John Obi Mikel has no regrets about spending two years away from England in the Chinese Super League but is glad to be back Credit: Charlotte Graham for The Telegraph
He knows it was a mistake, motivated by the promise of unprecedented riches, but John Obi Mikel insists he has no regrets about spending the last two years in China.
It’s difficult to consider a move that earns you £140,000-a-week a mistake, yet for a midfielder who had won the Champions League, the Premier League twice and three FA Cups during his 11 years at Chelsea, the move to Tianjin Teda FC felt like an admission his best years were behind him.
With hindsight, it was a premature call. Mikel, polite and respectful, cannot deny his spell in the Chinese Super League should serve as a warning to anyone who is tempted to accept the lucrative contracts on offer.
Reality hit as soon as he arrived in Tianjin, a coastal city of 15 million people in the north of the country. He would be well rewarded for leaving his family behind in London, but it was not professional football as he knew it.
“It was two years of a huge culture shock,” Mikel explained, having finished speaking at Middlesbrough’s training ground to a group of refugees. “The food was a problem, the lifestyle, the style in which everything was done.
“When you have been at a club like Chelsea in the Premier League, for 11 years, it was very hard to adapt to how things were done. It isn’t at the elite level, let’s put it that way. Chelsea players celebrate with the trophy after winning the 2012 Uefa Champions League
Mikel, centre, wins the Champions League in 2012 with Chelsea Credit: Action Images / Lee Smith Livepic
“The pitches were poor, stadiums are poor, and the medical facilities were not what I was used to. I’m not saying it’s all the Chinese clubs, some of them are quite professional, but the one I was at, it wasn’t as professional as it should have been. It became tough for me almost straight away.
“I wouldn’t say I regretted it, I had a good time with my team-mates, but it was never easy. The standard of football, it’s not even Championship standard. I realised that very quickly. It’s a league that wants to grow, they are putting a lot of money in, but it is a long way behind.
“I think they are going to struggle to get where they want to be. When you look at the MLS, it’s much easier for players like me who have played in Europe at a high level, who speak English, to go there.
Frank Lampard of Chelsea and John Terry of Chelsea prepare to lift the trophy during the UEFA Europa League Final between SL Benfica and Chelsea FC at Amsterdam Arena
“I think the league in America is on the rise, but for me China is a long way behind them. You can only advance so much by throwing money at something and the Chinese contracts are very generous, but it’s still going to struggle to become a top league. Maybe it’s the language, maybe it’s because it can seem quite alien, it’s daunting.”
Mikel lived in an apartment at a hotel complex where all the staff and guests spoke English. It was a comforting cocoon off the pitch, but he was there to play football.
“I did wonder if I had made a big mistake,” he admits. “But looking back, I will never say I regret it. I missed my family a lot. They came over maybe twice a year and liked it when they visited, but they were the main reason I had to come back.
John Obi Mikel #10 of Tianjin Teda in action during 2018 China Super League match between Beijing Renhe and Tianjin Teda
“As a life experience, I enjoyed it. Professionally, it was tough, but I had some good times. It was a nice city and the people I met at the club were great. But it was definitely the right time for me to come back and play at a higher level again. I knew I was going to leave, probably after a year.”
Mikel returned to England at the end of 2018. After weighing up his options, the best was a short-term contract with Championship promotion chasers Middlesbrough. Premier League clubs did not want to touch a player aged 31 who had spent two years playing a poor standard of football in a league without any western media coverage. Perceptions of him had changed.
Mikel has done well at his new club, his performances improving as he regains old fitness levels on the back of double training sessions. He would like to stay beyond the end of the season, “our goals are the same, we want to be in the Premier League” but if he had not gone to China, he would probably still be playing in the top flight.
Mikel is a supporter of the MFC Foundation and its work with the Middlesbrough Asylum Project Credit: Charlotte Graham for The Telegraph
“My advice to anyone thinking about going, is have a long think about it,” he explained. “You have to go at the right time.”I certainly wouldn’t say to anyone under the age of 30 to go there. They will regret it if they do.
“It’s worth doing for a couple of years, if only to learn a different culture, to give yourself an experience that takes you out of your comfort zone, but do not be tempted by the money if you are young. Do your research, check what sort of club you are going to over there.
“You should wait until you are approaching the end of your career. The money makes the move tempting, we’re only human, but do not be tempted by the size of the cheque if you are in the prime of your career. It’s not worth it.”
Club Together is an MFC Foundation programme, which runs in partnership with the Middlesbrough Asylum Project (MAP). The programme works with both men and women who have fled war-town areas helping them to play sport and learn English.
…Mikel Says Promotion With Boro Will Be Career Highpoint
Champions League winner John Mikel Obi says promotion to the Premier League with Middlesbrough would rank as one of his finest moments in football.
The 31-year-old midfielder collected two Premier League titles, a Champions League, Europa League and three FA Cup winners medals with Chelsea, and joined Boro on a short-term deal in January.
“If we manage to pull it [promotion] off, it would be amazing,” he said.
“It would be up there as one of my greatest achievements.”
Mikel moved to the Riverside Stadium as a free agent after a lucrative stint in China with Tianjin Teda.
Boro have lost just once in the league since his arrival and are fifth in the Championship with 12 games remaining.
A drop into England’s second tier was something new for the Nigeria international, who captained his country at the 2018 World Cup and won the Africa Cup of Nations with the Super Eagles in 2013.
“I’m still hungry and want to win trophies. I’m never satisfied with what I have achieved. If I was, I would just sit at home,” he told BBC Sport.
“I want to achieve something with this club and that is to get this club promoted.
“I love challenges and I knew coming in here would be a challenge for me, and being in the second division would be a challenge for me.
“I knew this club would be pushing for promotion and managing to do that wouldn’t be easy.”
With a game in hand on all four sides above them, Boro are nine points adrift of the top two and an automatic promotion spot.
After 34 games they have the best defensive record in the division, however, they have laboured at the other end and scored the fewest goals of any side in the top 15.
“Middlesbrough are a massive club and should be in the Premier League – it is where it belongs for me,” he said.
“We still have a lot of games to play, and if we manage to win quite a few of them, who knows?
“If we could get automatic promotion, fine, and if we get into the play-offs and that is how we do it, then that would be amazing as well. “We just have to keep pushing.”
What’s next for Mikel?
As for his own future beyond his short-term deal until the end of the season, Mikel was coy despite saying he felt “at home” and was “enjoying” his time on Teesside.
“I want to enjoy my football and enjoy winning games with this club, these players are an amazing group of guys,” he said.
“Every time we win a game you see that feeling of wanting to be in the Premier League and that is something I want to keep enjoying with them until the end of the season. And then we see where we are.”
Mikel’s midfielder partner Muhamed Besic says the Nigerian has added “confidence” to the side with his mentality, composure and talent which saw him thrive among the world’s elite for more than a decade.
“It is a big thing that he came to the club,” said Besic, who is on loan at Middlesbrough from Everton.
“Now we have a really strong core and with Mikel coming in, he is an experienced player who has played a lot of big games in his career.