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Mikel on why he chose Chelsea over Manchester United, growing up a winner, becoming a leader

Required reading on ‘The Player’s Tribune

GBR: Chelsea FC Press Conference Photo by Ben Radford/Getty Images

John Mikel Obi* is out of the World Cup and out of the footballing spotlight. For Chelsea fans, it’s been a year and a half since he departed Stamford Bridge for Tianjin TEDA of the Chinese league. We move on. Memories fade. That’s how it works.

But if you want a touch of the feels and a wonderful nostalgia trip, read Mikel’s awesome first-person column in The Player’s Tribune. I don’t use the word awesome carelessly. What John Obi wrote is magnificent.

* That’s how he signed his article. Two years ago, not long after gaining UK citizenship, he had officially changed it to Mikel John Obi, after a decade of people calling him John Obi Mikel. We’ll just call him Mikel, to avoid any confusion.

Trying to narrow down that article for this post is impossible. I want to quote everything Mikel wrote. It’s that good. But I can’t do that. So here’s a brief synopsis and a strong recommendation for you to read his thoughts for yourself, if you haven’t yet.

Alas, Nigeria lost to Argentina yesterday, and are going home. Some might say they were robbed. It’s one of the rare failures of Mikel’s storied career, though in relative terms, Nigeria’s achievements were lauded around the world.

But back to the beginning, where all good stories start. Mikel covers what he considers to be the most important aspects of his career. Of growing up so poor that he couldn’t afford boots and were it not for the generosity of someone in his community, we’d never have heard of him. Of working hard as a youth, making Nigeria’s U-20 team and being gone from home for months.

There was of course that famous summer of 2006, when he chose Chelsea over Manchester United. He tells of the bewildering attention from adults competing for an 18-year-old kid, pulling him this way and that. Of Roman Abramovich stashing him in a house in London, of FIFA telling him he was the one who’d have to decide. Of why he controversially chose Chelsea — a decision that reveals the depth of his character.

depth of his character.

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.

The three others, whom he does not mention, were Emmanuel Sarki, Ezekiel Bala and Chinedu Obasi Ogbuke. Chelsea had first options on all of them (in exchange for agreeing to pay their £400,000-a-year training and education costs), which is how Chelsea were able to successfully challenge the validity of Mikel’s contract with Manchester United. None of the three made it at Chelsea proper — the closest was Sarki, who was in the Loan Army for four years — but they all managed to carve out a career in professional football. Sarki’s playing the Czech Republic these days after spells in Israel, Poland, and Greece and has been capped 4 times by Haiti (eligible through a maternal grandfather). Bala has stayed in Norway his whole career, recently playing in the third and fourth divisions. And Obasi made a name for himself at TSG Hoffenheim (also winning 20 caps for the Super Eagles); he was recently spotted at Bolton Wanderers for the closing few months of the 2017-18 season.

Mikel’s decision changed their lives, and changed his own. The boy had become a man. His initial hot-headedness on the pitch would soon also mellow into the quiet strength we all had come to know so well, into a leader for Chelsea and the Captain for his country.

But at first he was a naive, introverted man. Timid even, not sure of his place in a huge club, coming from tiny Lyn in Norway. Here’s how Mikel describes his first few weeks with Chelsea, surrounded by the greats of the game.

It’s funny actually, I was so young and so quiet when I first came to Chelsea that I didn’t know what was going on. Every day after we finished training and showered, I would see all these big guys — Ballack, Lampard, Terry, Essien — walking down this hallway in the facility. I didn’t know where they were going. No one told me anything. I didn’t want to go anywhere I wasn’t supposed to be, you know?

Every single day, they get dressed and then walk to this room.

I would just go to my car and go home.

So after about a week, I asked Essien, “Where are you guys going all the time?”

He said, “What? Right now?”

I said, “Yeah, where do you go every day?”

“The cantine. Where are you going?”

“I go home.”

“There’s food there. It’s free!”

“It’s free?!”

“Of course it’s free! Come on, man.”

I can’t believe that was 12 years ago. I look around at these kids now, and I remember that I’m the grandpa. I’m the old man now.

An old man who always adhered to advice from legendary Nigerian footballer Kanu: don’t play the politics. Mikel never did, not even when things were at their worst at Chelsea. He never complained. He played it straight. He fought for his job under countless managers and head coaches and for eleven years, beat back the competition.

Mikel, he’s won it all.

Having experienced it all, he knows why Chelsea were so successful. It wasn’t the team’s talent. It’s what many feel is missing today — unity of purpose. And that purpose came from one man; John Terry.

Listen, this is a true story — sometimes we would come into the changing room after a bad first half and me and John would be doing everything but throwing punches. He used to literally grab you by the neck if he thought you weren’t taking the game seriously. Sometimes the manager wouldn’t even speak to us before the match. He would let John speak. And John would use every bad word in the dictionary in his team talk, and when you left the changing room and went onto the pitch, he had you ready to give everything for the team. Everything.

There’s so much more in Mikel’s column that’s just as good as those excerpts. I urge you to read it. And when he retires, we need to start asking ourselves a question — how can we find a way for wonderful legend, the man currently 17th on the all-time appearance list, to come back to Chelsea and help fight for the cause again?

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