Written by Alessandro Sant’Albano in 2013
Centre Midfield, #10, 26 Years Old
Edited by Ethan Dunn in 2015
In spite of Nigeria’s victory in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, the national selection was quickly dismissed as second rate to its African neighbors Ghana and the Ivory Coast upon its qualification into the 2014 World Cup. In the months leading up to the world’s biggest sports contest, Nigerian fans watched its team age as more and more captain Joseph Yobo took to the bench and goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama was left to clean up the messes of a dodgy defense. The timing was ripe for John Mikel Obi, Nigeria’s breakout-star-turned-disappointment, to continue his road to redemption and lead his nation’s team in Brazil.
Mikel burst onto the international football scene in a 2003 under-17 World Cup qualifying match between Nigeria and South Africa. Everyone had been left awestruck by Mikel’s fluid play and soon after he landed himself a spot on the Chelsea FC roster as well as one next to Lionel Messi as runner-up in the FIFA Ballon d’Or vote following his equally as impressive performance in the 2005 under-20 World Cup. The young star quickly garnered comparisons to his football elders, having been deemed the “next Jay-Jay Okocha.” 
Unfortunately for John Mikel Obi, however, the Nigerian’s tenure at Chelsea came off as less than remarkable and football fans were less than impressed. At times his game, unlike that which he had shown off on the international stage, had some writing him off as “stodgy and unimaginative.” Other times his attitude, demonstrated by his tardiness to international call-ups and absence at friendly exhibitions, alienated himself from a number of fans. 
By 2013, many had given up hope on the 26-year old actually emerging as the next Jay-Jay Okocha: the fluid playmaker capable of anything and everything, the next superstar to play in the British Premier League. Yet, at the Africa Cup of Nations, Mikel’s true colours and long-forgotten flashes of brilliance shown through. While he is used to being the “Clean up crew” at Stamford Bridge, for Nigeria he was dominant in the midfield driving his team forward with his regal dashes and superior vision. 
Come June 2014, Mikel found himself at a crossroads. Though the aging footballer had the 2012 Champion’s League triumph and the 2013 AfCoN in his back pocket, he also realized his time left on the pitch was limited and he still wanted more. The Blue Lion player was easily the most experienced of the Super Eagles coming into the competition – being the oldest midfielder in the qualifiers and second only to the veteran shot-stopper, Vincent Enyeama, in terms of international appearances. Stephen Keshi, the manager of Nigeria’s national team, lined Mikel up to be outfield leader of the team. From the start of the year, Mikel himself knew the year would be his “judgement day for club and for country, with the Cup as its defining moment.
While Mikel was no longer the player he once could have been, many critics forgot the selflessness Mikel has taken on for his role at Chelsea. Mikel has undergone a massive change in his playing style since the U17 championships. While he scored 2 goals in his first season at the club (Both came in FA cup games) and contributed significant assists, Jose Mourinho began to see another side of the Nigerian wonderkid in 2006. While Mikel was trained to tuck in behind the front two as an attacking midfielder, he showed glimpses of potential for a defensive midfielder when he replaced Claude Makélelé in the later half of the season. Mikel was strong on the ball and had a great awareness of the movement surrounding the field, giving him the supernatural ability to break down plays, intercept passes and create a phenomenal passage of play. Mikel’s distinctive resemblance to the deep lying playmaker role like Makélelé would see Chelsea fill the void of one of the greatest defensive midfielders in his generation. This would fill a position key to Mourinho’s success for years to come.
John Obi Mikel: the unsung hero every team must have:
Unfortunately, Mourinho left the club, before he could truly develop the teenage sensation. While many new managers continued to play Mikel as a holding midfielder, no one was as good at developing talent as the “Special One”. After the firing of Andre Villas Boas, Chelsea and a disastrous champions league group stage, Robert Di Matteo managed to scrape through to the round of 16. Under Di Matteo, Mikel was viewed as the answer for all problems. The manager’s faith paid off as a revitalized Mikel pulled off some of the best performances of his life against the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich on their road to winning the Champions league.
In the crucial second leg of the Barcelona fixture, on the back of pulling off a shocking 1st leg win, Mikel single handedly tore apart the Barcelona midfield, leaving the likes of Sergio Busquests and Xavi to lick their wounds. For 90 minutes, the Nigerian demonstrated resistance, energy, fight and pace that had rarely been seen his game. In defence, Mikel did not allow the free flowing Xavi a breath of fresh air, constraining from any of his usual world class passing. Moreover, the Nigerian tirelessly placed the ball on a palate for midfielders like Ramires and Lampard before completely shutting down his former neighbor on the Ballon d’Or poll, Lionel Messi, denying the Argentinian tendencies to play as a false nine.
Mikel was not alone in leading the Nigerian national team, of course. The Super Eagles’ goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama, held the second longest record for time spent in the net without conceding a goal – 1,062 minutes – falling short to only that of Bordeaux’s Gaetan Huard (1176 minutes in 1992-93). Additionally, with the constant development of Nigerian forwards Victor Moses and Emmanuel Emenike, Nigeria had reason to be optimistic heading into the tournament. Moses was the outstanding forward at the Cup of Nations, where he repeatedly rose to the big occasion while Emenike’s 5 goals in qualifying allowed the Super Eagles to pack their bags for Rio. Mikel’s sheer class and leadership rounded out the package of the Nigerian national team as they entered the Cup’s group stages.
Emmanuel Emenike, a goalscorer nicknamed “the hurry boy”:
Though brief, Mikel and Nigeria’s run in the 2014 Brazil World Cup was nonetheless impressive. As expected, Mikel did prove to be an effective team leader, earning the title “Man of the Match” in the Super Eagle’s opening match against Iran and ushering Nigeria into the knockout stage for the first time since the 1998 World Cup. Since his FIFA World Cup debut, Mikel has since returned to Stamford Bridge and his Blues resuming his post of football everyman. While news just came out that the midfielder will be out until April after having undergone knee surgery, the Nigerian success story is sure to continue once Mikel has returned to the pitch.
Back at the Bridge: Mikel Goal against Derby County
How to cite this article: “Nigeria: John Obi Mikel” Written by Alessandro Sant Albano (2013), World Cup 2014, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp (accessed on (date)).
 Gallo Images/ Getty Images, http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1524167-why-john-obi-mikel-should-have-been-named-afcon-mvp
 Udoh, Colin. “World Cup 2014: John Obi Mikel, Nigeria Has Loved Him, Hated Him, Now They Love Him Again.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 14 Jan. 2014. Web.
 Mikel’s legacy rest on qualifying for World Cup, Ed Dove, 2013, http://www.goal.com/en-gh/news/4375/editorials/2013/11/15/4408877/mikels-legacy-rests-on-qualifying-for-the-2014-world-cup
 The Curious Case of John Obi Mikel, 2013, Backpage Football, Win Soon http://backpagefootball.com/the-curious-case-of-john-obi-mikel/59804
 Courtesy of WikiCommons: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/32/John_Obi_Mikel_02_Chelsea_vs_AS-Roma_10AUG2013.jpg
Europe’s best defence: Enyeama, Kjaer, and Basa leading Lille to the Champions League, December 2013, Robin Bairner, goal.com: http://www.goal.com/en/news/1717/editorial/2013/12/03/4449843/europes-best-defence-enyeama-kjaer-basa-leading-lille-to-the?ICID=HP_FT_1