Joel Obi: Fighting desperately for a plane ticket to Russia 2018
Every footballer craves international football. The brutal reality is international football hasn’t room for every footballer. To make the cut a player must work hard and stand out. To stand out he must play regular football at the highest level possible. A player who takes the pitch week-in-week-out for Barcelona or Real Madrid will not be overlooked by any national team in the world. But how about a player who toils week-in-week-out for Torino?
In the heart of Turin is a Serie A club with a rich history. Not Juventus, although the Old Lady has had her moments. Torino is more like it. Among Walter Mazzarri's senior players is a young man with talent worthy of veneration. His name is Joel Obi. Nigerian by birth, Obi is like every other footballer. He would not pass up the opportunity to represent his country. Yet that opportunity has been difficult to come by.
Obi began his career with Inter's youth team in 2005. Five years later, he graduated to Jose Mourinho's Champions League-winning squad. He was finally handed his full debut by Rafa Benitez. Soon there were times when Joel Obi would start Nerazzurri games ahead of Philippe Coutinho. Those were the good days.
During that time he broke into the Nigeria senior team. Obi took his international bow against Sierra Leone in Lagos. The date to remember was 9th February 2011. The good days didn’t last, however. The midfielder’s career has been besieged by injuries. They cost him a place in the Super Eagles squad that won the 2013 African Cup of Nations.
While he always remained in Italy, his career became nomadic. Obi moved to Parma on loan in 2013 but returned to San Siro after less than eight games. As his fitness improved, he began to enjoy regular playing time under then-Inter boss Walter Mazzarri. His play earned him a 2015 move to Toro, joining Andrea Belotti.
Initially. it wasn’t smooth sailing at the Grande Torino. He managed just 30 Serie A appearances in his first two seasons. Injuries continued to ravage. There was no end in sight to his international exile. He slipped into obscurity until the 2017-18 season dawned.
The campaign has witnessed a revamped Obi. The 26-year-old started and provided an assist in Torino’s opening Serie A fixture. He grabbed a goal in the second. The dark clouds began to clear.
Niggling knocks have cost Obi five weeks on the treatment table but he’s been fit and available otherwise. He’s also upped his game playing under a manager who rates him highly. In January, Torino announced that Walter Mazzarri would take charge of the Bulls following Sinisa Mihajlovic's sacking. Obi wouldn’t have asked for anyone else.
Under Mazzarri, the forgotten Eagle's four goals and two assists have aided Torino’s steady climb up the Serie A table. Less than five months remain until the World Cup in Russia; there’s no better time for a player to stay fit and hit form.
Obi last featured for his country in a 2014 friendly against Scotland. That game was a precursor to the 2014 World Cup. He didn’t make the final 23-man roster.
To end his four-year ostracism with the Super Eagles, Torino's all-action maestro cannot rest on his oars. Nigeria's midfield is packed with anointed names: Mikel John Obi, Wilfred Ndidi, Ogenyi Onazi and John Ogu are certain to be given plane tickets to Russia barring injury. There’s a spare ticket for an in-form midfielder who can create and score goals. Joel Obi is fighting to get it.