When Nigeria’s mercurial midfielder and captain John Mikel Obi played a high profile game for Tianjin Teda in October 2018, helping the side to a 4-2 win over Shanghai Shenhua, very few suspected it was going to be his last match for the Chinese side.


And fewer even thought his career would survive after subsequently signing a deal to play for Middlesbrough on Jan 24, 2019. It seemed inevitable that the career of the gifted player who was once the subject of an intense transfer war between English Premier League heavyweights, Chelsea and Manchester United, was finally headed for a trajectory of nothingness.

How wrong has that proven just weeks later.

Mikel Obi has thrived ceaselessly since arriving at Riverside Stadium, brightening the atmosphere around the 34,000 capacity arena, and alongside other players like Ashley Fletcher, Britt Assombalonga.

And the coach of the team, Tony Pulis, acknowledging the midfielder’s prowess and contribution to the team in the match against highly rated Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United spoke highly of his outstanding quality.

“We played well, both Saville and Wingy were brilliant with the energy they showed, played some good football and got the wing backs forward. Mikel was obviously the best player on the pitch by a country mile. He’s a good free transfer,” said Pulis after the game.

The Maestro, who is in a distinguished class of Nigerian players to have played at all age-grade levels for his country, followed up the masterful display with another sterling performance away to Blackburn, dictating play in the midfield and stringing passes that synchronised Middlesbrough into a harmony that left Blackburn spellbound.

Starting his career as a child prodigy, Mikel shone like a thousand stars playing for his country at FIFA U17 World Cup in Finland, 2003, coming second only to the inimitable Lionel Messi in a competition that seemed to herald the arrival of super footballer that experts predicted was ready to go to the very top of the round leather game and rule in the world of football for years.

His value, and the expectations for his future attained a stratospheric dimension when Chelsea and Manchester United tussled for his signature, a battle that ended in victory for Chelsea where the player spent years playing for the London club in a career moment that cannot exactly be described as stellar as he struggled to hold down a place in a team that had the resources to recruit the best in the early years of cash-abundant Roman Abrahamovich era.

While some conveniently adduced the presence of other established players in the centre of the pitch for Mikel’s sporadic presence in the first team, eccentric coach, Jose Mourinho also got his fair of the blame as he was accused of playing the player out of position, putting him at the base of midfield where it was suggested he got stifled, unable to express and enjoy himself in the more advanced area of the pitch where his technique-rich approach to the game could help strikers playing ahead of him to score goals aplenty.

Upon departure to China, many in his home country and abroad thought he had gone conveniently to an uncompetitive arena for ‘pension’, a sentiment that showed their lack of understanding of a never-say-die midfielder, who soon got bored of being forgotten, preferring, and orchestrating a move back to Championship side, Middlesbrough, a step that looks like a good, well-thought out decision already.

And whatever you think of him, Mikel’s biggest strength is his class, a permanent feature of his soccer persona, which for a long time will continue to put him in the limelight.



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