning cautions and red cards at the rate of a Sergio Ramos.
He eventually became much more secure in the defensive midfield position and learned the ropes really fine. He went on to have a distinguished time at Chelsea on and off the pitch; going on to win nine major trophies with the West London outfit. At the international scene -with Nigeria – he did have a moment in the sun: The African Nations Cup in 2013 was a crowing achievement in his professional career.
Now you’re waiting for the big BUT. There isn’t. Mikel has done well. He could have done better but the’s done okay. My consternation is in Nigeria trying to force a square peg into a round hole. The No 10 role behind the center-forward is a position coveted by many a creative player. There can only be one and that person isn’t John Mikel Obi. A decade of passing the ball sideways and backwards at Chelsea hasn’t prepared him to be the creative fulcrum through which the team is built around. At Chelsea, he was designed to be the ball winner not the intelligent passer. He’s not fit for purpose in the “hole”.
But there’s the problem with the current Nigerian setup – there’s simply no one to replace him. While Nigeria possess a fine array of tough tackling personnel, there is very little guile in the middle of the pitch. And we all know football games are won and lost in midfield. I’m Nigerian and i’m cautiously optimistic about our chances. Croatia have in their ranks, Kovacic, Luka Modric, Ivan Ratikic in midfield and this terrifies me. They are going to keep the ball better and conjure up moments that would create attacking danger. Nigeria doesn’t just have that. I’m not sure what Nigeria is really good at. Counter-attacking? Possession? Pressing? I’m at a loss here.
The impressive win over Argentina is consigned to the distant past with every uninspiring draw or loss ever since then. The formation change in the second half of the England friendly gives some hope to the tactical nous of Mr Gernot Rohr. However the preceding 45 minutes was a lesson in midfield wastefulness and ineptitude. It was an evidence of what everyone knew all along: This team is severely limited, and in the worst possible area.
The optimism garnered prior to the world cup has been eroded with each damaging defeat. Yes, friendlies are what they are – friendlies. However, losing game after game without asserting any sort of control in those games isn’t exactly laying a sound foundation for future competitive games. It’s a bit depressing really.
Heck, even Iceland have a midfield silky creator in Gylfi Sigurðsson. That Nigeria, with a population of near 200 million can’t produce a player of such quality is a crying shame. Perhaps, we stopped looking because: Mikel. Argentina are top heavy but have players who can do a job in Midfield. Lionel Messi drops deep and instigates attacking moves, ditto for Angel di Maria. That is besides the talent of Ever Banega and Enzo Perez. Gernot Rhor has suggested that getting maximum points of out the two games preceding the Argentine game is key to qualifying from the group. The idea isn’t flawed. The actuality of getting 6 points off Iceland and Croatia is getting steeper as the Mundial approaches.
In 2014, Nigeria had Bosnia and Herzegovina and Iran to contend with. Now the stakes are much higher with Croatia and an Iceland team that impressed in the 2016 Euros. Don’t ask for my predictions. Go ask the Psychic Pig why he thinks Nigeria will make it out of the group. I’m a little more pessimistic. The contrast between Nigeria’s midfield options and the rest is huge.
We are a deeply religious country who collectively do things at the very last minute and then proceed to pray to an imaginary deity for succor when things have gone terribly wrong. If we fail in this tournament, i’m pretty sure Mikel will be let off easy but i say Mikel is THE problem. I don’t see Nigeria landing a punch if the most creative midfield option is a player who has spent most of his career stopping creative plays and players. It’s an abberation that might bite our collective arses soon.
Till then, let us hope God listens to Nigeria and save us from ourselves. Amen.