World Cup: 13 years after, Mikel and Messi rekindle rivalry
July 2, 2005 in Utrecht and a teenage Lionel Messi is collecting his Golden Ball award after leading Argentina to victory over Nigeria in the FIFA World Youth Championship final.
A photographer asks Messi to pose with his accolade before positioning alongside him the young Nigerian who won the Silver Ball as the tournament’s second-best player.
John Obi Mikel, aged just 18, towers over Messi as they smile for the camera, holding their trophies. Thirteen years later, the two will lock horns again, this time as captains of their countries.
Nigeria’s third and final game in Group D of the World Cup will see them tackle Argentina. When they take to the pitch in St Petersburg, they will be led by Mikel, the former Chelsea stalwart.
In 2005, Messi scored twice as Nigeria were beaten 2-1. It was a sign of things to come as the young Argentine went on to grab 383 goals in 418 games for Barcelona in La Liga.
Mikel, meanwhile, scored only once in 249 Premier League games for Chelsea. It was a record that saw him slightly ridiculed by supporters, though he gained respect his own way.
For his club, Mikel made his name as a disciplined defensive midfielder, someone who was a specialist in shutting up shop. For Nigeria, he is used as a No 10, normally behind Odion Ighalo.
It is chalk and cheese. Though his scoring record is nothing special — six strikes in 85 caps — the 31-year-old is an icon in his homeland.
There have been ups and downs but his dedication is recognised and respected, just as it was by Chelsea and Jose Mourinho.
One story sums up Mikel’s selflessness. Ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, Nigeria held a training camp in Atlanta, hoping to take inspiration from their gold medal win in the US city in 1996.
Soon after arriving in Atlanta and ahead of the Games, however, the team were threatened with being kicked out of their hotel because of unpaid bills.
With no-one back home willing to pay for one reason or another, Mikel put his hand in his own pocket. As well as the accommodation, he paid for his team-mates’ meals and booked training pitches.
It cost him more than £30,000 in total, but Nigeria went on to win Olympic bronze in Rio.
Mikel later said he felt a duty to do it as skipper, admitting: ‘I said to myself, “I won’t let this happen. If I can help, I’ll try to help”.’ He did not have to do it, but he did.
For Chelsea, Mikel became a loyal midfield servant, a player in an unsung position who did not whinge when dropped. Instead he gave his all on the pitch, particularly in the biggest games.
Without a doubt, 2012 was his best year in a blue shirt, even if that season did start with his father falling victim to a suspected kidnapping.
Mikel played every minute of the Champions League quarter-final, semi-final and final as Chelsea beat Benfica, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, upsetting the odds.
Plenty had him as their man of the match against Munich at the Allianz Arena too.
Yet when Mikel arrived in England in 2006, his role as a defensive midfielder was not expected. Little was known about the 19-year-old at the time, except that Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United missed out on him.
Mourinho had big plans, describing his new player as ‘pure gold’.
In Nigeria, he was seen as an attacker, having started as a starlet who knew how to dribble and cut open a defence with through-balls. They thought he would be turned into a Frank Lampard.
Instead, Mourinho wanted him to become more of a Claude Makelele. Mikel did as he was told.
Currently, he is the first name on Gernot Rohr’s Nigeria team sheet, playing in a position of freedom and providing support for Ighalo.
There is a feel-good factor with him at the helm. At the last two World Cups, after all, Nigeria had their issues.
In South Africa in 2010, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan ruled the national team should be suspended for two years because they played so poorly.
In Brazil in 2014, a pay dispute with the Nigeria Football Federation saw players boycott a training session ahead of their last-16 loss to France.
Under German disciplinarian Rohr, there is a different feel in the camp, and their captain has very much contributed to the change in mood.
Mikel’s full name is John Michael Nchekwube Obinna, though during preparations for the 2003 FIFA Under-17 World Championship, the Nigerian FA mistakenly spelt ‘Michael’ as ‘Mikel’.
The new name stuck and in Russia this summer, it will certainly be one of the most recognisable and respected on the back of one of those stylish Nigeria shirts. Mailonline.com