London - In a Chelsea squad consisting of superstars such as John Terry, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, it is easy for a player to go relatively unnoticed.
It is thus not surprising that John Obi Mikel remains one of the unheralded heroes at Chelsea, even though he has played more than 250 league games for the Blues.
With two Premier League titles to his name, four FA Cup winners’ medals, as well as one from the 2012 Champions League, Mikel can justly claim to be one of the stalwarts of the side.
And that not just in recent years, but going back to 2005, when he first joined the club.
Nigerian agent John Shittu, who is widely credited with first recognising the potential in the then 12-year-old Mikel and later taking him to Norwegian club Lyn via Ajax Cape Town, said that he saw from an early age that Mikel was something special.
“In life, everything is a risk. I saw something different when I started working with him. Now, our relationship is more like father and son. It is more than player and manager.
“Being an elderly figure and with my experience in the game, he listens and I believe that has helped him a lot to be where he is today.”
Mikel’s start in European football was not an easy one as within a few months of arriving in Oslo and having played less than 10 matches, he was involved in a three-way tussle involving Lyn, Manchester United and Chelsea, as well as a number of courts, arbitration and football’s governing body Fifa.
And although it is unlikely that the exact arrangements of the deal that eventually took him to Chelsea – even though he had earlier been photographed with a Manchester United jersey and been at a press conference announcing his signing – will be made fully public, it is most likely that a considerable amount of money – Chelsea are said to have spent £27 million (R472 million) before the deal was finalised – went to both United and Lyn, even though he had not played for United and the number of games he played for Lyn can be counted on two hands.
But from that tough start, he bounced back, not only with his club. Apart from the trophies and medals he has won with Chelsea, he captains the Super Eagles and was in the Africa Cup of Nations winning team in 2013.
Earlier this year, he also captained Nigeria’s Dream Team at the Olympics and ended up winning a bronze medal with the team – the only medal the west African country won in Rio.
Mikel’s career has not been without controversy and when I met him in Egypt in 2006, where he was in the Super Eagles squad at the Africa Cup of Nations, he told me personally that he considers Danish people unscrupulous, dishonest and worse. (Though a court ruled later that one of the directors of Lyn had forged his signature).
At the time, he was involved in the tussle over his signature, but when he said that to me, he had obviously forgotten that he had allowed himself to be photographed in a Manchester United jersey with his name on it.
Shittu, who still acts as Mikel’s manager, says that his client is often misunderstood. “That is why I always stand by him, speak to the few people I could speak to at the time and make them understand who Mikel is. He is not naive, but he is a very shy person. You only need to understand him.”
When he first arrived at Chelsea, he was considered an attacking midfielder, having played in that position for the Nigerian U-20 side. José Mourinho, though, saw in him a more defensive player and used him in that role, which suited Mikel better as he lacks the pace to be able to come back easily in the fast English game.
Chelsea last month announced that he would be released at the end of his contract next year and he is now being linked with a lucrative move to China during the winter transfer period that could see him earn £175 000 a week.
It is also said that his former Chelsea coach Mourinho is interested in bringing him to Manchester United. If that happens, United fans will be hoping he stays longer than just for the press conference.