Msafiri talks to Mikel about his career, his aspirations and Nigeria’s victory in the Africa Cup of Nations. By Chris Hatherall
What a year it’s been for you, John! What has it done for you as a player to win an African title with Nigeria in 2013 and a Champions League with Chelsea in 2012? Has it changed anything?
”I think it has. I think every major tournament you win seems to take you to another level as a player and as a person. I think you mature by winning big trophies and you become a more confident player. That’s certainly what it’s done for me.”
So far in your career you’ve won a Champions League title, an English Premier League title, four FA Cups, a League Cup and this season’s victory for Nigeria in the Africa Cup of Nations. What more is there to aim for?
”It’s true that I seem to have won almost everything – but I promise I’m still hungry for success. I still want to win more. Like I said, every big tournament that you win just seems to take you to another level as a player and as a person. I’m just so happy and so proud of myself and for the team that we won our first Nations Cup. It means that we get to play in the Confederations Cup as well against the best teams in the world; so that’s our next aim. We want to show the world what we can do.”
The Confederations Cup is being staged in Brazil this June, which adds some extra excitement too – it must be one of the best places in the world to play football?
”It will be very special because Brazil is so important in the history of football; it has produced so many great players and great teams. And I have a lot of Brazilian team-mates at Chelsea, so they can tell me all about it!”
So after that it will be just the World Cup to go for! Fancy adding that trophy to your collection?
“Well, I’m not going to be unhappy if I don’t achieve that. I don’t know if that is going to happen! But of course we dream of qualifying for a finals in future. It would be amazing for us.”
Tell us what it was like for Nigeria to be crowned African champions?
”It was very special – for the players and for the whole country. I think the fans in Nigeria are still celebrating! When we went back home we couldn’t believe it. It meant so much to everyone.”
Is it true that you received a plot of land as a gift from your country to mark victory?
”Yes, we did, which was a big surprise. I don’t know what I am going to do with it yet; maybe give it to family. There were also some gifts from the top men there and from the President. It was a massive thing, a massive thing for Nigeria.”
It must have been nice to have your Chelsea teammate Victor Moses in the team with you when you won in South Africa?
”Yes, that was great. I was so pleased for him. What an achievement! It was his first tournament and he comes back with a medal. But he deserved it – he’s a very skilful player and he’s going to get better and better.”
The only disappointment for you this year was that Chelsea couldn’t win the Premier League title – this time Manchester United were too good for you!
”It’s true. They deserved it. They have been the best side even when they aren’t playing so well. Their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, has always seemed to have had that edge to try and grind out a result and get three points all the time – even when they aren’t playing at their best. That’s the difference. And what a signing that Robin Van Persie has been for them! This season is their season. But next year we will come back!”
You are one of the senior players at Chelsea – it’s easy to forget you have already been at the club for seven years! Do you see yourself staying a lot longer?
”That’s the intention. I’ve recently signed another five-year contract with the intention of staying here until the end. We’ll see what happens. Of course football today is not easy to predict – you never know if you’ll be here tomorrow. A new manager might come in and not want you, or a new manager comes in and he wants you to stay. Football is a journey: today you’re here, tomorrow you’re there, but I have signed for another five years and I want to stay for another five years. I’m hoping there are lots of exciting times ahead with my club and my country.”
Did you know?
• Mikel started his official football career at the age of 12 when picked as a talented player from over 3000 youngsters to play in the Pepsi Football Academy in Nigeria.
• His nickname Mikel was born when the Nigerian FA misspelt his middle-name Michael on forms for the Fifa Under-17 World Cup. The midfielder decided he liked it and adopted it from then on
• He won a silver ball as second-best player at the World Youth Championships in 2005 as Nigeria reached the final.