Mikel John Obi believes he owes his career to the Nigeria team that won Olympic gold in 1996. Now he wants to inspire the next generation.
The Chelsea midfielder was just nine when a team featuring Nwankwo Kanu and Jay-Jay Okocha shocked the world by beating Brazil and Argentina on their way to becoming the first African nation to be crowned champions.
What he had once seen as just a hobby took on a whole new meaning and Obi set out to emulate his heroes. Twenty years later and he has that chance as he prepares to represent Nigeria in the Games for the first time this month.
As he arrived in Rio, Obi reflected on how his life was changed by the heroes of 1996.
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“Watching Nigeria beat Brazil in the semi-final and then Argentina in the final really inspired me,” Obi told Standard Sport. “I was just kicking a football around for fun back then in the streets. But after seeing Nigeria win the gold medal, I changed.
“I realised that football is amazing and you can do something incredible. All my friends and everyone around me could talk about was the final. We kept playing football. We kept getting into trouble with our parents for not coming back early, for playing football rather than doing our homework.
“The 1996 team inspired me and my friends and I’d like to do the same thing for the current generation at home.”
If Obi leading the team out as skipper for their first game against Japan tomorrow night is not special enough, he will then have an even greater responsibility 24 hours later. For the player who moved to Stamford Bridge in 2006 is also captain of the entire Nigeria Olympic team, so will carry the flag during the opening ceremony.
As far as Obi’s achievements go, only winning the Champions League with Chelsea in 2012 comes close.
“To be my first Olympics and getting this huge honour made the tournament 10 times as exciting for me,” he said. “I was like a kid that had just been given their first piece of candy when they told me. It’s up there with the Champions League, which was the pinnacle of my career, for different reasons.
“To carry the flag of your country at an Olympics is absolutely amazing. You’re leading a whole nation going into the biggest sporting event there is. To represent the flag of Nigeria, not just the football team, is incredible.”
A number of competitors will miss the Games because of fears over Zika but Obi insisted there was never any doubt in his mind about travelling to Rio because of the virus.
“It never crossed my mind not to go,” he said. “The Zika virus has affected a lot of people in Brazil and South America but it’s not something that would stop me from trying to achieve what I have always wanted to achieve.
“I think the whole Zika virus story has been mostly blown out of all proportion. Yes, it is there, but there is a bigger picture here and I am willing to be part of that. We have a young team that are definitely good enough to do what the 1996 team did, even though a few Premier League players, like Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho, weren’t released.”
The only thing that did make Obi think twice about boarding the plane was leaving his club at a time when coach Antonio Conte is making plans for his first season in charge after leaving his job as manager of Italy following their Euro 2016 exit.
Should Nigeria progress to reach the final on August 20, Obi will miss the first two matches of Chelsea’s season. With £32million signing N’Golo Kante adding to competition for places in midfield, Obi will be at a disadvantage when he rejoins the Blues later this month.
“It is difficult to leave Chelsea at this time,” he said. “But I explained to the club why I wanted to go and I thank them for their understanding and allowing me to be a part of this.
“The coach also gave me his blessing. He told me to make sure I do well and bring back the gold medal!
“Obviously, it is hard to be away because I want to impress the new coach. I had one week of pre-season training and you need more than that if you want to prove yourself to a new manager who wants to change everything around.
“It is a risk that I have taken but I am willing to stand by that. I hope after the Olympics I can go back and prove myself.”
However, this would not be the first time over the past decade that his first-team place has been put in doubt only to feature regularly throughout the following campaign.
“I have always been there with every manager at Chelsea,” said Obi, who has won 10 honours at Chelsea and is the second longest serving player behind captain John Terry.
“I have always managed to find my way through, to get past all the doubters and critics.
“I have always had to work very hard to earn my place. It’s never been handed to me on a plate.
“I know what the coach wants, I know what’s at stake. As soon as the Olympics is done, I will go back knowing I can do something [for Chelsea].”
Returning to west London with a gold medal around his neck should certainly help him do just that.
•Culled from Evening Standard of London