Mikel John Obi’s list of professional honours reads like something we all responded with when we were asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” when we were in primary school: A Premier League champion, a UEFA Champions League winner, a four-time FA Cup winner and a CAF Africa Cup of Nations champion. However, the list is not complete yet.
At Rio 2016, Mikel is embarking on an entirely different challenge: to lead Nigeria’s ‘Dream Team VI’ to its second Olympic Men’s Football Tournament gold medal. And as he told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview, the quality of the Rio 2016 tournament has been “amazing” and akin to the Champions League.
Ahead of Nigeria’s semi-final clash with Germany, Mikel talks about their successful campaign so far, his leadership on the team and writing a new chapter in Nigeria’s history in the tournament.
FIFA.com: Congratulations on making the semi-finals. In your opinion, why has this team worked so well?
Mikel John Obi: Sheer determination, effort, togetherness and unity in the team. It’s been absolutely amazing. Also the team is built to play offensive football and to express ourselves and make sure we create chances and score goals. I think it’s hunger and willingness to help each other on the pitch, to run for each other. We know exactly what to do when we play. I think that’s very important and that’s exactly what’s got us here.
How have you found the Olympic experience so far, compared with the many experiences in your career?
It’s been absolutely amazing. It’s been an experience that has reminded me of when I started playing with the U-17s and U-20s. I’ve enjoyed my time here and the experience has been very good. Playing with these guys, they’re great players. The energy, power and pace they bring to the game is just different. I’m very happy to be in this team and to be a part of this great experience.
In terms of your position on the pitch, you’re taking up a more attacking midfield role than you’ve been accustomed to at club level. Are you enjoying that role?
I grew up playing in a more offensive position, but what’s happened has happened. I’ve been playing holding midfield for 11 years now. But every time I come back to the national team, I play more offensively. I always try and make sure I make the team play and create chances. I enjoy it. It’s great to play in that position again.
It’s surprised me a lot. The quality is amazing. It’s like playing in the Champions League. One mistake and it’s a goal, trust me.
What have you enjoyed most about being a captain? What are you passing on to these young players?
Experience. I’m giving them a bit more knowledge that they’ll need in these kinds of games, because these have been high quality games. These guys look up a lot to me a lot, so I have to lead by example. I try to make sure I run as much as I can, so they will see that and run as much as they can! You have to lead by example. As long as I keep doing that and as long as we keep winning, for me the team is important. Individual performances are good, but as long as the team is playing well and winning, I’m very happy with that.
Has the quality of the games surprised you?
It’s surprised me a lot. The quality is amazing. It’s like playing in the Champions League. One mistake and it’s a goal, trust me. It’s been like that. Our defence has been solid, so let’s hope we keep going that way. The less we concede, I think we can create chances and hurt teams. We’ve shown that in this tournament. If we don’t concede, I’m sure we can score goals.
What would it mean to you to play for the gold medal at the Maracana?
One step at a time (laughs). To be honest, I haven’t thought about it yet. I don’t see past Wednesday. The Germans are a very good side, so we have to make sure we do our job. With this team, we don’t concentrate much on what the other teams do. We concentrate more on what we can give and offer on that day. The game before is gone. It’s about what we can produce at that time and in those 90 minutes or however long we’re going to play for. We always try to concentrate on that, and I think we’ve done that so far, so I don’t think we’re going to change.
You’ve won the UEFA Champions Leagues, two Premier Leagues, four FA Cups and the Africa Cup of Nations. What would an Olympic gold medal mean to you and to Nigeria?
It’s going to mean a lot. It’s going to mean the world to me. It’s going to be the icing on the cake. As much as anyone, I want to win. This is what it means to me no matter what I’ve won. I think winning with this team is going to be amazing. I’m hoping and praying for that.