Was Mikel John Obi really 'robbed' of 2013 APOTY gong?

ANALYSIS Was Mikel John Obi really 'robbed' of 2013 APOTY gong?

Solace Chukwu 16:07 - 17.02.2023
The Super Eagles legend has stirred up controversy with his claim that Yaya Toure's 2013 African Player of the Year award was a robbery. Does Mikel's claim hold water, though?

There has been no Nigerian winner of the African Player of the Year award since 1999, when Nwankwo Kanu pipped Bayern Munich defender Samuel Kuffour to the accolade following a dream start to life in the Premier League with Arsenal.

Since then, even podium finishes have been difficult to come by. In this century, only Austin Jay-Jay Okocha (twice, in 2003 and 2004) and Mikel John Obi (in 2013) have figured in the top three but, in the final reckoning, they finished well off the eventual winners Samuel Eto’o and Yaya Toure.

Yaya Toure (left) claimed the big prize at the 2013 CAF Awards, beating Mikel John Obi to the Men's Player of the Year crown

The comprehensive margins of victory have done nothing to dispel the controversy that trailed Okocha’s snubs in particular, but now former Chelsea man Mikel has chimed in as well, claiming being passed over for Yaya was a robbery.

“I was robbed, mate,” he said in a YouTube interview with Dubai Eye 103.8. “Before I went, I was told that I won it. I was at the airport flying to Nigeria, because the ceremony was in Nigeria, and guess what happened? Manchester City was playing, and Yaya scored a hat-trick or two goals.” 

(Fact check: It appears Mikel got mixed up here. He claimed Yaya scored either a brace or a hat-trick after he had boarded a flight to Nigeria for the award ceremony. Seeing as the event took place on January 9, 2014, he can only be referring to Manchester City’s EFL Cup victory over West Ham on January 8 – City won 6-0, but Yaya only scored once and was subbed off after an hour. Hardly a performance to make anyone sit up and take notice.)

Mind, this is hardly the first time a claim like this (a late change to the winner) has been made. In 2008, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) was forced to officially deny an allegation made by Didier Drogba in French publication L’Equipe that the 2007 award only went to Frederic Kanoute because the Ivorian decided against travelling to Lome for the ceremony. At the time, the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) was ongoing, and with the ceremony taking place two days before Cote d’Ivoire’s quarter-final meeting with Ghana, Drogba elected to remain in Ghana; Kanoute’s Mali had been eliminated in the Group Stage.

True or otherwise (and Kanoute did claim to have been told the same thing), the point is this: things are rarely straightforward when it comes to CAF in particular and individual awards in general. Hence, it is a good idea to not simply dismiss Mikel’s claim out of hand.

So, was he, in fact, robbed in 2013?

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In truth, there is no simple answer here. Rather, there are different possible answers depending on what the parameters are. The relevant parameters are far from codified (in this case, it is not unique to CAF), and so there can be no definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

First, what is being evaluated in awarding a ‘Footballer of the Year’? There are two broad schools of thought here, especially within the context of a continent that exports its best footballing talent to Europe. The first school takes the entire year into account, judging that consistent, sustained excellence day-to-day should be the most important factor. The second holds that, in light of an already eurocentric sport, it makes more sense to weight the award in favour of international performances and domestic club competition.

The question of Yaya v Mikel neatly falls into step with the above. While, during his interview, the Nigeria legend cited club success with Chelsea (more on this later) in the period under review, his claim mainly hinges on international success at the 2013 AFCON. As Nigeria claimed a third continental crown in South Africa, Mikel was influential in midfield for the Super Eagles, assisting twice and earning a spot in the tournament’s best XI. In addition, he was arguably Nigeria’s best performer at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil, scoring against Uruguay and shining even in a 3-0 defeat to Spain.

Mikel helped Nigeria win the 2013 AFCON defeating Yaya Toure's Ivory Coast in the quarterfinals

Yaya, who claimed no major silverware in the period under review, ostensibly got the nod on the strength of his club performances with Manchester City. The 2012/13 season ended in disappointment for Roberto Mancini’s side, as they finished second in the Premier League and suffered a shock loss to Wigan in the FA Cup final. Nevertheless, the midfield dynamo kept his performance levels high, and was named the Man of the Match in the Citizens’ defeat of Chelsea in the cup semi-final. He then enjoyed a storming start to the 2013/14 season, scoring nine goals and assisting three more in the first half of the campaign.

Evaluate either in the other’s area of comparative advantage and they come off a lot less stellar. Chelsea did win the Europa League in 2013, but not only did Mikel not start a game after the Round of 16, he also did not feature at all in either leg of the semi-final or the final. Similarly, following his return from the AFCON, he only started eight league matches for the Blues in the entire year. After being substituted at half-time in a 1-1 draw against Tottenham at the end of September, he would only start four more times before the end of 2013.

On the international stage, Yaya had an underwhelming year. Sure, he scored twice and assisted once at the AFCON, but Cote d’Ivoire were eliminated in the last eight by Nigeria with Yaya peripheral, playing too far forward to affect the game. He also had negligible impact later in the year in crunch World Cup qualifiers against Senegal and Morocco.

So, in the final reckoning, it really comes down to which school of thought you subscribe to. In the interest of full disclosure, I am not unbiased: my personal leaning has always been toward a more holistic view: it is incoherent that an award that purports to reward excellence in a given calendar year should take little else into account besides the events of a one-month tournament. 

However, to follow CAF’s logic, let us establish the pattern of the award since it was first handed out in 1992, in order to get a better sense of how coherent their choice was.

Overall, based on this, there seems to be a historical 4:3 split in favour of club performances. We can drill a little deeper, though.

Of the 28 awards given, 19 have been handed out in years when there was a relevant international tournament (in the interest of fairness, I have been forced to take the Olympics Games men’s football event, an age grade competition, into consideration, since it figured in CAF’s decision-making for the 1996 and 2000 awards). In those 19 years, international performance has been the major deciding factor on 11 occasions: 57.9% of the time. So, it is safe to say that national team performances have tended to be the major determinant for the award of African Player of the Year in years when international tournaments were held.

Open-and-shut case, then? Hold your horses. 

Notice that block of green from 2007 to 2016? In every one of those years, club form was the major deciding factor for the award, irrespective of international tournaments. Note that this span of time took in two World Cups, two Olympic Games (one in which an African nation reached the final), and four AFCONs. This is important because there is a clear trend: there were way more country-influenced awardees for the first 14 (eight) than for the latter 14 (four). As Africa’s footprint at the top of the global game (i.e. European football) has gotten bigger, so has CAF’s willingness to appoint its best players on the basis of club performance increased.

Mohamed Salah's 2017 win was the first time since Didier Drogba's win in 2006 that the African Player of the Year award was decided on the weight of international performance.

So, even going by the apparent logic of CAF’s own decision-making process, there is still no clear answer. What we can say for sure is that there was no incoherence in CAF’s ultimate decision.

So, was Mikel “robbed”. Even leaving aside the sensationalist wording, it is hard to think of Yaya Toure’s victory as a travesty of justice. Could Mikel have won? Absolutely. Is it irrational for him to think he should have won? No. 

Should he have won, though? Well, that depends. To what school do you subscribe?

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