He stations himself right in front of the rear guard. The centreback behind him to his right receives a pass from the goalkeeper. He readies himself. A pass in his direction is imminent. As anticipated, the pass comes. He traps the ball, then looks up to assess his options. He sees the wide forward on the far side waving for a diagonal. He ignores, then chooses to play it back to the centreback to his left. This is was the story of John Obi Mikel after Jose Mourinho left Chelsea in 2007. It was his thing. Nobody expected an ambitious, defense splitting pass from him. He kept it simple. Always, it seemed. He played like one whose skill set had been dramatically replaced with another; a less glamorous one. What he was reduced to doing was not what drew the attention two of the biggest clubs in England. At his last World Youth Championships, Mikel’s brilliance took Nigeria all the way to the final of the tournament. But, it wasn’t just about Mikel. Infact, this article is not about Mikel.
Precisely a week before Nigeria’s U20 side played their first match at the 2005 World Youth Championship, the senior national team traveled to Kigali in search of three important points during the 2006 World Cup qualifiers. They left with one. Agitated as ever, Nigerian football fans are not a timid bunch afraid to express themselves. The outcry for some injection of youth was only amplified by the result in Rwanda’s capital city. Sections of the press insisted players like Nwankwo Kanu had achieved enough to trigger waning passion, while some considered the possibility of ousting the ludicrously gifted Jay Jay Okocha. Most just wanted Garba Lawal to leave. Manager Augustine Eguavoen had a lot of work on his hands in the upcoming months. He had to win the ticket. Meanwhile, the Flying Eagles were preparing for their first group game at the ‘junior World Cup’ against Brazil in the Netherlands. Under the tutelage of Samson Siasia, they arrived with little pre-tournament preparation. Fears of disharmony when the team took the pitch were present.
After the stalemate against Brazil in the first group game, all eyes turned to the next game againt South Korea. For the most part, Nigeria were on top, and had an early goal cushion. Two factors were particularly problematic for the team all tournament long: complacency and wastefulness in front of goal. The former was the case against the Koreans. Two late goals ensured Nigeria lost the game, which meant the next game against Switzerland was a must win. For certain, Samson Siasia had a way with his boys. He was not just a manager to them. He was a mentor. A guardian. He would award bonuses to the team from his pocket from time to time. This was designed to be a motivational tool. The players had his back, because they were assured that he had theirs. The sacrifices and his willingness to relate was sufficient to generate the drive needed. They headed to Enschede with a simple objective: win.
The game against the Swiss was to be played on the 18th of June. The exact date would be bordering on insignificant if it wasn’t for the unlikely coincidence of a World Cup qualifier of interest being slated for the same day. The senior squad’s crucial qualifying game against Angola was also on the same day. Like that wasn’t enough, both games would be played at 4pm. I, particularly, didn’t have a choice. I was going to watch whatever the public FTA station we had access to was showing. It would eventually be the Angola game. I didn’t have the luxury of satellite or cable TV. My mom was working as a teacher at a primary military school, so we were given accommodation at the barracks. The power and water supply was free, and, of course, you know what to expect security-wise. The barracks was a haven that shielded the occupants from the harsh realities of the outside world. This was during the regime of Olusegun Obasanjo, who was in his sixth year as head of state. His regime was the first democratic regime since the ill fated appointment of Ernest Shonekan in the mid-nineties. During Obasanjo’s regime, corruption was rife, and the level of impunity was alarming. People were getting away with everything. The status quo at the time wasn’t a reflection of the revenue gotten from crude oil export. But then again, when was there ever a transparent and accountable civilian regime in Nigeria? The answer to that is very simple.
On a day of contrasting emotions, Nigeria drew the World Cup qualifier played in the northern state of Kano. It was a disastrous result which left hopes hanging by a thread. It was a completely different story in the Netherlands. The ‘other’ team tore Switzerland into three. The country took notice, and looked to them to offer reprieve from the incessant abuse the senior national team subjected her to. With one sleeve of his jersey literally folded to his shoulder, Dele Adeleye was the barricade at the back. He was tough and aggressive. Onyekachi Apam was a picture of commitment. He, alongside Adeleye, marshaled the defence. Olubayo Adefemi and Taye Taiwo were a handful. Always bringing with him a goal threat from the left, Taiwo could swing one into the box, or choose to smash the ball towards goal Roberto Carlos-esque. On the other side, the late Adefemi mostly wanted to do what he knew how to do in the opposition third: cross. Sani Kaita would break a limb (or an opposition player’s) for you. Mikel’s passing and guile was superb. He would evade attention from opposition players with such grace reminiscent to how Nwankwo Kanu would go about it. Chinedu Obasi, who had his middle name inscribed on the back of his jersey at the time, was a constant goal threat. He knew where the goal was, and his technique was exemplary. Captain Isaac Promise was the shephard of the flock. They knew their job, and went about it admirably. From Ambrose Vanzekin at the goal down to the last name on the bench, everybody was fired up. You could see the ambition from their expressions, and, most remarkably they were having fun while they were at it.
After a narrow victory against Ukraine, the hosts were up next. A nerve racking contest decided by a landslide penalty shootout. There were so many penalties that Taiwo had to take two (which he duly dispatched, of course). I had to catch up with the highlights of the game later on; the seemingly eternal epileptic power supply in Nigeria is no longer news to the outside world. After demolishing Morocco in the semis, a clash against Argentina awaited. A Messi penalty gave the south Americans the lead, before the Adefemi-Obasi connection restored parity, causing wild outbursts of delight. Another Messi penalty put them ahead again, and that’s how it remained. A sense of pride was restored with those boys. In a football crazy country whose footballing and economic future always seems to be shrouded in uncertainty, they signified hope. They were fearless and dynamic; qualities the national side from the golden age of the ’90s were built upon. The senior national team failed to qualify for the Germany World Cup, but Augustine Eguavoen kept his job. As for Mikel and Taiwo, they won the Silver and Bronze balls respectively at the youth championship in the Netherlands that year. Samson Siasia would later go on to oversee an ill fated tenure as manager of the Super Eagles. The class of ’11 showed promise, but Siasia’s class of ’05 will be hard to forget. Special times.