Posted by Senior Correspondent AMECHI C. OBIAKPU | 14 June 2012 | 2,590 times
Senior Correspondent AMECHI C. OBIAKPU recounts the heroic role played by the Nigerian duo of Michael Emenalo and Mikel (Michael) Obi in propelling English Premiership giants Chelsea – against all expectations – to win the European Champions League for the first time ever.
For Nigerians, it was a case of a victory deserving of double celebrations when visiting Chelsea demolished home boys Bayern Munich in the 2012 European Champions League final decided May 19 at the Allianz Arena in Munich, Germany.
Chelsea, who went into the grand battle as underdogs, boast millions of Nigerian fans who had already laid out elaborate plans to celebrate what many people thought was a victory that might never come. Then add the fact that two full-blooded Nigerians – Michael Kelvin Emenalo and John Mikel (Michael) Obi – were an integral part of the history-making Chelsea squad and the wild celebrations that shook the length and breadth of the country will begin to make sense.
The Blues, as Chelsea are otherwise known, had capped an incredible season, overcoming a jerky start to end the season with the FA Cup and then become the first London side to win the coveted European Champions League.
Nigerians will always be proud of the role played in the entire process by their soccer ambassadors, ex-international Emenalo, a key figure in the Chelsea coaching crew, and midfield maestro Obi.
The man Michael Emenalo
The first Nigerian – nay African – to occupy such a sensitive position in an English Premiership side, Emenalo was appointed Technical Director in July 2011. He had previously worked in both the scouting and coaching departments of Chelsea.
The retired Nigerian defender has been an important part of Chelsea’s first team management structure since his arrival in October 2007, and now supports the work of the first team manager, leading the club’s international and domestic scouting network, and assists in driving the technical programmes of Chelsea Academy and international youth network.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, on July 4, 1965, Emenalo debuted for Nigeria in 1985 and moved to the United States in 1986 where he graduated from Boston University three years later with a degree in international relations with political sciences.
He was one of the first African players to star in US college soccer, playing for Boston University from 1986 to 1989.
Emenalo’s professional football career took him to Belgium and Germany before a short spell in England at Notts County in the mid-1990s, where he won the Anglo-Italian Cup at Wembley. He then returned to the United States where he played in the first ever Major League Soccer (MLS) game for San Jose Clash.
After one season, it was back to Europe and a year in the Spanish second division with Lieda, managed by future Sevilla and Spurs coach Juande Ramos. Eventually, he moved to Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel.
Emenalo won a total of 14 caps for Nigeria and played in the 1994 World Cup in the USA, missing the first game through injury but then played against Argentina, Greece and Italy.
After hanging up his boots, Emenalo spent time coaching in America before his appointment by Chelsea’s billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich, as Head Opposition Scout. As an agent Emenalo was central to ensuring that it was Chelsea whom his compatriot John Mikel Obi joined after his disputed transfer with Manchester United in 2006.
Emenalo joined Chelsea in 2007 when former manager Avram Grant was in charge, a relationship which dates back to his playing days in Maccabi in Israel, several years ago. His effort in the management structure of the team was immediately recognised much so that Emenalo rose through the ranks. After the departure of Ray Wilkins, Emenalo was promoted from his position as chief scout to assistant first team coach on November 18, 2010. On July 8, 2011, he was appointed Technical Director.
Mikel (Michael)’s finest hour
Under fumbling team manager Andre Villas-Boas, who was sacked in March, Mikel’s Chelsea career appeared to be nearing an end as he was largely consigned to the reserve bench. He however staged a powerful comeback under caretaker coach Roberto Di Matteo, becoming a regular who played a key role in big games.
Once ranked as the second best player in the world after Lionel Messi of Barcelona during their days as youth internationals, Mikel is the third Nigerian player to join the elite club of European Champions League winners.
Seventeen years ago, Nwankwo Kanu and fellow Super Eagles colleague, Finidi George, became the first Nigerians to lift the coveted trophy when their club Ajax Amsterdam of The Netherlands, upstaged Italian giants AC Milan 1-0 in the final played in the Romanian capital, Bucharest.
“I am very happy for him (Mikel). He really deserves it and I’m also proud that after all these years we (Finidi and I) have another Nigerian member of the Champions League winners club,” said Kanu, who was one of the stars at the viewing of the UEFA League final at his hotel, the Hardley Suites and Apartments, Victoria Island, Lagos.
In 2008, Mikel had been left out of the Blues’ first ever UEFA Champion’s League final against Manchester United.
“As soon as we got to the final I knew I wasn’t going to play because of Maka’s experience,” Mikel said ahead of this year’s final.
“It was frustrating not playing but Maka (Claude Makelele) was one of the best when he was playing in that position, I had so much respect for him. I also knew before the game started I wasn’t going to get on and I was disappointed with that, but I was praying for the team to win and it was sad it didn’t happen,” he added.
Mikel was in his second year at the Chelsea and played 39 games that season. A month before the final against Manchester United he played the whole of a league win against the same opponents, yet it was never likely he would win selection by then manager Avram Grant for the big one, who naturally settled for Makelele.
In what appears to be the case of the proverbial rejected stone becoming the chief corner, Mikel who was reported to have received $300,000 (N75 million) bonus as a fallout of the UEFA league trophy victory, played all 120 minutes of the match with a significant presence in the heart of Chelsea midfield, breaking the Bayern attack. The Nigeria international was in the thick of action from start to finish, unlike in 2008 when he was an unused substitute as Chelsea lost another penalty shootout against fellow English Premiership club Manchester United in the final.
An ecstatic Mikel said after the Bayern conquest that the victory has brought to an end a long dream to become one of the champions of Europe. He described Chelsea’s victory against Bayern Munich as the greatest moment of his life, saying: “This is an incredible feat and feeling. Words cannot express how I am feeling. We have been dreaming of this day since I joined the team (in 2006). This is the best and greatest moment of my career. It will live with me for the rest of my life.”
Chelsea’s place in the UCL Hall of Fame
With their May 19 feat, Chelsea became the fifth English Club to win the European Champions League. Ivorian hit man Didier Drogba had made all the difference, cancelling out Bayern’s 83rd minute opener with an 88thminute equaliser, later to score the winning goal during the penalty shootouts.
Many football followers believed the odds were against the Stamford Bridge side for many reasons. A few were of the opinion that history was going to repeat itself like in 2008 when Chelsea lost to Manchester United via penalty shootouts, while others pointed to club owner, Abramovich’s obsession for a new coach which they believe was going to be a distraction for the team. But what most people never took into account was the most important factor: Interim manager, Di Matteo had fashioned out his own victory strategy and not even Bayern Munich’s advantage of playing at home would thwart that.