Posted on September 9, 2017
Personal, family and professional reasons have converged to provide more than enough motivation for John Mikel Obi to want to be in Russia next year.
Nigeria are within one match of qualification for the 2018 World Cup, with Zambia providing one final hurdle for the Super Eagles.
For Mikel, Chipolopolo is simply another demon that needs exorcising in his quest for personal and career achievement.
One of the youngest players to play for the Super Eagles when he made his debut in 2006 – Mikel was named captain last year following a tumultuous time for the Nigerian national team, which saw then-captain Vincent Enyeama retire prematurely from international duty after a volcanic spat with coach Sunday Oliseh.
A slew of senior players, like Emmanuel Emenike and Mikel himself, were passed over as Ahmed Musa was named captain. Within months, Oliseh was gone, the storm was calmed, Samson Siasia was temporarily installed and he named Mikel captain.
It is a mantle that the 30-year-old has worn with natural ease. Named Olympic team captain not long after, he put his money in to bail the country out of an embarrassing situation.
With the Super Eagles, he has become a rallying point for the entire team, and leads with the gentle guidance of big brother rather than an aloof authoritarian.
Having missed four months of football to injury, Mikel returned for Nigeria’s home and away fixture against Cameroon, and played a combined total of over two hours of football in four days.
Almost Herculean for a player who has only played two games in the preceding four months.
Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images
He told ESPNFC that he is on a mission to lead this Nigerian team to the World Cup.
“I’m still hungry and I want to be there, too. I want to lead the team,” Mikel said.
“Now there are so many young players and they are hungry to play, to be in the World Cup.”
There are also family considerations for the midfielder. His wife is Russian and he has said they would not let him live it down if he fails to qualify for the World Cup in what is now his second favourite country.
“My wife is Russian and many of our relatives and friends are from Russia,” he told FIFA.com
“They are all expecting Nigeria to qualify for the next World Cup. I think they will kill me if I fail them.”
Qualification would also provide Mikel and his kids a chance to spend time in his wife’s country, after the World Cup, of course.
Finally, there is a professional debt that the Nigeria captain feels he owes the country and, perhaps, himself.
This could so easily have been Mikel’s fourth World Cup. When he made his debut in 2006, Nigeria failed to qualify for the World Cup on head-to-head against Angola.
Four years later, an injury ruled him out of the 2010 edition in South Africa. When he finally did make it to 2014, it was – by his own admission – a forgettable performance.
“I think the World Cup we had last time wasn’t the best and I think we owe Nigerians a better World Cup if we manage to get to Russia. And that’s exactly what we want to do.”
A motivated Mikel is a hard man to stop, as he has shown throughout his career.
Overcoming a rambunctious transfer wrangle between two of England’s biggest clubs to carve a 10-year, trophy-laden career under different managers, overcoming the odds to establish himself as key cog in Nigeria’s national team and win the Africa Cup of Nations, and then becoming captain of both Olympic and World Cup teams.
On the basis of these antecedents, it will take more than a copper bullet to stop his budding love affair with Russia.