For about forty minutes during the first half of the Nigeria vs Uruguay match at the 2013 FIFA Confederations cup, the clock was rolled back, the spell was lifted – albeit short lived – and Mikel John Obi, the former teen prodigy, ‘fought’ over by the greats of modern football, Chelsea and Manchester United, displayed the panache and skills we first knew him with, capping it with a well taken goal resplendent of Kanu Nwankwo’s ‘golden goal’ against Brazil at the Olympics in Atlanta. At half time we poured encomiums on Mikel, but alas, in the second half he reverted to type – defensive minded, non exuberant cautious play, which Mourinho, that self-declared Special One, turned him into.
Mikel Obi, as a teenager, was highly endowed with inventiveness and composure on the pitch. His football was far ahead of his mates, and at barely 16 years old he was playing in the Plateau United first Team. The best player to emerge from Nigeria since Jay- Jay, he was hailed as Okocha’s successor – the attack minded, creative midfielder, with flair, and vision for the game changing pass. And he lived up to the hype, single-handedly inspiring Nigeria to a second place finish at the 2005 FIFA U-21 World Youth Championships, behind Argentina and Messi (the greatest footballer of all time). He was on the path to becoming a legend of the game and to redefine the Super Eagles, until Chelsea crashed the party, paid off Manchester United and Lyn Oslo FC, and turned our budding maestro into a master ‘water carrier.’
Kudos to Mikel he was a good student, and to the detriment of Nigeria he mastered the skills of defensive midfield, literarily wearing the shoes of Claude Makalele (the best modern day defensive midfielder). At the Champions’ League final in Munich, where Chelsea defeated Bayern on home pitch to lift the cup, Jamie Redknapp, the Skysports pundit, described Mikel’s game thus: “a performance that I didn’t think he had in him; he was putting out fires everywhere.”
And therein lies my grouse. I want Mikel to be on fire when he plays for the Super Eagles not putting out flames. Against Uruguay, he sparked a bit – the first time post Chelsea – and the difference was clear. But old habits die hard and in the second half he lapsed back to old ways. Chelsea blunting Mikel’s attacking instincts has impacted negatively on Nigeria’s national team. At the African Nation’s cup, the Eagles triumphed through graft and Sunday Mba’s ‘Vieiraesque’ performance. At the level of the Europeans and South Americans, we need more than graft. We need flair, guile and vision. We need a proper number 10 or as the Brazilians say ‘Numero dez.’ We need Mikel Obi to actualise his promise.
As I pen this piece Jose Mourinho has returned to Chelsea. The architect of Mikel’s conversion from attacker to defender, and a proponent of ‘containment’ football and ‘parking the bus,’ his comeback will certainly not favour the young man nor the Super Eagles. So I say, Galatasaray where are you?