Jon Obi Mikel: Football With a Human Face

While we are yet to still know fully what transpired in the just-exposed Arsenal-Beveren case, no one can deny that even the little we know so far has revealed once again the cruel face of football slave trade. But while we leave the matter to be unscrambled by the authorities, decent people should today be celebrating the opposite. Chelsea have showed once again, with the way they’ve handled and now resolved the Jon Obi Mikel saga, that they are not only a big club, but a thinking club with real people of conscience at its heart.

Mikel was one of four young Nigerians scouted by our own Gwyn Williams at the African Youth Championship in Cairo in February 2003. Chelsea made the decision after assessing them that these were good materials for the future. By the time Mourinho came, he also assessed them and specially picked out Jon Obi Mikel whom he described as “pure gold” if he develops as expected. Chelsea, in line with our image as conscientious operators, did not seek to exploit the boys. Our idea was to educate and develop them in a European environment while involving them in competitive football and getting them to adapt to the weather. The arrangement with Lyn Oslo was to benefit the boys and Lyn as a club. We provided money for their schooling and upkeep. We did not seek to exploit them, but better them through responsible mentoring, openness and professionalism. We knew we were dealing with young men who are yet to be eighteen and who were leaving home fully for the first time. Our arrangement with Lyn Oslo, apart from doing them this great favour, was that we have first option to buy the players formally when they come of age.

Suddenly, after Chelsea have done all the groundwork with this investment, along comes Manchester United whispering into Mikel’s ear, using Lyn Oslo as the bullyboys to get him to sign a contract with them when he turned eighteen. But the boy knew what he wanted. All his life, the only team he ever wanted to play for are Chelsea. He knew how much Chelsea have done to get him and as much as first team football seems surer at Manchester United, he knew his heart was not with them. But agents of Manchester United and Lyn Oslo won’t give up. Once Henning Berg, an old Manchester United player and Alex Ferguson’s minion was appointed coach of Lyn Oslo, the pressure became more intense. On April 29, 2005, a week after his eighteenth birthday, they cornered the boy and made him sign a pre-contract under duress, believing that once they have his signature on paper, no matter how they got it, as far as he’s eighteen, this would be as good as sealed. In the face of their criminal insistence, the boy had begged to be given a week to consider it and consult with those he trusts, but Morgan Andersen and his Manchester United clients wouldn’t hear of it.

When the case finally got to FIFA, they proved as callous and inconsiderate as Manchester United and Lyn. In spite of Manchester United’s accusation that Chelsea are the ones pressurizing the boy not to honour the supposed contract with United, the evidence that has consistently come to light is that the boy’s real desire is to play for Chelsea. Rather than sort this out there and then, FIFA opted to take their time, while the boy’s career stagnated. The only ruling they gave in August 2005 was that the boy should return to Lyn to complete his subsisting contract. It didn’t matter to them that Lyn had by then possibly betrayed his trust and put his life and career at risk. Rather than look into the case immediately and give a comprehensive ruling on the matter, FIFA had no problem sending Mikel back to the lions’ den. They postponed indefinitely a resolution of the most important issue involved, which is the status of the supposed contract with Manchester United.

Of course, it shouldn’t have taken FIFA anything to realize where the truth lies. Why would a boy turn down the dream of signing for the biggest club in the world, Manchester United just hours after he was supposed to have happily signed a pre-contract? Why would he turn down an opportunity that millions of others with far more talent than him would have given an arm for? Why would he risk his whole career to turn down Manchester United when no other club was making any contractual demand on him as at that time? How could Manchester United and Lyn in good conscience claim they’ve signed a deal with an African boy who’d just arrived Europe and who knew absolutely nothing about football contracts when he had no single representative or adviser by his side at such signing? There was enough evidence prima facie to suggest that some kind of pressure was put on the boy to sign and that Lyn and Manchester United did everything to keep away from the boy anyone close to him and capable of seeing through the farce while they were at it. FIFA shouldn’t have had any problem coming to such a conclusion in the face of facts already uncontested. Instead, it opted to let the boy waste on the sidelines.

Chelsea didn’t have to do what they’ve just done, which is shell out a king’s ransom to settle the whole matter. But with the shenanigans going on in the Norwegian courts and FIFA’s obvious lack of consideration for Mikel’s needs and condition, the club took the view that they have to rescue the poor boy from the grip of Evil Football. Of course, there are those already up in arms over the prize of the deal; but that is more a statement on Manchester United and Lyn’s greed and wickedness than on Chelsea’s supposed frivolity. It is credit to Mr Abramovich that he didn’t mind paying through the nose to save a boy Manchester United, Lyn Oslo and FIFA are bent on wasting. Chelsea have enough talent in their team to carry on with the business of winning things while leaving the boy to the sharks, but they didn’t. As genuinely decent people, they know the case is far more than football and that they cannot afford to look at it in terms of pounds and pennies.

We must also salute the courage of the young man, who despite the untold pressure brought on him, refused to succumb to blackmail. He continued to insist on his wish to join Chelsea from day one and even when his family was prepared to give in to Manchester United pressure, he held out. For someone of his age and with his talent to be on the sidelines unable to do the one thing he loves most, which is play football, must be torture. But he continued to believe, he persevered, he refused to be enslaved. A boy with such courage is exactly who Chelsea need. I hope and pray he fulfils all his footballing dreams at the Bridge. Today, he’s a symbol of the victory of conscience over exploitation in football and I’m happy Chelsea made this possible.

I’m very, very proud to be Blue.