It is difficult to tell if Super Eagles captain, John Mikel Obi was missed as the team still qualified for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations without him, playing eight matches in the process and losing none.
In his time away from the team, the Super Eagles won six games and drew two, scoring seventeen goals and conceding five, not a bad turn out for them.
Mikel returned to the team with the friendly match against Zimbabwe in Asaba last weekend and will lead the team to the AFCON in Egypt, but what was it about his one year away from the team?
Obi told NigerianFootballer.com that he just needed to rest and there was nothing uncanny about his absence.
“Well, to be honest, there was not really much. I think nothing really happened. I had a conversation with the coach. We have a good understanding, me and the coach.
“Yes, I had a few injuries after the World cup and I thought I needed a rest. To be honest, I have been doing this for 15 years since I started with the national team from the under 17 and I think you know if you have been doing something that long, at some point you will need a rest,” Mikel said.
“So I had a talk with the coach, coupled with the injuries that I needed a rest, so I said I’ll take some time off and recover to be back in time for the AFCON so it was no problem.”
Replacement? What replacement?
On return to football after the World Cup, the Super Eagles started with a game against Seychelles on the road which they won 3-0; goals from Ahmed Musa, Chiedozie Awaziem and Odion Ighalo saw off the home side. In the center of midfield on the day were Ogenyi Onazi and Wilfred Ndidi in a 4-4-2.
Others who played in midfield in the one year that Mikel was out were Oghenekaro Etebo, Alex Iwobi and John Ogu.
“Since I wasn’t here the team did well and the coach did well too. I agree there are a lot of new players in the team and we qualified comfortably, same as the World Cup Qualifiers and scored a lot of goals too so it is not a surprise how well we have done,” Mikel said.
“The spirit of the team is still there and that is why we played well even in my absence.
“I do not know about a replacement for me. There are a lot of young and good players here. One thing I know for sure is that Nigeria will always produce amazing footballers so if you are leaving there will always be someone to replace you.”
Around the world in sixteen years
Mikel had a short stint with Plateau United before he moved to Norway and played for Lyn Oslo from 2004 to 2006. Obi had eleven fruitful years at Chelsea where he played 374 games and scored 6 times.
In 2017 he went on an adventure to the far east with Tianjin Teda in the Chinese Super League.
After thirty-one games and three goals in two season’s he ended his adventure there and returned to England with Middlesbrough on a short term deal.
“I came back from China where I enjoyed my two years there. I have no regrets about going there.
“At Middlesbrough, I played a few games. I did well and the team did well, but now I hope I can help Nigeria win another Nations Cup. I hope I can help this young team win another Nations Cup.”
Fitness may be the way to win
In 2013 when the Super Eagles won the AFCON with Stephen Keshi as coach, one of the factors that worked for the team was their fitness.
Mikel Obi says he sees the same thing in the class of 2019.
“Fitness will play a big part in this tournament. It always does in African football. In 2013 when we won, we were one of the fittest teams there, well drilled and all. I think it will play a big part.”
The captain adds that Gernot Rohr has done a lot of work on the fitness of the team and still puts a lot of emphasis on it.
“That is exactly what we are doing right now, training twice a day, doing a lot of running. That is one thing players hate- running, but every player is working. We all want to achieve the same thing. We also know we have to remain calm and focused. If we do that, then we will keep winning games, one after the other.
“Experience and youthfulness also plays a big part and we have a blend of both, so who knows? We’ve got a very young team. They are all fit so who knows where they’ll get to?”
Keeping up with the pressure
Since after the Green Eagles won the AFCON in 1980, Nigerians have always coveted the trophy every two years for the big event.
Asides from 1994 and 2013 when Nigeria won, the Eagles have been losing finalists in 1984, 1988, 1990 and 2000 while they got the 3rd place medal in 1992, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2010.
The teams had always been faced with enormous pressure before and during the tournaments because Nigerians always want to win.
Every coach that did not win the AFCON was relieved of his duties, except Clemens Westerhof in 1990 and 1992. The current Super Eagles players understand the pressure they will face as Nigerians would once again want the case of 2013 when the team returned after missing the previous edition to win it.
“If I say to you now that we are not under any pressure, then that means I am lying. There is always pressure when you go out to play any tournament especially in a situation where people think you are favourites to win. You start to feel the pressure. It is all about how well we deal with it,” Mikel opined.
He stressed that the team had the kind of coaches and players that can deal with any pressure that comes their way.
“We have an experienced coach. And we have experienced players so we try to calm it down. We have to train very well, do our jobs, be fit too. The pressure is part of the game and we are used to it. We just have to go out and do what we have to do, same as any other team. If we do it very well, then hopefully, we will bring back the trophy.”
Modern day communications trends also ensured that the players never stayed apart from each other.
They always stayed in touch via social media chat groups.
“We do communicate. One thing we do here is that the spirit of the team is good. I have not been here for one year but I do know everything happening here on our WhatsApp group chat. Clubs have it and we do have it. We know what is going on with everybody, birthdays, weddings, etc. the spirit is really good and we believe we can keep that up and do well in Egypt.”
Nigeria start in a group that has Madagascar, Guinea, and Burundi. The fans are optimistic as usual and the team captain is. However, all these will come to nothing if the Eagles do not go all the way in the AFCON. That is all the fans want so the players and coaches must find a way to give it. Nigeria is that kind of country.