Once a star in waiting, Mikel now looking like man under a cloud
The irony is that, this time, it probably wasn't his fault. Mikel John Obi took a lot of the blame for Liverpool's opening goal against Chelsea on Sunday, but he was put in an almost impossible position by Petr Cech's goal-kick. Charlie Adam, anticipating superbly, was already on him by the time the ball reached him and, with both Chelsea center backs marked, and no other player in his field of vision, there were only two options: to attempt a highly risky backpass to Cech, or to try to turn and play the ball forward. Mikel went for the latter, was probably fouled and, when no free kick was given, lost possession to leave Liverpool with a three-on-two it exploited clinically.
Mikel was taken off at halftime and Chelsea was much improved in the second half (although that might in part have been because the intensity of Liverpool's pressing dropped). Even if the goal wasn't his fault, it was another poor performance from the 24-year-old. If -- and it is a big if -- Andre Villas-Boas, who has now lost all three games he has played against "big" sides, is allowed to continue his programme of reconstruction at Chelsea, it is hard to see how Mikel can have a future there. He looks slow and ponderous in possession, and it's not as though his defensive gifts are sufficient to counter-balance the way he slows Chelsea down.
His development is desperately sad, given how talented he was as an 18-year-old. I remember clearly the first time I saw him. The spat between Chelsea and Manchester United to secure his signature had given forewarning, but his substitute appearance for Nigeria against Zimbabwe in a Cup of Nations match in Port Said in 2006 would have taken the eye anyway.
Nigeria had been sluggish, struggling to break down a resolute Zimbabwe when, nine minutes into the second half, an 18-year-old Mikel came on for Wilson Oruma, taking up a position behind the two strikers. After three minutes he dropped a corner onto the head of Christian Obodo: 1-0. Four minutes later, cutting in from the left, he threw defender and goalkeeper with a feint to shoot, then casually slipped a right-foot finish just inside the post from 20 yards: 2-0. He smiled and raised an arm in cool acceptance of what he had just done. Against Tunisia in the quarterfinal he was even more impressive, playing from the start and showing great composure and vision to lay on chance after chance. Jay-Jay Okocha hailed him as the best 18-year-old he had ever seen, calling him "a natural talent of the type that rarely emerges now."
What was most remarkable was that he had played only six times for his club, the Norwegian side Lyn, the previous year because of the dispute between Chelsea and United. He should have been rusty, but he was, as Jose Mourinho put it, "pure gold." Daniel Amokachi, the former Everton striker who was Nigeria's assistant coach at the time, could barely contain his excitement. "He's very confident and comfortable on the ball," he said. "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."
Yet right from the start there was trouble. Mikel was born in Jos in northern Nigeria, the son of a civil servant who had been a footballer of some ability himself. An older brother had a career as a goalkeeper in the Nigerian first division. But it was John who was special, and at the age of 15 he made his debut for Plateau United in the Nigerian top-flight. By 2002 he was in the Nigeria Under-17 squad. The following year he impressed at the Meridien Cup, a youth tournament for European and African national sides, and was approached by scouts from Manchester United.
Chelsea saw him at the World Youth Cup in Finland that autumn, and asked him and three others for a trial. The other three went, but Mikel refused, explaining that his heart was already set on Manchester United, whom he fully expected to follow up their earlier interest. According to John Shittu, Mikel's then-advisor, they did not, at which Mikel became increasingly frustrated and disillusioned, especially as he heard from his Under-17 teammate Emanuel Sarki what a good time he was having at Chelsea (Sarki never played for the first team and is now with Waasland-Beveren in Belgium). Mikel, seeking to broaden his football education, moved on to Ajax Cape Town in South Africa. There he was funded by Shittu -- or at least, that's Shittu's story; others say it was Chelsea who were paying.
Mikel moved on to Europe, and the Norwegian club Lyn. Two months after his 18th birthday, sick of waiting for United, he sought a move to Chelsea. And that is where the legal problems set in. A player cannot sign a professional contract until he is 18; until he does that, he is effectively a free agent. Mikel and Shittu claimed he never signed professional terms at Lyn. Lyn had a contract, but Shittu insisted it was a forgery. As Shittu alleged racism and European exploitation of Africans -- and at one point claimed his client had been kidnapped -- Sir Alex Ferguson suggested that Mikel himself, if he were removed from his advisors, would still have preferred to join United.
After the Cup of Nations, Mikel returned to Lyn, still banned from playing club football until the dispute was resolved. He stayed until the following June, when Chelsea reached an agreement with Lyn and United. So he arrived at Stamford Bridge under great pressure and having gone almost a year without playing a league match. He was sent off on his first Premier League start, and didn't complete a league match until the following April.
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. He has, perhaps, tamed the wildness that saw him collect four red cards in his first two seasons, but there still seems an element of frustration in his play. On Sunday, his confidence looked shot, and it's no coincidence that he has been withdrawn in three of Chelsea's last five games.
Five years ago, Mikel looked like a world great in the making and, despite all the fuss that surrounded him, there was a casual acceptance of his talent that made it look as though he were enjoying himself. Perhaps, given the wrangling in which he was a pawn, he was simply glad to get on the pitch. Now he looks a man under a cloud, and football, with all its hangers on and attendant pressures, must take some of the blame for that. Somewhere in the last five years the fun has gone out of Mikel, and he is a poorer player for it.