Why Some Nigerians Love to Hate Keshi, Mikel

With the shocking failure of the Super Eagles to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations competition scheduled for Equatorial Guinea early next year, many a Nigerian soccer fan, angry at the loss, have taken to venting their frustration against those they perceive to have caused or contributed to the team’s ouster.

Two of such names, as I saw it, are Stephen Keshi and John Obi Mikel. If, like me, you are a patron of one of the viewing centres in Yakoyo, near Ojodu, Lagos, your ears would have been, like we say in local parlance, “full” these past days with stories about Keshi and Mikel.

It’s indeed true what they say; a failure’s an orphan. There might be other outlets for you to confirm this, but you needed to be at the viewing centres to know people’s opinion of Keshi, a man many, just about a year ago, hailed to high heavens as a messiah. “Keshi? He’s a bad coach, poor and deficient in technical matters; he’s not a good manager at all,” one of the men railed. This view is just one of many jibes now being thrown at the man. As far as many of the fans are concerned, Nigeria’s failure to qualify for the Nations Cup had to do with Keshi’s deficiencies and choice of players.

And Mikel? Oh, how they also loathe him. Many observers might recall that Mikel isn’t a well liked footballer. This is not unconnected to his playing style. Mikel is, in my opinion, one of the most criticized, if not the most underappreciated Nigerian player. His critics often harp on his proclivity to occasionally slow the tempo of a game by passing the ball back to begin attack afresh rather than surge forward as something of a sin, and refuse to acknowledge the young man’s strength as a footballer that has made him a mainstay of star studded Chelsea since 2006. When he manages to score, like he recently did in a Champions League match against Sporting Lisbon, it is subjected to ridicule. The apparent dislike for him was even taken to a ridiculous level by some appraisers who attributed Chelsea’s first loss against Newcastle on December 6 to him.

Pray, how could the result of that match we all watched be attributed to Mikel? It’s all in bad taste, made all the more sullen by the Super Eagles Nations Cup ouster.

Mikel may have failed to mature into the player many who first saw him in action for Nigeria’s U-17 team in 2003 thought he would, but that doesn’t make him a bad player. If he were such a poor player many of his traducers make him out to be, he wouldn’t be in Chelsea today, even as the club or Jose Mourinho takes the blame for what Mikel turned out to be.

In 2008 when Manchester United visited Nigeria for a tourney, Alex Ferguson, then United’s coach, at a press conference in Transcorp Hilton Hotel Abuja, said that Mikel would have turned out a better player than he was had he joined Manchester United instead of Chelsea. The remark didn’t go down well with some people including Mikel and John Shittu, his agent, and they dismissed the comment as mere sour grapes. Recall that Mikel was first unveiled as a Manchester United player before Chelsea suddenly came into the picture to snatch the player from its rival. The row generated by that scramble for the youngster by two of Europe’s leading clubs was such that many who hadn’t seen Mikel in action, were eager to watch him.

It is doubtful that Mikel reached his full potential. I feel he did not, as the flair so manifest in 2003 and up to 2005 is shockingly lacking today. But is he an average player, like many of his critics want us to believe? Certainly not, in my own opinion. In the book, Half of a Yellow Sun, an argument between the white man Richard and his girlfriend Kainene ensued with the latter hinting about the need to replace the Biafran leader, Emeka Ojukwu. Richard then asked her, “Replace him with who…?” It was a cheeky question and Kainene could only laugh.

The same words apply to those who question Mikel’s relevance or usefulness in the Super Eagles particularly. Which player do you replace him with? Or put another way, do you have a better alternative?

What some people simply fail to understand is that there’s a day, like Marcelo Lippi, the former Juventus and Italian World Cup winning coach once put it, when nothing, in terms of tactics, works in a football match. And there are days when, no matter how good you are as a player, you are found wanting when it matters most.

Without making a case for anyone’s failure, the Super Eagles, many times in the past, preceding even Keshi’s reign, had been lucky to win matches or qualify for championships when it all but appeared they had lost out. The 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign was one of such. Without taking away anything from Shuaibu Amodu’s managerial ability, the Super Eagles were lucky to have qualified ahead of the Lone Stars of Liberia for the Korea/Japan tournament. And then Nigeria, like everyone knows, was unlucky against Italy in USA 94.

Luck makes the difference at times and disappointing result is a part of the game, even if no one wants to be the loser. Sulking and throwing jibes at players and coaches won’t reverse anything.

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