Mikel: Why Super Eagles’ Qatar Flight Crashed
The inability of Super Eagles to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar has remained like a bitter pill for Nigerian football fans to swallow.
In this interview with former Super Eagles’ Captain, John Mikel Obi, the former Chelsea midfielder counseled Nigeria’s football family to accept the failure and expect a better tomorrow. He also gave an insight into certain aspects of his illustrious career never talked about in past interviews. FEMI SOLAJA spoke with Mikel. Excerpts…
After your time out with the senior national team, the Super Eagles, this your visit seems to be your longest stay in the country? Is it because of your involvement in the Back2base talent hunt programme or for other reasons?
No doubt, this is my longest stay in one city (Lagos). I frequently travel here same way as Abuja but this time around, it’s been a great moment to have to stay all through in Lagos. I’m happy that the events went as planned in the last three weeks. If I am to evaluate, this is absolutely my best time in Nigeria.
Back to Super Eagles, can you evaluate the various generations of the senior national team right from Christian Chukwu/ Segun Odegbami through Stephen Keshi & Co to the 1996 Stars that include the Austin Jay Jay Okocha, Daniel Amokachi and Nwankwo Kanu to your set that won the 2013 AFCON and now the present generation that missed qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar?
Every generation has its own purpose and It’s difficult to compare one to the other since they all won laurels for the country. But I will like to speak mainly of my own generation. If you can recall when the likes of Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu left the national team, a lot of people were in doubt about what we can do since there was a major drop in terms of quality of players. It will Interesting you to note that that generation did not win any trophy of note for the country. Now back to my generation, we started to build cohesion and understanding among each other and knowing each other better. I remember winning the UEFA Champions League with Chelsea and I was getting several SMS from Nigerians wanting to know when will I win trophy for the nation instead of only for my club. It was a great challenge and I really took it as a big challenge. It has always been my wish from childhood to win with my country. Fortunately, I was able to achieve that, winning the AFCON with the Super Eagles eight months after I’ve won the Champions League with Chelsea. It was a great moment in my career. We were able to achieve this feat in South Africa because we had great friendly atmosphere in camp. We were there for one another and not that there were no big players among us. We saw each other as a unit. We knew what we wanted and we got it. But this present generation, I have no idea of what the plans are and I just hope they get back to winning ways and achieve glory individually and collectively for the nation. There must be discipline within the rank and file of the team that is players reporting to camp at the appropriate time and having mutual respect for one another. In total, camp attitude is very important. I don’t know what is happening now but I just hope all is well since they are professionals as well.
As a follow-up, you said you don’t know much about the present Super Eagles, but the bulk of the players in the team today were there when you captained the senior Nigerian team to win bronze medal at the AFCON 2019 in Egypt. Secondly, the football family was a bit surprised by your decision to quit the national team on the eve of that third-place match in Egypt. What happened?
Few things happened towards my final days in the national team and I was very careful not to react in a way that will affect the group. I thought I had a good relationship with the coach (Gernot Rohr) but after I left, I read somethings in the media that there were issues between Alex Iwobi and I during the Nations Cup in Egypt. Unfortunately, it was the opposite because I have a solid relationship with the player just like others in the national team. I read it just the same way I learnt few days ago about my disagreement with Sunday Oliseh when he was the coach. All these are mere distraction and will not want to join issues with anyone. Respect is the key rather than unnecessary attention.
You and Ighalo left the national team almost at the same time. Did both of you plan to do so at the same time?
It was a coincidence. I’ve already made up my mind that the AFCON in Egypt was going to be my last with the national team. It’s was a matter of principle, I don’t like to over-stay in a place. I feel when it is time, I should give other people their chance to establish themselves because when I was coming into the fray too, the likes of Okocha gave me the opportunity to establish myself. A lot of people told me to still stay and be a mentor to the players and play few more minutes, be their leader and mentor them but I felt I can still do that from outside of the camp instead of unnecessary distractions my continued stay will pose to the new generation. I did my best and left the players to stay focused and get the best from their coaches. But it is sad that few things happened in the camp. I do believe in the abilities of most of the players in the camp now. They have the strength, they are fast and talented. All we need to do is to find a way to ensure they all work together as a unit with the likes of Joe Aribo, Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Samuel Chukwueze playing for one another. And one more thing I need to say, we need to find a group and when you find the group, you start working with the group and then you start adding others to make a team but in the past few years what we have been doing is adding almost 10 fresh players for every match and the experiment has been unending. Unfortunately, we don’t have a core group but we keep experimenting instead injecting some of the domestic league players with the core group.
How do you feel with Nigeria missing the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, most especially losing the Play-off match to Ghana’s Black Stars?
I was busy with my kids putting them to bed before the match and at match time, I searched all the channels and could not pick it and I had to rely to monitoring online. It was really painful that we did not qualify because it’s been a long time, we experienced non qualification (Germany 2006 finals). It was strange and felt really sad because I can’t imagine watching the FIFA World Cup without Nigeria and it’s even more painful to lose the chance of qualification at home. It is strange and I just hope we have learnt some lessons by looking forward to the next four years. I remembered the last edition in Russia when we even qualified with almost three matches to the end of the qualifying round of matches. We were motivated, we had a direction on the pitch we had a leader on the pitch. All the 11 players were listening to only one man on the pitch not many leaders in the pitch. We need a leader on the pitch for others to follow. You don’t need five leaders but just one because when you have four or five people giving instructions on the pitch that it not a unit.
You worked under many coaches during your time at Chelsea and same thing with the Super Eagles. In both places who are the coaches that really got the best out of you?
At Chelsea, Di Mateo really understood me and that was why in 2012, I had my best moments with the club because he gave me the freedom to play to express who I am on the pitch and same thing with Carlos Ancelotti because I played a lot of games under him. He gave me the license to do whatever I can do to make the team strong in the middle just like Guus Hiddink but in all of them, I will single out Di Mateo as my best. But in the national team, it’s a straight forward answer, Late Stephen Okechukwu Keshi (Big Boss). I have not seen a man like him, he was a special person, I recalled the way he resolves problems and he was such a calm fellow with the way he dishes out instructions. Everything was just perfect and during the games, he knows what he was doing and we all respect him for that as a former player, captain and manager.
Meaning there are still potential indigenous coaches that could still handle the national team despite they could not qualify the country for the World Cupon two different occasions?
Whichever way you look at it, there is always a good reason to have your own, develop him, give him all the cooperation. The indigenous coaches need to be given longer time to get the best out of them. (Austin) Eguavoen was in-charge for less than three months before he was sacked but when we pay a lot to hire foreign managers and results are not forth coming, we still give them a lot of time before we fire them. I think our local coaches deserve better treatments to get the best out of them. Less I forget, Samson Siasia was another good coach but I don’t know what the problem is. I just hope he would have sorted himself now. He is one coach I worked with and I know his capability as a manager same with Eguavoen who was my first manager in the national team (U-17 World Cup). But the major problem of the indigenous coaches is that they always find it difficult to locate the player leader on the pitch and the moment you don’t have that it becomes a problem.
In 2003 at the FIFA U-17 finals in Finland, you were part of the Golden Eaglets side that failed to go beyond the group phase, what was running in your mind considering the fact that young players have always used the opportunity to launch their careers but it turned out a crashed dream?
If I can be honest with you, I think I knew from day-one that my career is go beyond the bounds of Nigeria because after our first match, I had about three football agents running after me with dollars. The then NFA Secretary General, Late Taiwo Ogunjobi was the one looking after me. One of the agents was from Holland but can’t remember where the rest are from but the Secretary General shielded them off me so as to avoid camp distraction. Imagine one of them came with $50,000 and press further that I should sign agreement with him. From there I knew I will get something from the tournament. Although it was painful that we exited the competition in the first round, things really went according to plan in my career. The rest is history.
You played several matches for Chelsea and other teams including the national team across several stadiums in Europe, which of them would you consider memorable to you?
My toughest was probably the UEFA Champions League final match we won against Bayern Munich at Allianz Arena in Munich. The adrenaline of that day was something else. For the 120 minutes of play, it was full concentration because any distraction we were going out without the cup. They were all over us with a depleted team as well. We knew that was our only chance to win the trophy after many trials. That wasn’t our best group but we were in the final, which could go either way. And going into the match, the likes of John Terry, Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Malouda and Peter Cech were already in the final playing days for the team and we had to win the game. Another memorable match was at the last World Cup finals in Russia, when my father was kidnapped back home in Nigeria. It was a horrible moment of my life and I have never faced such a situation like that in my entire life. It was really tough. Imagine as the captain and going into a crucial match against one of the power-house nations in world football in which we must not lose and the news of the kidnap came about two hours to the kick-off. The old proverb says, ‘Problem shared is problem solved’ but in this case I kept the information away from everybody in camp including the coach and the players because I know it will negatively affect the team’s morale. I was in my room when the call came from my brother in Nigeria and broke the news. I asked him what he expects me to do you from Russia? I knew I just had to play this most important game. If I had informed the coach, it would have effect on the team. The match-plan will have to change at such a late hour to the kick-off. Unfortunately, we had another penalty call which the referee turned down and I just kept playing till the final whistle. Thereafter, I told everybody and they all feel for me and even imagined how I was able to hold on to such information for almost four hours with no effect on my contribution on the field of play. It was such a horrible moment of my playing career.
Looking back at the match against Argentina, what costs us that game?
I think it was momentary loss of concentration. We had the Argies in our hands they seemed not to have a headway to break our defence line. We even had the opportunities to lead but that is football. We lost another penalty call. The referee told me, ‘Mikel I won’t give you the penalty’ everyone saw that the player’s hand actually touched the ball. It’s part of the game if calls go your way but on that night the calls were against us. That is football anyway. There is no need to blame anybody. We lost the match.
What about the toughest stadium you ever played?
That should be at Anfield. Every time we (Chelsea) go to Anfield against Liverpool, it’s always tough experience because of the way the fans react to the opponents. Everywhere is red, they sing and the echo from the stand is very close to the field and this always have impact on the opponents. There was never a time I leave Anfield without body aches and muscle pulls because you have to be at alert all through the 90 minutes. No escape from Liverpool fans because the tunnel is so small that impact of their noise would be felt. Then playing against the likes of Xavi Alonzo, Steven Gerard, Mascherano all in the midfield makes games very tough on that ground.
The Elective congress into the board of Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) is coming soon, what is your take on change or continuity of those at the helms of affairs?
I think it’s not my duty to comment of administration of the game in the country. But I know a lot of people are clamouring for change just as the leadership too has the backing of some stakeholders but in life, we have to make changes to move forward. People always complain that Roman Abramovich changes his coaching crew most of the time and interestingly, the result was the trophies we won while he was with the club. Some changes do bring about negative consequence. For the best achievements of life to be attained there must be some element of change. I wish all the contestants the best of luck. But we must put people who are interested in the game at the federation. If the next composition will still be of almost the present regime, there must be change in style of management of the game. Amaju Pinnick is my friend. He’s amazing fellow and same with others whom I have had contact with.
You seem to be an apostle of change, was the federation right to have sacked Gernot Rohr with just one and half months to the last AFCON tournament in Cameroon?
I think coach Rohr debate has been on for a very long time on whether we do away with him or stay and whether it happened at the right time or not I think the hand writing was on the wall a long time ago. He’s the longest coach of the Super Eagles but he too was an amazing fellow and he had a good time with the team and I don’t think he will have sleepless night any more now that he has parted way with Nigerian football.
Aside the final against Bayern Munich which Chelsea won, which other Champions League match was memorable to you?
I will never forget the second leg match against FC Barcelona at the Camp Nou in April of 2012. We travelled with a slim one goal win from the first leg and having to defend the lead at their Camp Nou fortress. We were up against 90,000 fans and our fans were kept in the upper terraces and can’t even hear their chants. We know that if we overcome them, that will be our best chance to lift the trophy. They were all over us for 90 minutes but we scored good away goals but, in all honesty, we didn’t deserve to overcome the Spaniards but that is football for you.
Ever since you had a brush with referee Mark Clattenburg in your days in the English Premiership, have you ever come across each other or what will happen if you meet him at the mall or restaurant?
I think its bye gone. If I meet him, I will be the first to extend hands of fellowship to him because in life you just have to move on.
What of Sir Alex Fergusson who was at the centre of the transfer saga between Manchester United and Chelsea?
I have never met face to face with him since then but he is a good manager, a great person. He is the boss of all coaches.
Then why didn’t you follow him if you think he is the boss of all coaches?
I know that will be the next question (laughter). I respect him so much but I took the best decision at the time to go the other way instead of Old Trafford.