Almost 135 kilometres from Jos along a winding road of Pankshin stands a tenement building otherwise known as face-me-I-face-you that overlooks the Jos Township Stadium.
Pa Obi, Mikel John Obi’s father, occupied two rooms and a shop where his late wife ran a pepper soup joint.
It was there that a star was born and raised, one the world would celebrate as one of Nigeria’s most talented football players.
John Michael Nchekwube Obi has been interested in football for as long as he can remember.
Despite family and friends’ suggestions that he would excel in banking and other white-collar jobs. Mikel never imagined doing anything other than playing football, unlike his former Chelsea teammate Didier Drogba, who aspired to be a doctor.
That thought was not a mistake as, after two decades, he matured into one of Africa’s most iconic football players.
In Jos, the promise was clear from the beginning. After being identified at the Pepsi Academy as a 13-year-old, Michael John Obi (not John Obi Mikel) joined the Plateau United squad.
According to Andrew Randa, he first encountered Mikel as a 14-year-old adolescent at the Police Field next to the Prisons in Jos.
Scrawny and of a slender stature, Coach Augustine Eguavoen promptly selected him for the U-17 team that would later represent Africa in Finland in 2003 due to his skill and unflappable ball handling.
It only takes one look into his eyes to realise that he is not a naturally effusive person. Introverted and introspective, Mikel is not one for many words. An example is his retirement message, which consisted of 186 words for a glorious 20-year career that many of his ilk would kill to have.
Mikel keeps track of his words. The 35-year-old is a unique personality who combines hard work with versatility and common sense. On the field, he never ran out of ideas; rather, he takes the time to interprete them with his feet with absolute confidence, making opponents turn their heads with glee.
Many had predicted the end was near, and he confirmed his decision to call it quits earlier in the week after playing his final club football for Kuwait SC in a one-year deal.
Name Change and Finland exposure
Mikel was already playing for Plateau United of Jos as a schoolboy after Coach Ndubuisi Nduka signed him from the Pepsi Academy.
Many fans thought Coach Nduka had gone insane, bringing in a raw rookie at such a critical juncture was a risk too far.
However, his five-star performance against Nigeria’s U-17 team piqued the interest of Nigerian coaches, especially Coach Austin Eguavoen, who provided him with a platform to showcase his talents, and he never looked back.
Someone at the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) then accidentally altered his name from Michael John Nchekwube Obinna to Mikel John Obi during the registration process.
He found out right before the U-17 World Cup, but in several interviews, Mikel said he chose to stick with the “error” because he loved the way it sounded.
In 2016, he formally changed his name from John Obi Mikel to Mikel John Obi.
In the three games the Golden Eaglets played, he did not uproot any trees, but he gave hints about what was to come.
After the underwhelming performance in Finland, Mikel underwent several trials before signing a schoolboy contract with Lyn Oslo in Norway.
His fame was further burnished by the contract dispute between Lyn, Manchester United, Chelsea, and his agents.
Despite playing in a side lacking depth and cohesion, his abilities stood out, as did his determination to make his inclusion in the Golden Eaglets count.
“If I can be totally honest with you, in that tournament in Finland, after my first game, I had three teams asking me to sign a contract,” Mikel told PREMIUM TIMES in an interview earlier this year.
“Late NFF Secretary Taiwo Ogunjobi was the one looking after me then. He saw the problem, and he said no because they reported to him they were chasing this boy. Ogunjobi shielded me. He knew what the agents wanted to do. I knew after my first game that I would get something. After that, the rest is history,” he added.
Manchester United get on his case
Despite Nigeria’s poor showing at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, he was picked up by Manchester United, where he underwent two month-long trials with Roy Keane acting as his “bodyguard,” and was then sent to Ajax Cape Town in South Africa.
Then Chelsea appeared out of nowhere, claiming they had paid his way to Ajax Cape Town. Thus, he got caught between two of the world’s most powerful football clubs, with FIFA intervening as lawyers argued their respective cases.
The 2005 blowout in the Netherlands
Before the transfer wrangle played out, there was the small matter of representing Nigeria in the Netherlands. This was after he was supposed to have been kidnapped from Lyn by agents working for Chelsea.
Fortunately, he put all the hoopla behind him as Samson Siasia put him straight into the team, which had some members of the U-17 team that crashed out in the first round at the 2003 U17 World Cup.
But Mikel outperformed everyone else—aside from a certain Lionel Messi—head and shoulders, so all the hype and buzz was deserved.
In 2005, the teenage Nigerian midfielder captured the attention of the entire globe when Nigeria finished second to a Messi-inspired Argentina.
After the 2-1 loss in the final, the FIFA technical committee selected Mikel as the tournament’s runner-up. Messi outperformed Mikel, but the Argentinean scored both of Argentina’s goals, earning him the tournament’s top player honours.
After the tournament United unveiled him, but he later signed a deal with Chelsea for about £16 million in 2006. At that point, that was a great deal to shell out for a teenager.
Samson Siasia, who worked with Mikel on numerous occasions throughout his career—at the U-20, U-23, and senior levels—always gushes over his ball-handling skills. High praise coming from a player whose career ball handling was virtually unmatched. Frank Lampard, a teammate at Chelsea, agreed.
And he had this quality from the start, whether the manager deployed him as a supporting striker or the central striker.
Coaches wanted him in positions where he could direct play because of his ability to protect the ball while under pressure and control it. He changed from being a No. 8 and 9 to a No. 10 and to a deep-lying No. 4 in that manner at Chelsea where he won many titles.
Mikel explained why he had to make a positional change at club level to Pulse Sports in June. “Obviously, I was such a creative midfield player, I was so creative. I was so gifted with the ball, I never lost the ball, and that’s why I played in the number ten role,” Mikel revealed to Pulse Sports earlier in June.
“I was this guy who made everything happen. And then going to Chelsea, obviously with those big-name players, massive players, you have to kind of give something.
“And then, he [Jose Mourinho] looked at it and said, I can’t really get you to play it [No.10] because we have the likes of Joe Cole playing there.
“We have massive names playing there, you’ll have to change something, and we had a chat about it. And I thought it was a positive chat, and after that, he said, I see you playing there,” Mikel added.
That change made a great difference for Mikel at Chelsea and he made his league debut for the Blues against Manchester City on 20 August 2006. The then 19-year-old came on for Didier Drogba in the 83rd minute as Chelsea ran out 3-0 winners.
He is Chelsea’s third most-capped foreign player, trailing only Didier Drogba and Petr Cech. Mikel played 249 games for Chelsea between 2006 and 2016. In January 2017, he joined the Chinese club Tianjin TEDA, where he stayed until 2018 when he returned to England to join Championship club Middlesbrough.
His global wandering feet led him to Trabzonspor in Turkey, where he nearly won the league title in 2020. He terminated his contract with the Turkish club in 2020 due to COVID issues before joining Kuwait SC. He moved back to England to join Stoke City, in the Championship where he cancelled his contract to move to Kuwait. On November 4, 2021, there was a mutual termination with Kuwait SC. Mikel announced his retirement from the game on September 27, 2022.
According to the Premier League stats, Mikel boasts a 59% win stat with the Blues, for whom he scored just one league goal, against Fulham on 21 September 2013.
Clout on the international stage
By the end of the 2005 U-20 World Cup, it was evident that Mikel was fast becoming a finished product set to take the Super Eagles by storm. His debut against Libya on 17 August 2005 was to test the water, but he proved he is a playmaker with a vision to spot a pass and the technique to deliver it.
Perhaps one thing Austin Eguavoen got right in his entire coaching career was throwing Mikel into the fray against Zimbabwe in the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations Cup in Egypt. This is because it was the tournament that introduced Mikel as Austin Okocha’s heir. It was a gamble that paid off for Nigeria.
His international career yielded a lot, but the crown jewel must be the 2013 African Cup of Nations in South Africa, where he played with a heart of a warrior to ensure Nigeria won her third AFCON trophy. Two World Cups appearances, in which he captained his country at the 2018 edition, an Olympic bronze medal, and 91 caps and six goals are testaments to a glorious international career, which ended after another bronze medal at the 2019 AFCON.
With a club career that took him to England to play for Chelsea, China with Tianjin TEDA, back to England with Middlesbrough, Turkey with Trabzonspor, back to England with Stoke City, and finally to Kuwait with Kuwait SC, Mikel proved over time that talent alone is not always enough to make the grade in football; more often than not, footballers need discipline, hard work and will to succeed to cut.
His international record is a 45% win rate, 25% ended in defeats and 30% were draws during his 14-year stint with the Super Eagles.
There is no distinguished career without a shard of controversy and Mikel courted controversy, at least in the earlier portions of his career.
Three memorable controversies
The 2005 transfer saga between Mikel’s then-Norwegian club, Lyn, Manchester United, and English rival Chelsea was one of the most controversial issues surrounding his career.
After briefly joining Lyn in 2005, Manchester United announced a four-year deal for Mikel, who had just turned 18 at the time of the announcement on April 27th. The transfer story raised eyebrows because his agent, John Shittu, was kept in the dark about the £4 million deal, with United expecting him to join in January 2006.
However, Chelsea’s counterclaims about the midfielder turned Mikel’s transfer into a drama that captivated the world’s attention.
It could have harmed Mikel’s career as a youngster making his first big move in the football world, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
He was well-known prior to his arrival in the English Premier League, which added pressure and scrutiny to perform from the start.
According to United’s version of events, they met with Mikel for his signature after boycotting his agent.
Eventually, Mikel, who is 18 years old, revealed that he signed those documents during a press conference in which he had to put on United’s jersey under duress.
The situation worsened when he went missing 12 days later during a Norwegian Cup match between Lyn and Klemetsrud. He was said to have travelled to London with his agent, John Shittu. Mikel’s next appearance in public was at the 2005 U-20 World Cup in the Netherlands.
Mikel did not return to his club, Lyn, despite his outstanding performance at the U-20 level. As a result, the club filed a complaint with FIFA for breach of contract.
Mikel was ordered by FIFA to complete his contract with Lyn, which he did after going missing for three months. Chelsea then offered to pay both Lyn and United, and he joined the Blues on July 19, 2006.
A fall-out with Sunday Oliseh
Mikel had a falling out with ex-international Sunday Oliseh, who was the Super Eagles Team’s coach between 2015 and 2016. He was benched for Paul Onobi, which caused friction between the former captain and Oliseh at the time. According to reports, Oliseh benched Mikel due to his “antics.”
“When I coached the Super Eagles, I invited the man. There were lots of controversies. When you’re someone that’s principled, instead of saying that’s your decision, they linked it to controversies.”
“I invited him to play for the Super Eagles.” He refused to participate. ‘OK, we’ll find another option,’ I said. Mikel also had issues with Samson Siasia and was briefly banned by the NFF, but was reinstated after making a public apology.
An altercation with EPL referee Mark Clattenburg
After claims that Mikel’s Chelsea teammate, Ramires, heard Clattenburg say, “shut up you Monkey” to Mikel in a 3-2 defeat to Manchester United in October 2012, Mikel almost beat the referee in March 2021 when he stormed Clattenburg’s dressing room at Stamford Bridge.
In an interview with The Athletic, Mikel revealed he believed Ramires, though was later charged with misconduct and fined £60,000.
He said, “It was crazy in the tunnel. I don’t think anyone at the club had seen me like that before. I had lots of people trying to hold me back… the players, the club. Everyone came out. It was a case of, “try and stop me”. I wanted to break down that door to the referee’s room and ask him questions. I was livid.”
PREMIUM TIMES did a shortlist of five matches we felt were the best games of Mikel Obi either in the Super Eagles jersey or at the club level.
5 memorable Mikel performances
1). 2012 UCL Final: Bayern Munich -1 [3-4 on penalties] Chelsea
This was more than a game for both sides as the final was played. For Bayern Munich, they wanted to win the title on their home soil while Chelsea chased a first-ever UCL triumph.
All odds were against the London team, shorn of John Terry and lined up with two half-fit centre backs-David Luiz and Gary Cahill. Mikel was a class above anyone that night, and his sheer effort and determination helped Chelsea gazump Bayern and win their maiden Champions League title after a hard-fought 1-1 draw led to a penalty shootout after 120 minutes. Many also remember him for telling Petr Cech the direction to dive to save Arjen Robben’s penalty kick in extra time.
2). 2005 U-20 World Cup: Argentina 2-1 Nigeria
It was in this game the world finally saw the fuss of the wrangle between Manchester United and Chelsea. Though Lionel Messi was the name on many lips after the game because of his two goals, which came from two penalties; it was Mikel’s composure on the ball, his confident strides through midfield and the three goal-scoring chances he created that stood out. For many, he was both man of the match and the man of the tournament.
3). 2018 World Cup Qualifier: Nigeria 4-0 Cameroon
Another sterling performance from Mikel was during the 2018 World Cup qualifier where Nigeria defeated Cameroon 4-0 to earn a place at the Russia 2018 World Cup. Aside from scoring in the game, Mikel was the conductor as the Eagles ran out as comfortable winners.
4). 2013 Confederation Cup: Nigeria 0-3 Spain
He had to play against the likes of Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, and Xavi in the midfield during Nigeria’s 3-0 defeat to Spain. Although it wasn’t a good campaign for Nigeria, Mikel once again proved his world-class nature against the 2010 World champions.
5). AFCON 2013: Nigeria 2-1 Ivory Coast
Mikel was excellent during Nigeria’s quarter-final clash against Ivory Coast in 2013. Despite many pundits’ prediction that Yaya Toure and company would swamp the Eagles, especially in midfield, Mikel stood as a colossus, both defensively and offensively. Many will not forget his last-ditch tackle on Yaya Toure late in the match as the Elephants sought an equaliser to Sunday Mba’s winner.
The next step for Mikel
If we had a strategic NFF, Mikel should be drafted straight into football management because his experience is one that many Nigerian child’s dream-discovery at an early stage, exposure to the world, and capture by one of the world’s great teams to create a world-class player.
As Mikel penned his emotional farewell note to his teeming fans, he can look back at his career and admit that banking’s loss was definitely football’s gain. He said it’s not goodbye because there are so many opportunities for this always-smiling icon.
Armed with a reputable football academy ground in Lagos, perhaps it’s also time to give back to society by helping kids realise their dreams after he once said he would go into other sports too aside from football. Besides, don’t be surprised to see politicians rushing to cash on his availability as Nigeria goes to the polls in 2023.
We will not call this a curtain fall but the end of a chapter on the illustrious playing career of one of Nigeria’s most decorated players. Mikel was one of a kind and it may take Nigeria and the world another generation to find a replacement for this midfielder whose talent was honed on the parched wastelands of Pankshin, Jos.
One thing is sure, he will choose his next steps wisely. As Didier Drogba said,” hard work will always surpass talents”. Mikel, welcome to the next chapter of your life!
Made 290 starts in 362 club matches
Played 7,366 minutes for the Super Eagles
76 Yellow Cards
3 Red Cards