Mikel stayed away from Super Eagles immediately after the 2018 FIFA World Cup as he focused on regaining fitness after a host of niggling injuries and to settle back in England after his misery stint in China.
He’s back now with the Super Eagles but aside a few comments at the press conference ahead of their warm-up game against Zimbabwe in Asaba, the veteran midfielder never really got to explain his decision to stay away.
In an interview on the Super Eagles Youtube channel, Mikel discusses his one-year absence, his future, Nigeria’s chances at AFCON 2019 and his family.
These are 10 things he said in the interview.
1. On his absence
The interview starts with Mikel revealing that he kept in touch with his Super Eagles teammates and coach during his absence
“I knew what was going on, I always wished them well before any game,” he says.
Mikel further reveals that he had a conversation with Super Eagles boss Gernot Rohr after the World Cup in 2018 to inform him of his decision to stay away.
“I just thought to have some sort of break and I planned to come back if we get to the Nations Cup. I will always come back and help the team and see if we can win another Nations Cup,” he says.
Mikel admits that the decision was a hard one for him to take and that he had to consult with his girlfriend.
The veteran midfielder also admits that he needed to stay away from the Super Eagles so he could spend more time on himself and with his family as the flights to and fro China during international was taking a toll on him.
2. On hearing of his dad’s kidnap just hours before Nigeria’s crunch game against Argentina at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Mikel in this interview also opens up about the torture he went through after he was informed about his dad’s kidnap just hours before the Super Eagles faced Argentina in an important group game of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Despite being aware of the situation, Mikel didn’t tell anyone including his teammates and coaches and played the whole minutes of the encounter in Russia.
“I couldn’t share with anyone, I didn’t let anyone know. I was devastated. I knew I couldn’t let anyone down,” Mikel says in the interview.
“I was suffering deep down but I had a job to do. I didn’t want to tell anyone, even after the game, I didn’t tell anybody.
“I left it because I had to deal with it myself. In the end, everything went well, my dad was released; eased and that is when everyone knew.”
3. Attack from ex-players
Mikel certainly had this in his mind as he brings it up without being asked. While responding to a question, Mikel touched on how he felt about the criticisms from former players on the national team.
“When you see ex-players criticised us, it is sad to see really. There are the ones who are supposed to be talking to the younger players,” Mikel says.
“Maybe there have their own problems and want to take it out on people who still play. I don’t know.”
4. His relationship with teammates
Mikel’s return has been well-received by the players despite fears that it might bring division in the squad.
The 32-year-old believes that his relationship with the players has been key to his warm welcome.
“I love this team, I have a very good relationship with the boys. I’m so happy, they look up to me, I know it’s a young team, they look at me as a leader. Not just playing but to bring calm and discipline to the team,” he says.
“I’m so happy they are happy I’m back. I always treat everyone with lots of respect, that’s why I come here and get the same respect. It was good to get that warm welcome from them”
5. How he gave up his Chelsea career to represent Nigeria at the 2016 Olympic Games
For the first time, Mikel publicly reveals how he gave up his Chelsea career to represent Nigeria at the 2016 Olympic Games where he led them to a bronze medal.
Mikel revealed this while he was speaking on patriotism and how he has always put Nigeria first.
Mikel revealed that when the opportunity came for him and Victor Moses to play at the Olympics, he advised his compatriots to remain at Chelsea and fight for a shirt while he went on t represent Nigeria at the Olympics.
“When the opportunity came out to either to go to Rio or play for Chelsea, I told Victor Moses because it was both of us, I was older, he is younger, he hasn’t played yet for the club, I said ‘you stay back, I will go, if I lose my place it’s fine’,” Mikel says.
“Victor Did, he stayed, I went, I came back, the managers never spoke to me again, didn’t put me in the team, then I said ‘okay fine’ and I left.”
“It’s the commitment and love that I have for my country,” he adds.
6. His short stint with Middlesbrough
Mikel in January 2019 ended his stay in China to join Middlesbrough on loan stint in the Championship where he impressed. The former Chelsea star played 18 games for the Tony Pulis-side and scored one goal.
Mikel reveals that the Championship is the most difficult league in the world.
“Champions is the most difficult league in the world, so physical, people don’t stop running, tackling and chasing,” he says.
“I enjoy my time in Middlesbrough, great people, the manager was fantastic, fans were amazing, they loved me.
“But it’s time to move on and do something else. Now I’m going towards the end of my career, so I have to choose what’s good for me and my family. That’s what I’m looking right now.”
7. Super Eagles AFCON 2019 chance
Mikel believes that the Super Eagles of Nigeria have a good blend of youth and experience to go very far at AFCON 2019 in Egypt.
“These players need to start now to get the experience. So I think it’s good for the country that the manager is giving them the opportunity to show what they have,” he says.
“ (Samuel) Chukwueze, Paul (Ebere Onuachu) the tall striker is a really good player. With a little bit of experience that we have, Leon (Balogun), (Ahmed) Musa, (William) Troost-Ekong, coupled with the youthfulness, it has a very nice blend to it.
8. Here to win
Mikel said he believes that the Super Eagles can win AFCON 2019, which is why he returned to play in the tournament.
“I’m always hungry to win, If I don’t want to win, I won’t be here. I come to win,” he says.
“That is the same mentality I want to put in these boys, they need to have the mentality of going to win.”
Mikel was happy to open up about his family (his girlfriend Olga Diyachenko and their twin daughters) and had special praise for his partner.
“My family is amazing, my girlfriend is a wonderful lady, I’m so glad and happy to have her in my life,” Mikel says.
“She has helped me a lot to strengthen me and put me in that path which I wasn’t at this time.
“With the kids, it has become much much better for us, because the kids are amazing. To have twins, two girls, they don’t look anything like each other, different characters, you don’t know what you get from one day, you don’t know what you get from the other the next day. So we just wake up to surprises every morning which is amazing.
“They are full of energy which is great to see. Family time is my time. I love to spend time with my family.”
10. His future
While he believes this might be his last AFCON tournament with the Super Eagles, Mikel is not ruling anything out.
“I don’t know, but I think it’s my last time. But I don’t know. But I think this is probably my last one,” he says.
“I have given so much to this nation but at some point, you have to let go. I don’t want to be the person to over welcome their welcome. I leave when I think the time is right.”
He further reveals that he is not planning a future in football when he hangs his boots, preferring instead to go into other ventures.
“I don’t know to be honest if I’m going to be in the game for a long time because I have a lot of things,” he says.
“I like to do business, I’m a business guy, so I don’t know if I have time to be in the game for a long time. At this point, after football, I’m not thinking about being in the game.”