When Egypt hosted the African Cup of Nations 13 years ago, the current Super Eagles captain John Mikel Obi was just making his way into the senior squad.Mikel had his second international cap with the Super Eagles’ match with Zimbabwe in Port Said, an Egyptian city at the northern end of the Suez Canal, on the Mediterranean Sea.
Then, the Super Eagles under coach Austin Eguavoen boasted of a solid midfield with Austin Jay Jay Okocha, Paul Obiefule, Sani Kaita, Yusuf Ayila, Garba Lawal, Wilson Oruma and Chris Obodo. At Egypt 2006, Mikel made a memorable tournament debut, when he came in as a second half substitute to score against a stubborn Zimbabwe in their second group match.
About 10 minutes into the second half, coach Eguavoen made a double substitution by bringing in legend Nwankwo Kanu and the beginner, John Obi Mikel. Four minutes on the pitch, the prodigy, Mikel struck in the opening goal from the edge of the Zimbabwean’s penalty area, teeing up, after a studied pause and a nimble shift on to his right foot. It was a precise, arrowed shot that moved the spectators from their seat.
Mikel’s strike made major headlines in some Egyptians newspapers the following day as it was rated among the most stunning tournament debuts of the modern era. He was 18 years old then and had not played so much as a competitive minute in the senior national team.
After the match, a naïve Mikel told The Guardian that it was his dream to lift the African Nations Cup trophy for Nigeria. Though, the dream could not materialise in Egypt as the Super Eagles fell 0-1 to Cote d’Ivoire following a Didier Drogba’s goal in their semifinal tie in the city of Alexandra, Mikel piloted Eagles to lift the trophy at South Africa 2013.
The same Mikel, almost half a lifetime later, is now in the land of the pharaohs with the Super Eagles for what may be his last Nations Cup. He is Super Eagles ‘senior general’ who was recalled after a long absence from international duty.
Incidentally, Mikel is back in the city of Alexandria, where the Super Eagles were forced to swallow some bitter pills by the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire 13 years ago.
If Mikel starts against Burundi in tomorrow’s Group B’s opening fixture, it will be his first competitive game for Nigeria since the sad experience at Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Of the 552 players taking part in the 32nd Africa Cup of Nations tagged Egypt 2019, only three were there 13 years ago. And Mikel is among the three legends. The two other players returning to Egypt after 13 years are Carlos Kameni of Cameroun and Tresor Mputu of DR Congo.