Jonathan Pitroipa’s MVP gong from the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations will be little consolation for the Rennes winger, whose Burkina Faso side was defeated 1-0 by Nigeria in Sunday’s final. But even it should have found itself in the grasp of a Super Eagle, and there were two or three who would have been more worthy recipients than Pitroipa.
This is not to take anything away from the 26-year-old, whose heroics in the quarterfinals against Togo helped ensure the Stallions would continue galloping toward their first ever major final. Pitroipa was one of the best players in South Africa the past three weeks, but in no way was he the best.
That honor falls to Nigeria’s John Obi Mikel, and he should have been given the official recognition to confirm what everyone already knows. He should have been crowned Player of the Tournament.
Mikel’s importance to Nigeria became evident as soon as manager Stephen Keshi named his roster for the competition. Keshi bravely omitted several establishment players from the 23-man squad he took to the Cup of Nations, including Yakubu, Peter Odemwingie, Obafemi Martins, Dickson Etuhu, Taye Taiwo and Danny Shittu. Instead, the team he selected was comprised of five domestic-based players and only two—goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama and captain Joseph Yobo (who wasn’t a starting player)—with more than 50 caps to their names.
Mikel, at 25, was immediately the elder statesman of the midfield, and he vindicated Keshi’s daring by playing some of the best football of his life.
With Ogenyi Onazi and Sunday Mba alongside in the centre of the park, Mikel marshalled what proved to be the tightest, most organized midfield in South Africa—something that was never expected, given the disorderly nature of Nigeria sides past. He also led by example instead of letting his notoriously erratic behavior get the better of him, and if anything his soft-spoken approach made him a model for his younger teammates.
So often a lightning rod of controversy in the Premier League, he was nothing of the sort at the Cup of Nations. While barely three months before he had been handed a three-match suspension for bursting into referee Mark Clattenburg’s changing room with allegations of racial abuse that were later proved unfounded, at this tournament he played with his mouth closed, his brain operational and his maturity blossoming.
As a result, we saw a player we’ve only seen in patches during his time at Chelsea. Robust in a defensive role in front of the back four and imperious on the ball and in his movement, Mikel was the best midfielder on the park in every match he played. That Nigeria so fully deserved their quarterfinal win over Ivory Coast was largely down to him; that the Nigerian attackers had a platform from which to demolish Mali was largely down to him.
That the centre of the park was shut to Burkina Faso’s passing was largely down to him, and Nigeria won the tournament’s showcase match because of it.
There was an array of stars at the 2013 Cup of Nations, and Pitroipa was certainly among them. But Mikel was a supernova. And when he shone, the stars disappeared.