The Nigeria icon endeared himself to supporters in Rio for his initiative and self-sacrifice
The events leading to Rio 2016 probably cemented Mikel John Obi’s legendary status for the nation’s supporters.
This was a consequence of the ex-Nigeria international’s greatest sacrifice for the West African nation before the Games after the Nigeria Football Federation’s disgraceful delay to fund the team’s travel and upkeep expenses.
The team were stuck in the United States, in danger of missing their opening game against Japan which was going to rank as arguably the greatest embarrassment to the nation on the international stage.
Seeing that the NFF were stalling, Mikel took matters into his hands; acting as the team’s benefactor of the side, as the players travelled to South America on the day of their opening game against the East Asian country, which they won 5-4.
That rip-roaring nine-goal thriller was to serve as a catalyst for the Dream Team’s run to a Bronze medal, which, as it turned out was Nigeria’s only honour in Rio. The eventual success made the captain’s sacrifice even more significant, given how modern footballers are perceived: egocentric, self-serving and thoughtless.
The former Chelsea anchorman — the only over-age outfield player in that squad — saved the nation from the global embarrassment and led them to third-place, a success recorded against all odds.
Playing at the Games even cost him his place in the Blues side, with Antonio Conte marginalising the defensive midfielder upon his return having been against Mikel’s participation with the Dream Team.
“I had been called up by my national team to play and it was a dream,” Mikel told the Athletic in March. “It’s a dream for anyone to go to the Olympics. Yes, as players we want to win the Champions League and the World Cup, but the Olympics is a massive tournament.
“This guy who has just walked in the door for five minutes is telling me I had to choose. I spoke to the club and told them that I wanted to go.
“The club respected me because of what I had done for them and how long I’d been there.
“So off I went and I felt punished for that. I came back and I didn’t make the squad. I was never in the squad list on matchdays again.”
Even though Conte tried to get the Nigerian back on-side before his departure in January 2017, Mikel felt bridges were burned and had little interest in staying under the Italian manager.
His patriotism to the West African nation and doggedness to continue on the path he wanted cost him his Chelsea career, but the bronze medallist never cared or bothered.
Rather, the Stoke City midfielder looks back on that run positively.
“Sometimes I wear my medal around the house,” Mikel told Goal in 2016. “The kids love playing with the medal. I am sure one day they will know what this really means.
“We had lots of problems outside the pitch, but I always told the boys that you shouldn’t let that affect what we came here to do.
“The boys understood that and we made sure they went along with my message that I kept putting across to them every single day and we managed to achieve what we did achieve.”
The Dream Team followed up their wild 5-4 opening game with a more measured 1-0 triumph against Sweden, before a 2-0 defeat in their final group encounter with Colombia.
They ended top of their group, despite that defeat, and then progressed to the semi-final with a 2-0 success over Denmark—with the nation’s talisman opening the scoring in the 2-0 victory.
While losing to Germany in the last four meant Samson Siasia’s team wouldn’t replicate the nation’s 1996 Atlanta success, a Mikel-led side picked up a 3-2 win over Honduras to end on the podium.
That group went from uncertainty regarding their participation to winning the country’s sole medal in Brazil, defying the odds spectacularly.
Mikel’s selflessness, without a doubt, made it possible, and his overage participation at the Olympics is a forgotten chapter in his storied career.