In December 2003, Ajax Cape Town had a special visitor all the way from Jos, a city in the Middle Belt of Nigeria.
At 16, very few at the club cared to take notice of this mysterious teenage guest. Justifiably so!
But that was only until the boy from J-Town trotted onto the turf of Ajax’s Ikamva base with the swagger of a world beater. John Obi Mikel’s ingenuity was just unmistakable. His football talent was beyond question.
In fact, he needed just 20 minutes to show the Urban Warriors they were hosting the next best thing in world football.
“After about 20 minutes of training I told the players, ‘Listen guys, I’ve got to dash somewhere but I’ll be back’. I left my assistant conducting training and I went straight into John’s (Comitis) office and I said, ‘John, sign this player right now, call him now and sign him right away’,” Gordon Igesund, who was Ajax’s head coach at the time, tells FARPost.
Make no mistake, the nomadic Igesund was no excitable novice at that point. The man already had three PSL titles under his belt. He had won the coveted title with Manning Rangers, Orlando Pirates and Santos, with the last two coming in successive seasons.
Surely, his sharp eye had seen hundreds of footballing prodigies. But there was something out of the ordinary about this particular one.
The teenage starlet was endowed with several hallmarks of a defensive midfielder. A superior passing ability and vision, composure, an exceptional first touch and balance, you name it.
By his own admission, Igesund had never seen such!
It is for that reason that the 63-year-old mentor could not wait another minute. He was in awe and just couldn’t finish training without insisting that this talent be signed.
With his trademark ‘lightning quick’ stride, he stormed into the then club chairman John Comitis’ office to alert him that he had seen a player who would bolster his squad in the January transfer window. It was a matter of urgency.
Igesund, pictured above, was so convinced this sensational teenager could easily reinvigorate his side.
“During the first training session Gordon Igesund came to me and said just sign him. I said I’ll try,” Comitis recalls.
Little did Igesund know that Manchester United scouts had already spotted this gem at the 2003 Meridien youth tournament held in Egypt. The Red Devils, then under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson, also got a closer impression of the boy when the Nigerian Under 17 squad trained at the club’s Carrington grounds before the FIFA Under 17 tournament held in the fall of that year in Finland.
It further got complicated when Mikel’s domineering performance at that tournament caught the attention of Chelsea scouts who invited him and three other Nigerians for trials at the club.
However, British immigration rules and FIFA rules meant that the English clubs interested in his services would have to wait until he was 18.
His agent John Shittu, who knew him since he was 12, says the intention was never to sell the boy to Ajax. The preferred destination was always Europe.
“The arrangement was different. We wanted him to go to Europe where a lot of clubs wanted him in England, Italy and France. So, (in Cape Town) he was just in transit,” Shittu tells FARPost in a telephonic interview from his UK-base.
Comitis concurs: “In 2003, I got a call from Manchester United talking about four Nigerian players they wanted to secure, and they were asking if they could come to me. I later got a similar call from Chelsea.”
Mikel, who later found himself at the centre of a wrangle between the two EPL giants, reportedly had his heart set on playing for Manchester United. Waiting in vain for United to sign him following trials at the club earlier that year, Mikel moved from his boyhood club, Plateau United, to Ajax Cape Town.
Later, when the saga with United began, Chelsea claimed they had paid for his week-long stay at Ajax Cape Town and that they had arranged for his move from the club to Lyn Oslo, Mikel’s first European club, with a view to signing him later.
Never mind the politics that surrounded Mikel in his earlier days. Perhaps, just perhaps, he was a victim of his exceptional abilities. No wonder in Cape Town he left players, possibly 10 or so years his senior, in admiration.
Of course, an ordinary 16-year-old teenager would find it a daunting task to face senior professionals playing in the PSL. But the ease with which Mikel took the new stage convinced Igesund he was in a League of his own.
“The boy was in a different League. He was big, strong and he could pass the ball. We tried everything in our power to sign him, but there were a few issues – between Manchester United and another club. I don’t think he had intentions of signing (for Ajax),” explains Igesund.
Nathan Paulse, the record top scorer at Ajax with 56 goals, was at Ikamva for Mikel’s first session and could not believe his eyes. He says Mikel’s game was far more developed than his age suggested.
“We could not believe he was 16 at that time. He was that good. He had authority, he had presence, he was extremely good on the ball. We looked at each other during his first two days and wondered if he was really 16,” Paulse, pictured below, says as he harks back to that momentous week.
Interestingly, Shittu got the same feeling the first time he was introduced to the 12-year-old Mikel, who is currently searching for a new club after having his contract terminated by mutual consent at Turkish side Trabzonspor earlier this season.
“He was so skinny when I first saw him, aged 12. You could see the talent was there,” he says.
Of the three other players he came with to Ajax, Chinedu Obasi is the only one who went on to make a name for himself internationally. At the height of his career, Obasi scored 25 goals in 92 appearances for Bundesliga side TSG 1899 Hoffenheim before joining another Germany side Schalke.
Comitis explains how Ajax, a satellite club of Dutch giants Ajax Amsterdam, came into the picture. “Ajax Amsterdam and Chelsea were discussing a co-operation and we already had an arrangement with Ajax Amsterdam,” he says.
Although Shittu reveals the intended destination for Mikel was Europe, Comitis admits they did attempt to sign him but were put off by the numbers.
“He was really special, but they were talking about a R1-million signing on fee,” adds Comitis.
He then makes a frank admission: “Had I known what I know today it was cheap at that price, but you never know.”
While there was firm interest from Ajax, Paulse further says it never made sense what a talent like Mikel was looking for in Africa. He was a jewel in the crown, an intelligent midfielder who just knew what to do with the ball before it even got to his feet.
“From a playing point of view, he was amazing. I don’t think playing in the PSL would have done him good. His ability was just too good at that age. He stood out immediately, he was extremely calm on the ball. He could run with the ball like a top professional. I don’t think the PSL would have suited him in terms of the actual level,” admits Paulse.
Watching him at Chelsea after his 2006 move to Stamford Bridge where he spent 11 years, Paulse saw a slightly different player.
“At Chelsea, he was more of the immobile number 6, but when he came to Ajax, he was very active roving in midfield maybe because he was younger,” Paulse explains.
Mikel’s prospects as a player were accentuated at the FIFA Under 20 Championship held in the summer of 2005 in the Netherlands where he caught the attention of the rest of the footballing world. He and Barcelona’s talisman Lionel Messi were voted the world’s two best up-and-coming stars.
Phrases like “Nigerian prodigy” were common appellations for the young lad after that tournament. Besides winning the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship Silver Ball, he was also named CAF’s Most Promising Talent of the Year that same year.
Mikel, who went on to captain Nigeria’s Super Eagles as he blossomed into a superb talent, won the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, 2 EPL titles and the UEFA Champions League with Chelsea.
However, the Urban Warriors had already caught a glimpse of his exceptional talent!
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