Saturday, March 25, 2017

Is the Bell Tolling for Mikel Obi?

With the coming of age for young players in the Nigerian national team, it is time to ask if the bell has begun to toll for Mikel Obi. Nigeria's recent international in London against Senegal may be remembered, much later, as the moment Nigeria transitioned from the Mikel Obi era to the era of the young boys -- Ndidi, Etebo, Iwobi, and others. Mikel has, so far, shepherded those boys as Nigeria gradually rebuilt its team in the last few years but London may have signaled the turning point.

However, the truth is that even before London the signs of a transition had already appeared. Though Coach Gernot Rohr's handed over the team captainship to a deserving Mikel Obi, what was left unspoken was that Rohr substituted Mikel in two of three games that Mikel played under Rohr. It was not so much as Mikel playing poorly in those games but the Coach introducing new faces for the future.

What is left now is to ask whether Mikel Obi will be starting games in the near future. If Nigeria plays at the World Cup of 2018 and the Nations Cup of 2019, would Mikel start the games or would he lead from the bench as Stephen Keshi did in 1994 and Nwankwo Kanu did during the tail end of his career?

When Mikel Obi debuted in August of 2005 against Libya in an international friendly, he had around him the likes of Nwankwo Kanu and Joseph Yobo. Notably the likes of Ejike Uzoenyi and Apam Onyekachi debuted ahead of him in a bizarre historical occurrence. Mikel, like Okocha before him, was to make the Nigerian No. 10 shirt his own. It was his shirt except for eight games, early on, where he wore shirt numbers 8, 5, and 18 while waiting on the end of Jay Jay Okocha's career and the snuffing of a short-lived career of Onyekachi Okonkwo.

Twelve years later, Mikel appears the only man standing from that era of the Super Eagles, the only one active at the national team level. His career, surely, is one of the most accomplished at both club and national team levels. At 78 national team appearances, Mikel seems now a long way from eclipsing the Nigerian record of 101 appearances held by Vincent Enyeama and yet for years he has been an automatic choice for Nigeria. The fact that he has not yet passed Enyeama is because of a 2010 injury and missed international friendlies.

But make no mistake about it, Mikel Obi throughout his national team career was inarguably Nigeria's best in keeping ball possession and seeking out his team mates for goals that matter. His pass at the 2013 Nations Cup against Zambia that setup Emenike for a crucial lead in a group game was a signature solely his. Yet, he may also have been one of the most vilified by a section of Nigerian fans who cite a lack of pace and a silence of risk in his passing choices. If indeed his bell is tolling, one undeniable truth is that Mikel's career will not forgotten no matter whether you stood as his champion or his foe.