Chelsea’s Nigeria international skipper Mikel Obi finally bowed to the inevitable and decided to abandon a life of collecting a huge salary at Stamford Bridge without playing, for a bumper Chinese takeaway that should ensure he doesn’t have to worry about putting food on his table for the rest of his life.
Obi signed for Chinese club Tianjin TEDA, reportedly for £180,000 a week and left with an emotional open letter to Chelsea fans in which he said “after ten years, 374 appearances and eleven trophies”.. “I say goodbye as a Champion of England, a Champion of Europe and proud captain of my national team”. It sounds more like a retirement speech than a farewell one, and the Chinese league, despite the megabucks on offer, looks like a final opportunity for players coming to the end of careers such as Carlos Tevez to secure comfort in retirement.
But Obi is just 29 and this move smells so much of many of the decisions he has made over his career, which may have made financial sense, but has left many Nigerian fans, who first saw him as a precocious teenager mentioned in the same breath as Lionel Messi, wondering what could have been.
Yes, Obi can point at his 10 years at Chelsea and the medals that came along and his 2013 Africa Nations Cup win with Nigeria as evidence of a successful career. That would have been great for a workhorse of a player but not for one who showed the potential to be a thoroughbred when he came second to Messi in the Fifa World Youth Championship in 2005.
Obi then threatened to be among the best players in the world as a creative attacking midfielder that had Nigerian fans believing he was the natural heir to Jay-Jay Okocha. In the end, he left Chelsea through the backdoor after coach Antonio Conte decided that N’Golo Kante offered more dynamism in defensive midfield and didn’t let Obi play a single minute this season.
How did it come to this for a player that should have been competing for Balon d’Ors with Messi? There’s a song that says “money don’t make the man”, but money may have made Obi not fulfil his enormous potential.
In April 2005 Obi signed a deal with Manchester United from Lyn Oslo in Norway that bypassed his agent John Shittu, who had an agreement to take the teenager to Chelsea. After a lot of controversy, in which Shittu claimed Obi was “kidnapped” and signed the contract with United under duress, Chelsea settled the issue by paying United £12m and Obi moved to the London club in June 2006.
Chelsea was managed then by Jose Mourinho, while United were under the huge influence of Alex Ferguson. With the benefit of hindsight and Ferguson’s history of nurturing youth and playing attacking football, in all likelihood, if Obi had stayed at United, he could have ended up as the natural successor to Paul Scholes as the creative hub of the United team.
Instead, the young Obi came under the spell of Mourinho, who converted him to a Claude Makalele wannabe and solely restricted to “water-carrying” duties in midfield. The Portuguese coach’s agricultural and functional approach to the game would have a long-lasting influence on Obi’s career as the player became notoriously risk averse, with all the creative juices squeezed out of his game.
Obi continued to struggle to lose that safety-first streak despite the different coaches that came after Mourinho, including Carlo Ancelotti, who once said he wanted Obi to operate for Chelsea like Andrea Pirlo did for him at Milan – as a deep-lying playmaker. Obi never became Chelsea’s Pirlo, even though he had the ability to do so.
Obi survived seven coaches at Chelsea and a second Mourinho spell, without ever becoming a permanent fixture in the team, with the exception of Guus Hiddink’s two spells as interim coach. The Nigerian didn’t seem to want to leave for regular first team football ostensibly because there were few other teams that would pay him the £80,000 or so he was earning weekly at Chelsea.
Staying put meant that Obi was part of the most successful spell in Chelsea’s history, but he was more of a footnote than a decisive factor in that success. When they won the league in 2015, Obi was usually introduced as a sub when Mourinho was intent on defending a lead.
This season Conte decided there was no place for Obi in the type of football he wanted to play. While Obi was tossed into the football scrapheap, a fellow Nigerian at Chelsea, that was previously unwanted by past coaches, Victor Moses, grabbed the opportunities that a new coach with fresh ideas had to offer, playing with a verve, dynamism and creativity – even from a defensive position (wing-back) – that have proven to be beyond Obi.
So Obi read the writing on the Great Wall of China and decided it was time to head east. He would look back on his time in England and it would surely be seen as a success in terms of trophies and money in the bank. But all the hopes of standing shoulder to shoulder with Messi and being the creative influence for Nigeria that Okocha was, were passed sideways in typical abandoning responsibility fashion.