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Super Eagles and Tianjin Teda captain, Mikel Obi, has a load of respect for two Nigerian living legends. They are former internationals Austin Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu.

Speaking exclusively since the World Cup in Russia in an interview conducted  by Kunle Solaja of the Sports Village Square, the midfielder singled out the Nigerian greats as those who inspired him as a teenage footballer.

While Kanu remains the most decorated Nigerian player as a two-time African player award-winner, Okocha’s skill and midfield command is second to none till date.

Mikel recounts: “As a young player, I drew so much inspiration from two of the best stars Nigeria ever produced. I grew up looking up to (Nwankwo) Kanu and (Austin) Jay Jay Okocha. I enjoyed watching them play for their respective club sides. More importantly, their exploits in the national team really thrilled me. In their later years, I played in the Super Eagles with them. They were highly motivating to me. But on the global stage, Zinedine Zidane was my all-time hero.”

Another player he has greater respect for is the Barcelona and Argentina forward, Lionel Messi – a five-time World Footballer of the Year award winner.

Mikel puts it this way: “There is no controversy. Lionel Messi is simply the greatest footballer to have ever played football. Across many competitions, I have been on the same pitch with him. I therefore know what I am saying.”

Mikel’s path has crossed that of Messi on more than one occasion. Twice they have met in the FIFA championships finals. First, at the World Youth Championships in 2005 and second, at the Olympics football final in 2008. On both occasions, Messi and Argentina had the better of Mikel and Nigeria.

In spite of the losses, Mikel remains Nigeria’s most decorated active footballer. He is in fact a legend having featured in all FIFA’s tiers of football – the U-17 in Finland 2003, the U-20 in the Netherlands 2005, FIFA World Cup in 2014 and 2018, FIFA Confederations Cup in 2013, Olympics in 2016 and FIFA Club World Cup with Chelsea in 2012.

He has also been an Africa Cup of Nations winner with the Super Eagles in 2013 and winners in the UEFA Champions League (2011/12), UEFA Europa League in 2012/2013, as well as being winner in the English Premier League (2009/10, 2014/15), the English FA Cup in 2006/07, 2008/09 and 2011/12.

Going down memory lane, Mikel considers himself a good example of an average Nigerian youth who dares all odds to succeed.

“Youths are the future of any nation or country. They are the future scientists, future teachers, future doctors, future governors and presidents, as well as future farmers. My advice for them is to put God first, stay focused on your dreams, work hard and be a person of good character. Your name is the most important asset to you in life. Dreams do come true. I am an example of that. Never give up!

“I am also an ambitious person. I did not give myself any other choice but to be successful because I never stop pushing myself. For the youths, follow your dreams, don’t listen to people that tell you, you cannot make it, and when things are hard, pray harder, God will give you strength to go through it. Most importantly, hard work and good name.

“As for our leaders, it is for them to please continue to create better environments and opportunities for our youths.”

Noting that youths are tools for development in developed countries, Mikel calls on Nigerian youths to also show their hands in politics and other spheres of governance. “In every developed nation, the youths don’t merely take the back seat in decisions affecting their countries. They are active participants and help in shaping in their destinies. That perhaps explains why some of such countries now come out with very young leaders. France is an example. The Nigerian youths should take more than mere ‘sidon dey look’ attitude in our national affairs. They are the future and the future begins now. I am happy to learn that the president has signed the ‘Not too young to run’ bill. That means we are making progress. The youths who constitute the vast majority of our population must prepare to participate in lifting the country up.”

Mikel Obi further delves into history book, recalling the growing up in Jos, signing for Chelsea, venturing abroad, family life, social life and businesses. Excerpts:

My humble beginning

I grew up with my parents and brothers in Jos, Plateau State. Growing up was ok, but like with most families, we were struggling financially. We were not in any way different from the others in our neighbourhood.

But we are a very contented and happy family. So when I realised at the age of nine that I loved football and I was good at it, I became determined to follow my dreams.

That was how I became a footballer and got invited into the youth team from where I have since grown to be a senior player in the national team.

Growing up in Jos may have also in a way helped in shaping my destiny.You will recall that the tin-rich city also produced some of the prominent Nigerian footballers, some of whom I only later heard about.

Segun Odegbami, I understand, also grew up in Jos and later became a sensational footballer internationally. The same with the Atuegbu brothers, Layiwola Olagbenro, Baba Otu Mohammed, Sam Garba Okoye, Peter Anieke, among others.

I am very close to my family back home and I come home regularly especially when the Super Eagles have international duties at home. I am home a few times a year. As I said earlier, I grew up in Jos even though my family and I hail from Anambra State in the East.

Being torn between Manchester United and Chelsea

My dad was a Manchester United supporter. He wanted me to join Sir Alex Ferguson. But Chelsea offered to sign me and three other friends who might not have gotten a club otherwise. For that reason, I decided to join Chelsea.Going abroad to play football, especially in Europe is not just a Nigerian mentality. It is so in many other African and South American countries. Europe offers the best in terms of facility and opportunities.

But the good thing is that the Nigerian league is also getting better with the partnership with some notable European leagues. All the same, going abroad gives young players better opportunity, better environment to train and focus and better facilities to also become world class.

Next year, in partnership with some stakeholders, we are starting a programme in Nigeria to give young aspirants an opportunity to go abroad and become professional footballers. It is called the “African Next Superstar”. We are in the process of packaging the event which details will be unfolded after the Africa Cup of Nations’ qualifier with Seychelles.

Life outside football pitch

I love spending time with my family, my partner and my two daughters. I also enjoy working on my various business interests with my business team especially in the areas of manufacturing, and infrastructural development. You may be aware that I love Nigerian music a lot. Among my favourites are Tiwa Savage, P-Square and Banky W, among others. I am a very private person and usually don’t like to discuss my family on public domain. We are fine and all is well with us.

On  dad’s kidnap

I really want to put the episode behind and we have since moved on. I am very patriotic. I love my country, Nigeria, even though I have lived in Europe for many years and now living in China. I love both abroad and Nigeria. However, after retirement, there’s no place like home.

Taste for fashion

Everyone says am stylish. I just like wearing what looks good on me and what I feel comfortable in. It also helps to be tall and athletic, because everything fits well. My clothe types depend on the occasion. But it’s all about quality, and not quantity. Finally, I must say that we have some amazing designers in Nigeria, with fantastic ideas.

My leadership style with Super Eagles

I lead the team by example. To me, that’s very crucial. A good leader should always lead by example, and when we are losing, I inspire my team mates by making sure they keep their heads up and believe. However, my job as a leader in the team is easier because we have players that are hungry, focused and determined to be winners. Winners never give up. We have talented players.

After China , what next?

Time will tell. I am enjoying my time in China. It is a great country to live and work and I want to continue playing for another four to five years. I will like to retire back in the premier league in a few years’ time, but we will see what comes.

Clarion call to political leaders

The great thing about democracy is that everyone has a voice and everyone can contribute to changes in our country by voting. I encourage every youth that can vote, to get their PVC and vote. To make their vote count so they can have a say in their own future. As I said, they are the future.

Life after retirement

I have several business interests and I have surrounded myself with a team of good business professionals. We are growing partnerships with manufacturers, brands, and tech. I can also say that Nigeria is a place with enormous opportunities and great business leaders, from industries to banking, to oil and gas. Nigeria is the biggest and fastest growing economy in Africa; there are so many great opportunities for investment and growth economically. I have various investments in Nigeria and my team and I are looking into other parts of Africa too. I have a great business team around me and things are going well, thank God.

Youth empowerment

Yes, we have several programmes we are working on to contribute to every other efforts going on in the country by others and the government. Our first programme launches in January and it relates to football and other programmes shall follow shortly after.

Between  Michael and Mikel

Yes. My real name is John Michael Obi. At a tournament, it was miss-spelt and I have since been living with it without any regret. I did not notice it in the first place because my desire to represent Nigeria at international competition was uppermost in my mind. It was in 2003 as we prepared for the FIFA U-17 in Finland. All I did was to consult with my dad and he did not see anything wrong in my adopting the name, Mikel.


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