Mikel John Obi laughs. He has not heard the comments from the Trabzonspor president, Ahmet Agaoglu, until now and it is difficult for him to conceal the incredulity. Agaoglu, whose club are top of the Turkish Superlig and chasing a first championship since 1984, had clambered on to his soapbox last Sunday to explain why he felt the show must go on.
The vast majority of football competition around Europe had already shut down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic but the Superlig played on behind closed doors last weekend before finally agreeing to fall into line on Thursday afternoon and suspend.
“Football is the one thing in Turkey that allows people to get rid of their stress, to entertain themselves and to occupy their minds,” Agaoglu said. “If they suspend the league for a long time, in a month from now there won’t be enough judges to rule on all the divorce cases.”
Mikel takes a deep breath. And then he unloads. “It just shows you how the thinking there is,” he says. “I just have to be honest and be brutal with what I’m saying. It just shows that they don’t really care about human life. They don’t care about what is going on in the world. All they care about is how to win the league. The reason why I signed for Trabzonspor last summer was to win the league. I gave 100% in every game. But in this situation, where the world is facing such a difficult time, I didn’t feel that football should continue.”
Belatedly, the Turkish authorities have come to agree with Mikel. Schools and universities in the country had shut down and flights to many countries had been stopped but there seemed to be a will to keep football going behind closed doors, even if it was not shared – according to Mikel – by many of the players.
Common sense has now prevailed, although it ought not to obscure the boldness of the stand that Mikel took – one that, for the time being, has cost the former Chelsea midfielder his livelihood. Perhaps, it was a stand that went a little way to pressuring the Turkish football federation to bow to the inevitable.
Mikel’s contract with Trabzonspor was due to run until the summer of 2021, with the option of a further year, but he walked away from it on Tuesday because, to his mind, the money and career security at 32 paled into insignificance when set against being with his girlfriend and four-year-old twin daughters in London and, in a broader sense, doing what he felt was right.
Mikel had been opposed to the Superlig’s matches going ahead behind closed doors, believing it to be against the guidance for most citizens to stay at home, and he said so in a post to his Instagram page last Friday. It was the prompt for a whirlwind, when things went “180 degrees in a minute” to quote Mikel, and the battle lines were drawn between Agaoglu and himself.
Agaoglu was furious and he told the Trabzonspor secretary to call Mikel and demand that he delete the post, according to the player. Mikel refused. “It was: ‘You shouldn’t say that, we are in the process of becoming champions, you have to take it down,’” Mikel says. “I said: ‘I am not taking my post down. This is my opinion. The world is going through this turbulent time, a scary time. You guys should wake up.’”
Cue a face-to-face meeting between Agaoglu and Mikel, featuring the same demand and the same response. This time Mikel says that the club president brought a threat. “He was telling me if I didn’t take the post down, I was not going to play until the end of the season,” Mikel says. “I said: ‘OK, if that’s what you guys think, then I am ready to stand by what I’ve said and take the hit for it.’”
Mikel was an unused substitute for the home game against Istanbul Basaksehir on Sunday, with the selection order having come down from the top. “The president told me: ‘I will tell the coach not to play you,’” Mikel says. “I said: ‘OK.’”
A brief digression. The behind-closed-doors game was weird and edgy, according to Mikel, and, as governing bodies try to work out how to finish seasons, this option would come with plenty of strings attached.
“It was still a risk in terms of passing the virus on, with a lot of accredited people there, and I saw what was going on, I was on the bench,” Mikel says. “There was no motivation, the players were all scared. There was no handshaking. It didn’t feel right. I just thought: ‘I don’t want to be part of this.’”
Spool forward to Tuesday when the Turkish federation met to consider whether to suspend the competition. Mikel says that, beforehand, a rumour went around Trabzonspor that even if the competition were temporarily halted, the foreign players would not be allowed to travel home to their families. “It was because Turkey was felt to be the safest place,” Mikel says.
When the federation then announced that the matches would continue to be played behind closed doors, Mikel knew what he had to do. He could see a nightmare scenario in which travel restrictions meant that he would have to remain in Turkey for “months and months”, apart from his family, and so he called his representatives to push an exit strategy.
“The club said: ‘If you go, you are not going to come back,’” Mikel says. “So they were threatening me not to go, you know what I mean? They didn’t think I would be able to take the stand and cancel the contract. But I didn’t care what they did. I said: ‘If you have to cancel, we cancel. I have to go home to see my family in case something happens to them.’”
To Mikel, priorities and principles have been everything in recent days. “As a man, you have to look yourself in the mirror,” he says. “You have to ask, while all this was going on, did you help the situation and how did you help your family? I wanted to say: ‘I have done the right thing.’ I wanted to be with my family.
“Everyone in Turkey was scared to say something because they might be punished by the club or the fans are going to be against them but I felt that someone needed to say something. Just the truth, what should be done. That’s all I did. I’ve had messages from players in Turkey, telling me: ‘Well done for standing up because we can’t speak, I hope you understand.’ They are scared to lose their contract, their job. I understand.
“For me, it was about my family, about doing what I feel is right, to help the world to defeat this virus. The only way we can do it is by following the guidelines, staying at home and not playing football at this point in time.”