On June 26, as Nigeria took on Argentina in a crucial World Cup game, captain John Obi Mikel was in a dilemma: only four hours before the game, he learned his father had been kidnapped for ransom.
Mikel did not tell teammates or the manager as the kidnappers had threatened to kill his father if the news was disclosed. To secure his release, the China-based soccer star was asked to pay a 10 million naira ($28,000) ransom.
“I had to shut it out of my head and go and represent my country first,” Mikel told Kwese ESPN. Nigeria lost the game and were knocked out of the World Cup. Mikel can only speak up now as his father has been rescued by police officers, nearly a week after the kidnapping.
Nigerians have been hailing Mikel as a national hero for going ahead with playing the match despite the huge emotional distraction and noted it wasn’t the first time the 31-year old veteran has made personal sacrifices for his country.
Amid increasing insecurity in Nigeria, kidnappings have become rampant with high net-worth individuals and their relatives often targeted. In a high profile case in Lagos last year, parents of six pupils abducted from a government-owned school paid 31 million naira ($86,000) for their release. Ransoms are likely quietly paid without media coverage in some cases.
Soccer stars like Mikel, who spent a decade playing in the lucrative English Premier League can easily be targeted. Indeed, it’s not the first kidnapping ordeal for the Obi family. In 2011, Pa Obi was kidnapped but released after 10 days. Former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo Iweala’s mother was kidnapped for ransom in 2012, but released after a five-day ordeal.
It’s not the first time a family has been thrown in disarray during a World Cup. 24 years ago this week, Andrés Escobar, Colombia’s former captain, was murdered after he scored a decisive own goal against the United States to knock his country out of the 1994 World Cup. Escobar was not the only casualty of that World Cup though: after Colombia’s first game, a loss against Romania, brother of defender Chonta Herrera was killed “in a suspicious car accident.“