The Choice of Chelsea
The choice to play for Chelsea instead of Manchester United may have been instigated by constraining factors, notwithstanding the player's insistence—during the height of the row to sign him between Chelsea and Manchester United—that he had always wanted to play for Chelsea.
Manchester United scouts first spotted him at the 2003 Meridien youth tournament held in Egypt and expressed the club's interest in him. They got a closer impression of the boy when the Nigeria U-17 squad trained at Manchester United's Carrington grounds before the FIFA U-17 tournament held in the fall of that year in Finland.
An impressive performance at that tournament caught the attention of Chelsea scouts who invited him and three other Nigerians for trials at the club. Mikel Obi refused, having had his heart set on playing for Manchester United.
Waiting in vain for United to sign him following trials at the club in 2003, Mikel moved from his boyhood club, Plateau United, to Ajax Cape Town in South Africa. This move was said to have been facilitated financially by John Shittu, who later became the player's agent.
Later on when the saga with United began, Chelsea would claim they had paid for Obi's move to Ajax Cape Town and that they had arranged for his move from the club to Lyn Oslo, Mikel's first European club, with a view to signing him later.
Mikel Obi's prospects as a player were accentuated at the FIFA U-20 Championship held in the summer of 2005 in the Netherlands where he caught the attention of the rest footballing world. He and Lionel Messi were voted the world's two best up-and-coming stars.
Phrases like "Nigerian prodigy" where common appellations for the young lad after that tournament. United made a swift move to sign him after he made an impressive debut for his Norwegian club, Lyn Oslo, where he scored two goals.
Commenting on the move to United, Mikel Obi enthused:
"It's totally fantastic to come to a great club like Manchester United. Not many players my age get that chance."
A Star Rises
John Mikel Obi came to the attention of Kashimawo Laloko through the Pepsi academy at the age of 12. James Ayeni, a coach at the academy recalls:
"He was one of my best players at that time. He was so thin yet so brave, and he also had a very good first touch."
It was here that Plateau United spotted him and promptly signed him even though he was still young and rather thin. Nduka Ndubuisi, the Plateau United coach at the time explains:
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"It's hard to explain his talent at such a tender age, but when we got him, we realised we had found the best young talent in the whole of Nigeria. The fans were critical of our decision to play a school boy, but he was outstanding in the few games he played at home."
At Plateau United, Obi caught the attention of Austin Eguavoen, then coach of Nigeria's U-17 squad. Mikel Obi became a key player of the squad at Finland. Eguavoen explains why:
"When I see Mikel Obi, he reminds me of players Like Frank Lampard, Zinedine Zidane, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes. He is strong, quick, uses both feet and is technically sound. I preferred playing him behind the two main strikers."
Daniel Amokachi, the former Nigeria international under whose tutelage (and that of head coach Shuaibu Amodu) Mikel Obi made his international debut for his country, found nothing but praise for the lad after an impressive performance at the 2006 African Cup of Nation.
"He's very confident and comfortable on the ball. He's unique. He's his own style of footballer. He can play as the man in the hole, you can use him as a defensive midfielder and he can work easily on the left or the right."
Jose Mourinho, Chelsea's manager at the time of the transfer feud with United called Mikel "pure gold."
Elegy to a Dead Star
Mikel Obi may have been pure gold in September 2006 when he made his debut for Chelsea. But five years later at 23, he is nothing now but an impotent star. This is very sad for a player once on par with Messi. Where did everything go wrong?
The state of Obi's game at the moment is aptly captured in this statement by Samson Siasia, recent manager of the Nigeria national team. "Mikel is not the same player that I knew in 2005 when we finished second behind Argentina in the U-20 World Cup,” Siasia lamented earlier this year.
"He has lost the creativity that catapulted him to the world stage six years ago. Don’t get me wrong here, I am not saying that he is no longer a good player. But what I am saying is that there is a need to see Mikel get to the goal area of the opponents and shoot more."
Siasia, I believe, put a finger on the right spot with the last statement. It's quite apparent now to anyone who has followed the progress of this player that it was a mistake on the part of Mourinho to play him in the holding midfield position at Chelsea.
Jonathan Wilson, sport writer for the Guardian, puts it aptly when he says:
"From the start Mourinho played him at the back of midfield, but he's never looked entirely comfortable in the role which is, in fairness, usually occupied by older, more experienced players."
The position of a holding midfielder, as Siasia observed, did the immense talent of the player no good.
Rather than developing into the star he seemed set to be, unlike Messi, who has gone on to be the world's best, Mikel Obi has lost the spark of genius that brought him early renown and looks a sorry case now when playing for Chelsea.
He opts too frequently to play a pass sideways even when it's best to advance forward.
Less talented players such as Arsenal's Alex Song have since surpassed him in the same role and as players. His horrible mistake against Liverpool only underscores how pathetic his situation has become.
This is a player who fought and won the midfield battle against more established players in Nigeria's match against Côte d'Ivoire at the 2006 Cup of Nations, a player who once was second best only to Messi and who could possibly have gone on to surpass the latter.
For this writer, the situation highlights how critical it is for players to choose clubs that are suited to their particular gifts.
It is hard to imagine the same stagnation that has overtaken Mikel at Chelsea happening to him at Manchester United for precisely this reason: The row over him was because of his prodigious talent as an attacking midfielder—a role he had played for country and clubs prior to Chelsea.
It is natural then to suppose that Sir Alex Ferguson would have continued to play him in that role. What has happened to Mikel at Chelsea is unlikely to have happened had he been allowed to continue to grow in his natural position. Alas, Mourinho destroyed the talent by playing in him in an inhibiting position.
What now for Mikel Obi?
As he currently plays, I see no future for him at Chelsea. Besides, continuing to stay there and being played in the wrong position does him no good. I believe the best option for him is to change clubs.
This may not yield similar financial dividend as the one he currently enjoys at Chelsea, but in the long run it may prove the wise thing to do.
After all, at 23, he still has about 10 years left in his playing career. He should move to a smaller club that plays free-flowing football, but insist as part of the negotiation to be played in a more advanced position in midfield.
Although a move to a club such as Wigan or Swansea, or middling teams such as Everton or Aston Villa, may be seen as a step backward status-wise or financially, this may prove to be the reviving catalyst for his career.
Ten years (barring injuries that could force him into early retirement) is a long time to play, and a year is all it may take to revive his fast-sinking career. One thing is sure: John Obi Mikel's career is going nowhere but downhill if he remains at Chelsea.
Therefore, flee, Mikel. Flee Chelsea!
This last plea is uttered by a person who genuinely cares to see the reemergence of the immense talent that was once promised to the world, but has been otherwise wasted at Chelsea.
Flee, Mikel. Flee!