The Chelsea man has been shortlisted for BBC African Player of the Year, but success against the Walia Antelopes would represent a more significant achievement
By Ed Dove
While the focus on John Obi Mikel this week has centred upon the midfielder’s nomination for the BBC African Player of the Year, the Chelsea man ought to be concentrated on the weekend’s clash with Ethiopia.
Mikel’s place on the shortlist for the award, where he stands alongside Yaya Toure, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, Jonathan Pitroipa, and his compatriot, Victor Moses, is just desserts for a year in which he has finally delivered on the promise that has long been associated with his name. Ever since exploding onto the scene at the U-17 World Cup in 2003, Nigerians have been waiting for Mikel to finally realise his potential.
I think that the majority of us had given up hope that he would ever blossom into the new Jay-Jay Okocha, a fluid playmaker capable of anything and everything, however, we were almost all still praying that he could emerge as more than the stodgy defensive midfielder to whom regular Premier League viewers had become accustomed.
It was at the Cup of Nations earlier this year that Mikel finally began to take matches in his stride, to dominate the midfield and to drive the team forward with his majestic touches and imperious vision. I have written extensively about the value of the emergence of Ogenyi Onazi, and the Lazio midfielder’s accomplished defensive work, as well as his remarkable maturity, which have allowed Mikel to concentrate more upon the creative side of the game.
Afcon 2013: The Turning Point
At the Cup of Nations, the Chelsea man was Man of the Match in both fixtures against Burkina Faso, and provided four assists, including three in the knockout stages.
With his club side Chelsea, however, 2013 has been mixed.
The Blues won the Europa League, although Mikel only featured sporadically in the latter stages and did not make an appearance in the final. The return of Jose Mourinho this summer initially seemed to spell the end of Mikel’s stay in West London, and he was linked with a move away.
Instead, he remained at Stamford Bridge, but has struggled to assert himself amidst the Pensioners’ massed ranks of midfield talent. He has started only three Premier League games this summer, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise were he to leave West London in January or next summer.
Now 26, Mikel’s reputation stands at a crossroads.
The BBC recognition acknowledges a fine tournament with Nigeria, his bucketload of honours achieved with the Blues, and a final realisation of his potential with the Super Eagles, however, while no one will ever be able to take that African championship away from him, Mikel must ensure that the Champions League triumph of 2012 and the 2013 Afcon do not represent the zenith of his career.
If that ambition is to be realised, then the first step must be taken against Ethiopia on Saturday. The Super Eagles have a comfortable advantage heading into the game, considering their 2-1 win in Addis Ababa back in the middle of October, but would be foolish to already assume that their task is complete.
Nigeria: Not there Yet
For Mikel, a spot at next summer’s centrepiece would be particularly important for two reasons.
First of all, the memory of 2010 will certainly still bite hard. The midfielder was part of the Nigerian side that qualified for the World Cup, the first on African soil, but never actually participated in the tournament proper.
The reason was a knee injury, with the midfielder fearing that he hadn’t yet recovered sufficiently to contribute to the Nigerian effort. James Daley, reporting for Goal Nigeria, suggested that Mikel opted not to go to South Africa in order to protect his knee and not risk his ‘long term’ career.
Three years on, this is Mikel’s long term career, this is the moment that he needs to make his mark on the international arena.
At Brazil 2014 he will be 27, in his prime; his legacy would suffer were he to once again miss out on the globe’s grandest sporting occasion. Certainly don’t expect repeat recognition from the BBC in 12 months’ time, if Nigeria slip up or if injury steps in.
Finally, in the context of this current Nigerian cycle, and the relative stability we are enjoying under the stewardship of Stephen Keshi, it is imperative that Mikel accompanies his troops to Brazil.
The Chelsea man is by far the most decorated member of the current squad. He is second only to Vincent Enyeama in terms of international appearances, and, at 26, is the oldest of the outfield regulars. In the absence of Joseph Yobo, still nominal captain, but cast out by Keshi since the Cup of Nations, Mikel is a vital mouthpiece for the boss and a hugely influential figure in the middle of the park.
Failure to secure the required result against Ethiopia in Calabar would naturally have disastrous consequences for Keshi and his hugely promising regime. Should these nascent Super Eagles superstars find themselves at Brazil next summer without Mikel, for whatever reason, then they risk being as a ship without a rudder.
Technically, philosophically and emotionally, it is imperative for the immediate future of the nation’s football that Keshi’s Super Eagle elect arrive at Brazil intact. Mikel’s presence will doubtless be crucial for his teammates, but Nigeria’s presence will surely be crucial for Mikel.