The deafening din at the Saint Petersburg Stadium was now gone, a glum Mikel John Obi sat on the Nigeria dugout, head bowed, his eyes staring blankly on the floor. The photo of him here told the story of the game that had just been played.
The Super Eagles led by Mikel Obi were just five minutes away from progressing from the difficult Group D to the round of 16 of the 2018 World Cup.
But in the 86th minute, Marcos Rojo made a desperate run into the Nigerian box and finished up a cross, 2-1 Argentina and Super Eagles of Nigeria were knocked out of the World Cup.
Mikel struggled to hold back the tears in all of his post-match interviews, at the press-conference with Super Eagles boss Gernot Rohr, he looked absolutely dejected.
These forlorn looks were inevitable. He and his teammates had just blown the chance of progressing to the second round of the World Cup where they would have had the opportunity to improve from the previous games of the 2018 World Cup and show the potential of a truly boosted, young and talented Super Eagles side.
So that photo of a glum Mikel seated on the bench after that game made sense but on Tuesday, July 3, it meant even more.
It meant something more than football. It was a matter of life and death.
‘I could not let 180 million Nigerians down’
Men of the Nigerian Police on Monday, July 2 revealed through a statement that Mikel’s dad Pa Michael Obi had been rescued from kidnappers who abducted him along the Makurdi-Enugu expressway while he was on his way to a funeral.
The following day, Mikel revealed that he knew of the kidnapping four hours before that game against Argentina and even spoke to the kidnappers who asked for a N10m ransom.
Mikel in a show of this stout mental strength went ahead to play his heart out for 90 minutes. He didn’t tell anyone, not the officials of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), not Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr and certainly not his teammate.
“I was confused. I did not know what to do, but in the end, I knew that I could not let 180 million Nigerians down,” Mikel told Kwese Sport.
“I had to shut it out of my head and go and represent my country first. I was told that they would shoot my dad instantly if I reported to the authorities or told anybody.
“And I did not want to discuss it with the coach because I did not want my issue to become a distraction to the coach or the rest of the team on the day of such an important game. So as much as I wanted to discuss it with the coach, I could not do it.“
It was just his personal battle, he bottled it up and went to war with his compatriots.
There is no legacy in Nigerian football that has divided opinions more than Mikel Obi’s, but after this act of patriotism, leadership and resilience, there should not be a question about this anymore.
No more Mikel Obi slander ever again! Not on Twitter, not among your friends, not in your private dwelling. None!
Mikel’s reign as Super Eagles captain has been the most classy and non-dramatic I have seen in my lifetime.
No reports of drama in camp, no talk of a cabal within the Super Eagles, no player power in the dressing room, just football.
He has said the right things, led by example on and off the pitch and just shown that he puts his country first.
Recall when Mikel dipped into his own pocket to settle bonuses and allowances of the Nigerian U-23 team during the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.
Many can argue that Mikel has not always been at the forefront of Nigerian football assignments. Early on in his Super Eagles career, he was accused of choosing and picking games to play and also had problems with coach Samson Siasia who dropped him from the squad to the 2008 Olympic Games in China.
Mikel had failed to make himself available for some of the qualifying games and Siasia dropped him as punishment.
There is also the perception of Mikel being arrogant and I use to believe that. But he made sense of it in his recent article with The Players’ Tribune.
“I never got involved in the politics. I kept myself to myself. Sometimes that meant people thought I was arrogant because I was playing for Chelsea, but I just listened to the man Kanu — I don’t want to talk about other players. I’m here to do a job,” Mikel wrote in The Players’ Tribune.
Also in that piece, Mikel explained that he chose Chelsea over Manchester United because he thought the future of three other Nigerian players who had been signed by the London club depended on him.
“You know what made my mind up? Chelsea had signed three other players from Nigeria along with me. They were staying with me at the house in London to keep me company. These guys … their lives depended on the decision I was making. If I went to United, they were gone. If I went to Chelsea, they were going to have a career. No matter how long it lasted, that was important to me. Just to give them a chance, you know? I chose Chelsea, and four lives changed that day,” Mikel said on The Players’ Tribune.
With these points, there are enough causes to feel certain that Mikel is a guy who put people first?
Nigeria deserve Mikel
It is important to note that Nigeria deserve everything Mikel has done for the country because without Nigerian football, Mikel’s successful journey would have had tougher paths.
He was just 15 when he was called up to the Golden Eaglets and it was with the U-17 that the limelight first shone on him.
Critically, Mikel is regarded as one of the greatest Nigerian players but he is not commonly viewed in the same light.
To get his mainstream applause, Mikel needs a huge moment, his own Atlanta 96 moment-which put Kanu Nwankwo in Nigerian football folklore. Mikel knows this too and he was very hopeful of a making an impact with the Super Eagles at Russia 2018.
That didn’t happen but he came, he saw and although he didn’t conquer, Mikel sealed his legacy in Nigerian football at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.