One of the great hopes of Nigerian football, John Obi Mikel has had a long and eventful career and he has only just turned 23 years old. Famous for the transfer war that erupted over him between Chelsea and Manchester United when he was still just a teenager, the midfielder has consistently grown into the hype for both Chelsea and his national team. A powerful but composed player, Mikel is capable of disrupting an opposition’s attacks through sheer athleticism and physicality. His tough tackling and persistent closing down make him a dynamic force to build around in the middle of the park, as his regular presence in the Chelsea line-up attests.
For Nigeria, who are still looking for a full-time replacement for the long-retired creative midfielder Jay Jay Okacha, Mikel tends to push forward more. And as he has matured for both club and country, he has shown greater comfort running with the ball, pulling strings and even getting into the opponent’s area. Most agree that if Nigeria are to go far at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Mikel will have to be in top-drawer form.
Mikel made his senior national team debut in the summer of 2005, just weeks after helping Nigeria to the final match of the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup in the Netherlands. Then 18 years old, his performances were so mature and impressive that he won the Silver Ball as the second-best player at the tournament, beat out only by Argentina phenom Lionel Messi. He was part of the team at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 2006 that finished third, scoring his first international goal against Zimbabwe and claiming his debut national team start against Senegal.
His emergence at that time was marked by CAF, who named Mikel as the 2005 and 2006 African Young Player of the Year, and he became a regular fixture in Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea teams. He continued to settle in at Stamford Bridge, where he was seen as an heir apparent to French legend Claude Makelele and served as cover for Ghana great Michael Essien. Mikel showed off all of his quality in the 2007 FA Cup final against Manchester United as he bossed the midfield and played all 120 minutes in the 1-0 victory.
After the bright spot of the 2005 U-20s, Mikel’s time with Nigeria has often been up and down. He had a falling out with coach Berti Vogts, failed to turn up at Olympic qualifying and was banned by the Nigeria Federation. And despite scoring a vital goal that got Nigeria out of the group stage at the 2008 Cup of Nations, his performance was considered disappointing as the Super Eagles went out in the quarter-finals to hosts Ghana.
At the 2010 continental finals, the feeling was that he still had not played up to his talent level with the national team, who were fortunate to finish third in Angola. He did show more willingness to get forward and take on some of the team leadership, which was later rewarded by new coach Lars Lagerback, who made Mikel the team’s captain before the finals.