Africa Cup of Nations: Nigeria will hope John Obi Mikel makes impact on return to Egypt

Midfielder is back where he made a memorable tournament debut in 2006 - this time as leader of team eager to improve poor continental record

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 02: John Obi Mikel of Nigeria during an International Friendly between England and Nigeria at Wembley Stadium on June 2, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Offside/Getty Images)
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It was among the most stunning tournament debuts of the modern era.

The kid was just 18 years old. He had not played so much as a competitive minute in the senior national team. Pressure? Weighty. Tens of millions of Nigerians were watching, not to mention representatives of the two Premier League clubs litigating over the teenager’s future.

The venue was Port Said, the occasion the last time Egypt staged an Africa Cup of Nations, in early 2006. Nigeria’s Super Eagles had become vexed by a stubborn Zimbabwe in their second group match.

Less than 10 minutes after half time, manager Augustine Eguavoen ordered a double substitution, the introduction of a totem, Kanu, and a tyro, John Obi Mikel.

Three minutes on the pitch, and the prodigy had set up the opening goal, with a measured corner. Four minutes later, he scored, from the edge of the opposition penalty area, teeing up, after a studied pause and a nimble shift on to his right foot, a precise, arrowed shot.

The poise of the finish belied his young age. That was pure Mikel: unruffled, apparently far more grown-up than his years suggested.

John Obi Mikel, right, and his Nigerian team have done well at World Cups but not at Africa Cup of Nations. Rungroj Yongrit / EPA

The same player, almost half a lifetime later, now returns to Egypt with the Super Eagles for what may be his last Nations Cup. He is the squad’s senior general, recalled after a long absence from international duty.

Assuming Mikel, most likely with the captain’s armband, starts against Burundi on Saturday in Group B’s opening fixture of Afcon 2019 in Alexandria, it will be his first competitive game for his country since the deflating World Cup of last summer in Russia.

“Having been with the team so long,” Mikel explained, aware of some murmurs of scepticism that he was cherry-picking his appointments with the Super Eagles, “I needed a break, but I have kept in touch and I’m happy to be back, to see if I can help win another Nations Cup.”

If Nigeria take the untidy habits that undermined them in Russia into this tournament, that will be a tall order. If they can regain the authority and momentum they showed at the triumphant Afcon of 2013, and at times at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil where they reached the last 16, then they will look like formidable challengers.

It is nothing new to report that the Eagles are a tournament enigma, but they have lurched more dramatically than usual between formidable and frail in the past nine years. They enter this edition with the bewildering record of having reached the last three World Cups yet failed to make it to three of the four Nations Cup tournaments in the same period.

The summons to Mikel, from manager Gernot Rohr, is guided by the need to inject some experience from the good times. He, striker Ahmed Musa and defender Kenneth Omeruo are the sole remainers from the 2013 Afcon success in South Africa and form a spine around which Rohr will design a strategy of speed on the break and plenty of width.

He is encouraged by the form Mikel showed at Middlesbrough, the English championship club he joined in January after a spell in China, by the strong end-of-season displays of Alex Iwobi and Wilfred Ndidi for their Premier League employers Arsenal and Leicester City, and the impression made by Samuel Chukwueze, 20, in what was the winger’s breakthrough campaign at Spain’s Villarreal.

What Rohr demands is greater consistency from a Nigeria who contrived to lose their first qualifier for the 2019 Afcon, at home to South Africa, but bounced back to win the group.

“We do not have the great stars like a Jay-Jay Okocha or a Kanu that Nigeria have had in the past,” said Rohr, the German who has been with the Super Eagles for two and a half years, “and we cannot be considered favourites, but we have a good chance of making the last four and then, who knows?”

No great stars? Mikel, 32, is the nearest this squad has to one.

John Obi Mikel left Chelsea in 2017 after more than 10 half years and having won 11 trophies. Glyn Kirk / AFP

An Uefa Champions League winner and twice a Premier League champion with Chelsea, he is closing in on a 90th cap for his country as he returns to the site of his first competitive senior international and those seven minutes of startling, instant impact.

Back then, just as he is now, having completed his short-term Boro contract, he was between clubs. In 2006, Manchester United and Chelsea were fighting tooth and nail for his signature, both claiming they had an agreed commitment in what turned in a tawdry, ill-tempered dispute that the London club eventually won.

Mikel would spend a decade at Chelsea, gradually developed into more of an anchor midfielder than the light-stepping, creative dazzler glimpsed that day in Port Said.

Nigerians would appreciate seeing both versions of Mikel, the commanding midfield organiser and the adventurous match-winner, over the coming weeks.