Known as ‘General Mikel’ by the Nigerian senior team playing body and backroom staff for his brilliant hold-up play, vision and authority on the field, but more importantly for his leadership, Mikel John Obi has assured that he is ready to lead Nigeria well at the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals.
Russia 2018 is Obi’s second FIFA World Cup, though it would have been number four if head-to-head voodoo had not been employed for the 2006 qualifiers, and he had not missed the 2010 finals due to injury.
But the midfield enforcer has played at every big stage of the game possible and is no longer awed by any occasion.
He started as a starry-eyed Eaglet with the Nigeria U17 in Finland in 2003, before dazzling at the U20 finals in The Netherlands two years later (where Nigeria came second behind Lionel Messi’s Argentina), and then led the U23 team to unexpected bronze medal at the Olympics in Brazil two years ago.
With Chelsea FC of England, Obi played in and won the UEFA Champions League and the Europa Cup, won League and Cup titles in England and played at the FIFA Club World Cup.
Calm, collected and sure-footed as the three-time African champions trained in Essentuki on Wednesday, the former Chelsea FC of England conjured the image of someone very ready to rally his troops for the big one.
He said: “It is the FIFA World Cup – the biggest stage. We are here to prove ourselves. The attitude that saw us through a tough African qualifying group is still there, and looking at the boys, I have confidence that we will achieve our first objective of getting through the group stage.
“It is going to be about focus, about ambition and about perseverance. The confidence is there to go out and fulfill our pledge to the country.”
For the team to achieve its objective, Obi is fully aware that he certainly has to provide more than the steel and great passes from the middle; he needs to ‘carry’ the entire team on his back.
He said: “Everyone in this team is ambitious. The World Cup means a lot to everyone, and this is where to prove how good you are. No one wants to miss this opportunity.”
He did it before at the Olympic Games.
The U23 squad arrived Brazil hours before its first match against Japan due to flight hitch, but Obi rallied his troops to a famous win, and despite the odds, led the team to third place finish in flourish.
He said: “It is going to be a tough World Cup finals, from the efforts and visible ambition of the various teams, and that includes Nigeria. We will give it our best shot.”
Despite missing the friendlies against Poland and Serbia in March, Obi returned in force for the outings against England and Czech Republic, playing the full game in both.
In London, he presented gifts of headsets to his teammates, telling them the squad had no reason to play below-par at the finals with the NFF having provided everything it needed, including the team’s share of the FIFA World Cup money even before a ball is kicked in Russia.
Obi will take charge of the midfield on Saturday with his own promise to President Muhammadu Buhari that the team would do Nigeria proud, ringing in his ears.