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John Obi Mikel: Poor Nigeria ending does not damage legendary status

21:00 GMT+3 18/07/2019
John Obi Mikel
The Super Eagles captain has called time on his international career in inauspicious circumstances, but that does not detract from his legacy

As Nigerian football came out of its golden age in the latter part of the noughties, the larger-than-life personalities that had defined that era began to recede.

On the one hand, it meant reports of indiscipline and wilful indulgence became rarer; on the other, there were fewer polarizing figures and, as such, fewer players capable of provoking any kind of strong emotion in the minds of the public.

In that sense, John Obi Mikel is both distinct and a throwback, in that he is one of the few Nigerian footballers of the last 10 years able to elicit an impassioned reaction, one way or another.

He was present as the previous era slipped into senescence, and so it is difficult to define precisely what time period he belongs to. Perhaps, in much the same way he, at his best, seemed to have a couple of seconds more than most others on the pitch, he was a man entirely out of time.

However, as the timing of his retirement shows, the concept is not lost on him. From his declaration on the eve of the Africa Cup of Nations that he has never been “one to overstay [my] welcome”, it was clear that if he felt he could no longer be relied on, he would push before being jumped.

That moment has finally arrived, brought home by the manner in which he was excluded entirely following the inglorious defeat at the hands of Madagascar.

It was a painfully unglamorous way to exit the scene; surely, the World Cup might have provided a better backdrop. For so long, it seemed like it might, as he took a hiatus from international football to focus on his physical wellbeing.

Instead, the Pyramids will have to do. Which is fine; for the symmetry of it, if nothing else. It was in Egypt that it all began, of course: Mikel making his Afcon bow in 2006 as the bright young thing, the future of the national side.

There is no question of the decision coming too soon. However, the jury is still out on whether, in those 13 years, that potential has quite been fulfilled.

That really is at the core of why he is such a polarizing figure: for some, Mikel’s medal collection is the perfect response, for others there are quibbles over his ambition and his commitment to the cause.

Of course, being a part of only the third Nigerian team in history to win the Afcon helps to dispel some of that latter concern. That really was his golden moment: 2013, when he came closest to the level most people expected of him, scoring at the Confederations Cup, winning the Europa League with Chelsea a year on from winning the Champions League, and finishing second in the African Footballer of the Year vote.

It was a level he never arrived at often enough, but one which he showed he was capable of. What would it have meant if he had?

Perhaps not a lot more: playing in the age of Yaya Toure, there was little chance of him ascending the throne that no other Nigerian has done since Kanu in 1999.

That is no mark against him: he pretty much achieved everything else, and is by any measure a true legend of the African game. Not even an underwhelming final act at Afcon 2019 could rob him of that.