While many Nigerian soccer fans were brooding over the loss to Argentina in the final Group D encounter and of course, the exit of the Super Eagles from the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the team’s Captain, Mikel Obi, suffered a double tragedy as his father, Pa Michael, was kidnapped. He was in the hands of kidnappers prior to the showdown with the South American giants and in a rare display of courage, Obi put emotion behind as he battled Lionel Messi-led Argentina in a rare show of courage, writes Kunle Adewale
Kidnapping of famous footballers’ relations is not something new and it’s not peculiar to a race or continent-from Europe to America and Africa, we’ve witnessed players and their relations abducted.
In May 1994, in the build-up to Brazil’s ultimately successful World Caup campaign, Edevair Souza de Faria, father of star striker, Romario, was picked up by kidnappers as he left the bar he owns in Rio de Janeiro.
Robinho was playing for Brazilian side Santos when his mum, Marina Silva de Souza, was targeted in 2004. Six gunmen jumped over a wall at a relative’s home in a Sao Paulo suburb where Marina was enjoying a barbeque and bundled her into the boot of their car. He endured 40 days of agony before Marina was released after he paid a ransom – believed to be £50,000.
Days after Kakha Kaladze’s £11million move to AC Milan from Dynamo Kiev in 2001, Georgian gangsters kidnapped his brother, Levan, a medical student, in a Tbilisi suburb. Kaladze and Georgia teammate, Shota Arveladze initially refused to play for the national side until Levan was released, but with the boycott having little effect, the pair returned to the international set-up. Levan’s body was found in a shallow grave on the outskirts of Tbilisi five years later.
Former national team captain, Joseph Yobo’s elder brother, Norum was seized at gunpoint in Nigeria as he made his way home from a nightclub. The kidnappers demanded a £5,000 ransom but it is not known whether the money was paid, but Norum was released after12 days.
As traumatic as the above scenarios could be, it cannot be compared with what Mikel had to go through in Russia, as he could not share his problem with his teammates and coaching crew so as not to destabilise the team in their quest for a knockout ticket ahead of Argentina.
According to the Super Eagles’ captain, he was informed about his father’s kidnap about four hours before Nigeria’s final World Cup match against Argentina.
Mikel told The Guardian UK that he received the shocking news while travelling on the team bus to the stadium in St. Petersburg.
He, however, admitted that although he was distraught by the news, he had to put it aside and play the match.
“I was emotionally distraught and I had to make the decision about whether I was mentally ready to play. I was confused. I did not know what to do but, in the end, I knew that I could not let 180 million Nigerians down. I had to shut it out of my head and go and represent my country first. I could not even inform the coaches or Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) staff and only a very tight circle of my friends knew.
“I was told that they would shoot my dad instantly if I reported to the authorities or told anybody. I also did not want to discuss it with the coach (Gernot Rohr) because I did not want my issue to become a distraction to him or the rest of the team on the day of such an important game. As much as I wanted to discuss it with the coach, I could not,” he said.
Condemning the kidnapping of Pa Obi, Minister of Youth and Sports, Solomon Dalung, said the emotional and psychological trauma caused the player and his father was unimaginable and went on to commend the former Chelsea star for his show of patriotism during the match following his courageous display of loyalty to the country despite the sad news of his father’s abduction.
Dalung described Mikel as a brave player who did not allow the sad news to distract him from putting in his best for the country.
“It is very unfortunate that on the night Mikel Obi was playing for Nigeria, kidnappers decided to emotionally traumatise the young man by kidnapping his father. I can imagine what was going on in his mind while he was playing for the country knowing that his father was unsafe somewhere in the kidnappers’ hideout.
“It is disheartening to know that on the night the players were putting in their best to qualify Nigeria for the second round of the World Cup, evil men had in captivity, the father of one of the team’s greatest players. We salute Mikel Obi for his courage during the game,” Dalung said.
It was indeed not the first time Mikel would be displaying such a courageous act.
In 2011, Mikel, then playing in the English Premier League side, Chelsea was listed in the Blues side that would take on Stoke City only for news to filter in that his father had been kidnapped in Jos but the former Lyn Oslo player showed rare courage by still starring for Chelsea in the game.
He did not only play in the game against Stoke but put up an above-average performance which belied the fact that his father had been abducted.
Mikel was told about the situation by the then Chelsea manager, Andre Villas-Boas and his agent, Shittu after training and he still turned out at Stoke with only one of his team-mates – Salomon Kalou aware of the situation.
“I was actually having a massage when the manager sent for me, I went to his office and he said, ‘There is a situation, your dad is missing’. I didn’t know about it, obviously. My family didn’t want to tell me until after the game,” Mikel said then.
He then asked for time to absorb the news but he told Villas-Boas he still wanted to play.
“I was shocked, Villas-Boas asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him I needed a couple of hours to speak to my family and my agent. I told him I would like to play the game because I wouldn’t want to let my team down, let the club down and obviously let my family down. I think if I didn’t play that game; my mum would be very sad with me. I spoke to my mum before the game and she told me to go out there and be strong. I don’t think my team-mates really know about it at the moment,” he added.
“I told Didier Drogba about it and before the game I told Kalou because he is a very good friend. But I didn’t want everyone coming to me saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’. I just wanted to get on with it,” he said.
Though, the world had witnessed players displaying rare courage in the past-former Guinean international, Titi Camara was set for a game for Liverpool when the news of his father’s death was broken to him in the dressing room at Anfield but still went on to play the match and even scored the lone goal in Red’s win.
Yet, it could not be compared to what befell Mikel, who does not know the fate of his father. After all, there is an African saying that, ‘a dead child could better be imagined than a lost child’.
One only hopes it would be the last time Mikel would be faced with a kidnapping ordeal.