John Obi Mikel has experienced highs and lows during his Nigeria career, but could be primed to scale new heights as the figurehead of this talented Super Eagles squad when they head to the World Cup in Russia this year.
Certainly, Gernot Rohr’s side will be targeting a national best for the African nation—a spot in the quarter-finals—while the talent running through his squad will surely make fans dream of Nigeria going even further this summer.
Should they go all the way—breaking new ground for the continent’s sides, and indeed any nation not from Europe or South America—Mikel will surely have to play a key role, and would be rewarded for his service to the country with the privilege of holding the trophy aloft in Moscow on July 15.
It wouldn’t be the first time that the Tianjin TEDA man has won international silverware with Nigeria.
He was, of course, a key figure in the Eagles side that conquered the continent and ended a 19-year wait for African gold with victory at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa.
Stephen Keshi had cultivated an exciting side, but they only truly came together at the tournament, with Mikel, then of Chelsea, playing a key role in midfield as the team’s metronome.
By the time the final against Burkina Faso had rolled around, Mikel’s relationship with Ogenyi Onazi was excellent, with the latter offering the energy and the legs and the former contributing poise and precision with his passing.
It’s a double act that Rohr will call upon again in Russia, where the tenacious Onazi and the efficient Wilfried Ndidi will provide the fuel for Mikel to play the kind of passes that will be counted upon to prise open some of the world’s sturdiest backlines.
He may be 30 these days, and his peak years at Chelsea are stretching further into the past, but Mikel still boasts immense creativity, and offers the kind of technical prowess to retain possession effectively and split defences with a delightfully weighted through ball.
Just ask the Tianjin Quanjian defence, as they were beaten 3-2 by rivals Tianjin TEDA on Sunday, with Mikel contributing two assists for the hosts.
It was the kind of performance that will doubtless prompt optimism in Nigerian quarters that the Eagles will hold their own against some of the tricky midfields they’re set to come up against in Russia.
Of course, while the 2013 Nations Cup and the 2016 Olympics—where Mikel guided Nigeria to bronze—were international career highlights, things haven’t always been easy for the playmaker in the green of the Super Eagles.
As well as failure to reach either the 2015 or the 2017 Nations Cups, the former FK Lyn man has also endured some World Cup hardship, and therefore has to make up for lost time on the grandest stage of all.
In 2010, at the cumulation of Mikel’s first Premier League-winning campaign, he appeared primed to play a key role for Nigeria at the World Cup—the first to be hosted in Africa.
Unfortunately, he was ruled out of the tournament due to injury, with some reports suggesting that it was a knee injury—and others an ankle problem—that had cost him the chance to make his bow at the Mundial.
He made amends—to an extent—at the 2014 event when he starred in Nigeria’s opener against Iran en route to the Eagles making the Last 16.
However, there’s still a sense that Mikel has unfinished business at the World Cup, and with the tournament in Russia likely to be his last opportunity to make an impact, he’ll be targeting a record-breaking showing with Nigeria.
Could the Super Eagles skipper be the man to hold the World Cup trophy aloft when the final rolls around on July 15th?