John Obi Mikel is flying under the radar in African Cup of Nations
The lament for a great creative inside-forward has been a defining one among fans in Africa’s most populated country for close on a decade. The more time passes since Jay-Jay Okocha, an entertainer and a crowd favourite in the 1990s and noughties, retired, the louder the lament.
The respected former Nigeria striker of the late 1970s and early 80s, Segun Odegbami, now a prominent pundit, ushered the Super Eagles into the 29th African Cup of Nations, where a place in the quarter-finals will only be guaranteed if they beat Ethiopia tonight, with the familiar, solemn verdict: “There is no truly outstanding star in the team in the mould of a Kanu, an Okocha or a [Sunday Oliseh].”Perhaps there should be. The current bearer of Nigeria’s No 10 shirt is a European club champion, part of the Chelsea team who won the title last May. Yet John Obi Mikel stirs among Nigerians only lukewarm admiration. Last year, in an internet poll among Nigerians to elect the 50 finest Super Eagles of the half-century of the nation’s independence, Mikel, holder of more than 40 caps, ranked 46th.
His reputation seems to suffer partly because of association, the fact his senior international career has coincided with a Super Eagles slump. Failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup finals can hardly be blamed on him, as he was a young teenager when the damage was being done. But once Nigeria failed to even reach the 2012 Nations Cup, scapegoats were needed, Mikel prominent among them.
The burdens of expectation on him had been set high, from the moment he starred for Nigeria’s Under 20s at the 2005 World Youth Cup, winning a team silver medal behind the Argentina of Lionel Messi.
Mikel can also seem a tactical conundrum. As a teenager he was an attacking midfielder, who enchanted their scouts with his skill, composure and menace from areas close to the opposition penalty area. That was the Mikel Nigeria eagerly imagined fitting himself out for Okocha’s No 10 jersey.
But the evolution of Mikel, the garlanded player in the Premier League and Uefa Champions League, has been a story of tactical and positional retreat. He has spent most of Chelsea career nearer the base of midfield, more anchor than attacking assassin.
The Mikel glimpsed so far in South Africa is no Okocha, but in his central midfield role, he has contributed significantly to the two draws – against Burkina Faso and Zambia – so far achieved by the Super Eagles. His long, measured pass set up the goal that gave Nigeria the lead against the Burkinabe. Another astute through-ball led to Nigeria’s goal against the defending champions, Zambia.
These are important details, evidence Mikel has interpreted wisely the counter-attacking aspect of Nigeria’s head coach Stephen Keshi’s strategy, a vital device in a team that seeks to exploit its pace and strength in attack.
Alas, for Mikel, the detail that will resonate more noisily, should the Super Eagles fail to get the result they need tonight, is that he missed a penalty against Zambia. Keshi publicly forgave him. Several million compatriots will not.