By Ed Dove
Was there ever really any doubt as to who should have won the 2013 Goal Nigeria Player of the Year award?
Certainly, there have been a number of fine performers in 2013—a year that will be remembered fondly by Nigeria fans—but there is one man who stood head and shoulders above everyone else.
Almost half of everyone who voted (49% of you) chose John Obi Mikel as the Super Eagles’ star man during 2013.
Considering the player’s quality, it is little wonder that he has twice won the award, retaining his 2012 title. Considering his performances throughout the last 12 months, it is no surprise that he pipped Vincent Enyeama (28.6%), Emmanuel Emenike (13.2%), Victor Moses (6.4%) and Godfrey Oboabona (2.8%) to take the prize.
Looking back over his year, and beginning to assess why he ought to have won this award, we can only begin in one place.
Whatever else he achieved during 2013, and however else he performed in the green and white, the pure black and white honours cannot be overlooked.
The AFCON was the centrepiece of Mikel's year
At the 2013 Cup of Nations, Mikel finally brought the continental title back to Nigeria as part of Stephen Keshi’s young, exiting, all-conquering elect. It has been well-documented that Africa’s powerhouses took 19 years to reclaim the prize. Putting this into perspective, over half of the nation’s population were unborn when Augustine Eguavoen, Benedict Iroha, Samson Siasia et al. lifted Africa’s greatest honour.
The achievements of Mikel and his team-mates represents a truly momentous event, it will be the chief sporting memory in the hearts and minds of a generation of young Nigerians.
It was during this tournament that the Chelsea man truly stood up to the plate and realised his career potential. As others have written on this site, the AFCON was the making of the man, it was the tournament during which he became a leader and, perhaps most importantly, became the player we have all been waiting for.
Just to give an indication of his influence during the competition; Mikel was named in the Team of the Tournament (one of five Nigerians to feature), was Man of the Match in the Super Eagles’ opener against Burkina Faso and in the final against the same opponents. He contributed an assist against Zambia, another against the Cote d’Ivoire in the quarter-final and two against Mali in the semis.
That means that in all but one of Nigeria’s fixtures he made a crucial contribution. While Africa’s other pre-eminent midfielders, the likes of Seydou Keita, Kwadwo Asamoah and Yaya Toure, drifted anonymously out of the competition, Mikel rose to the occasion.
Beyond the pertinent, notable contributions, there was also a quiet determination and a studious government about Mikel’s operation in the middle of the park for Keshi’s men. Emboldened by the presence of Ogenyi Onazi, the Chelsea man appeared to shed his inhibitions and began dictating the play for the Super Eagles.
He did the simple stuff with great efficiency and tidiness, while his ability to achieve quality deliveries over a wider distance—such as his raking diagonal balls out to Emenike or Moses—set him apart from many of the unimaginative midfielders in the competition.
Perhaps most crucially, Mikel was also an inspirational figure for his young compatriots. As Onazi has expressed subsequently, it’s easy to learn how to soar when you’re playing next to a super eagle.
It clearly makes a difference to have a Champions League winner in the heart of the midfield, and the impact Mikel had upon his young, inexperienced team-mates is one of the forgotten sub-plots of the Cup of Nations tournament.
The AFCON was the pinnacle of Nigeria and Mikel’s year, and has been recognised as such in this feature. However, it was not his sole highlight. Although he didn’t feature in the final, Mikel was present as Chelsea won the Europa League at the end of last season. While this was not enough to quash rumours about a departure from West London during the summer, it has given the Nigerian a trophy cabinet that would be the envy of the vast, vast majority of the game’s professionals.
Mikel added the Europa League to his Champions League triumph
Finidi George won the Champions League and the Cup of Nations, but never won a major European league and never the UEFA Cup. Nwankwo Kanu did, however, and remains Mikel’s only true contender as the ‘Most-Decorated Nigerian’. Kanu, however, was not present for the 1994 AFCON triumph and thus has a fairly noticeable hole in his CV.
The Confederations Cup may not have been an overwhelmingly-successful episode for the Super Eagles, but Mikel’s class was still evident among the world’s finest teams. Against Uruguay he memorably rolled back the years to weave his way through the South American defence before firing a delicious finish past Fernando Muslera.
The finish stole the headlines, but Mikel’s overall performance that day was superb. I wrote at the time, for Goal International:
He was the influential midfield general the side had long craved during their run to the African title, and against Uruguay he was at times imperious, navigating the midfield with a genuine majesty, and imbuing those around him with confidence and composure.
It was a familiar story by then…
Despite all of his achievements over 2013, Mikel is keen not to rest on his laurels. The upcoming World Cup provides him with a perfect opportunity to assert himself as West Africa’s pre-eminent professional and to underline his place within the Nigerian pantheon.
The player himself is fully aware of the promise that lies in store.
Having missed out on the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where injury prevented his participation, the Chelsea man is keen to make up for lost time. Speaking to Goal Nigeria, Mikel expressed delight at the prospect of competing against Argentina, against their big-name players, and particularly, against Lionel Messi, the man with whom Mikel’s career has dovetailed pertinently.
The Super Eagles were horribly devoid of creativity in 2010. If Mikel the creator can continue his influential showings of 2013, and even find another gear to his visionary performances, then Keshi’s men are unlikely to receive similar criticism.
Don’t be surprised to see Mikel make it a hat-trick of Goal Nigeria POTY awards this time next year.