The ongoing saga of Nigerian wonderkid John Obi Mikel's transfer from Lyn of Oslo in Norway to Manchester United is a story of intrigue and the murky world of football agents.
Although the player would appear to have signed a contract with United on April 29th a lengthy process of breaking that agreement is underway - a process that is being carried out by a legion of middlemen and agents, possibly on behalf of the richest football club in the world.
Indeed amid allegations of bribery, player trafficking and - kidnapping" it would seem highly unlikely that 18 year old Mikel will ever play for the Old Trafford outfit. Soccerphile.com spoke to Daniel Fletcher, Mikel's FIFA registered agent, in an effort to find out more …
Manchester United's two year long pursuit of John Obi Mikel began with an invitation for the entire Nigerian under-17 squad to train at their Carrington complex ahead of the 2003 FIFA U-17 World Youth Championships. The Reds were the first European club to express an interest in the player.
Indeed players and management alike were highly impressed by the youngster but British immigration law and FIFA rules meant that United were unable to sign the player at that time. Instead, the club were to follow the progress of Mikel and then attempt to sign him when he turned 18.
The plan hinged on whether Mikel had gained enough caps in order to obtain a work permit. If he had, a transfer could take place, if not United would have loaned him to Sporting Lisbon or Royal Antwerp until a transfer was possible.
It was around the same time that Daniel Fletcher first spotted
the talent in the young Nigerian. Currently working with London
based Athletes1 - with which his former company 'Excel International
Management' recently merged - Fletcher's has a number of major
sports names on his books. He is also a man at the very heart of
the ongoing Mikel transfer saga. As Fletcher argues:
- Mikel had a great tournament in Finland," he says. - After the tournament I pursued his signature aggressively but I obviously did due diligence. FIFA regulations only allow one agent worldwide for a footballer. I am Mikel's registered agent and the English and Nigerian FAs countersigned the contracts. There cannot be another registered agent because those FAs would not allow two agents to have exclusivity with one player."
"At the time I signed Obi he was a minor. I got the signatures, the agreement of his parents," Fletcher insists. Although the family have subsequently claimed to have never met with him, Fletcher maintains that the company's Nigerian office did and that a series of phone and email communications sealed the deal. John Obi Mikel eventually signed a two-year exclusive contract with him in July 2004.
It's a point that would later become central to the transfer of Mikel from Lyn to Manchester United.
United had tried to get Mikel to the club on a scholarship contract in the summer of 2003. Yet, even at this early stage in the saga Mikel was an elusive man. "Nigerian players do come with a reputation. I can't guarantee that he hasn't signed other exclusive contracts. What I've said all along is that I did the appropriate due diligence and that the contract he has with me is legal."
Indeed other agents including John Shittu and Jerome Anderson of Sport Entertainment & Media Group (SEM), and Rune Hauge all claim to have agreements of one form or another with the player.
United too were drawn into the saga early on. In the Spring of 2004 Mikel was due to join United on a "scholarship", says Fletcher - a schooling that the player was never to fulfil. As Fletcher adds, "Obi disappeared and it took months to track him down. I eventually found him at Ajax Capetown in South Africa." Disappearing was to become a John Obi Mikel trademark.
United did eventually get their man however. Mikel had already joined Lyn on a youth contract by the time he turned 18 on April 22nd 2005. According to Fletcher, Autumn 2004 saw Mikel join Lyn on the recommendation of United's Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who had trained with the player back in the summer of 2003.
In the week following Mikel's 18th birthday United began negotiations with Lyn and the player over a possible transfer. Jim Ryan, United's academy director, was charged with reaching an agreement with the two parties. Despite the ongoing communications problems with the player - Mikel has a - massive forcefield around him.
Every time I called somebody else answered the phone," says Fletcher - Ryan was in Oslo just days after Mikel put pen to paper on his first professional contract. It was almost two years to the day since the player had first trained at Carrington. Indeed, Mikel signed his first contract with Lyn on April 22nd and signed for United just seven days later.
United had splashed out on a deal that with bonuses could have been worth a Norwegian record fee to the club and around £10,000 a week to the player. Mikel eventually signed professional forms with United on April 29th, with a transfer agreed for the end of the Norwegian season in January 2006.
Mikel and United went on record stating their "delight" with the transfer. The beamng player appeared on Norwegian television sporting his number 21 shirt alongside Jim Ryan and Lyn's sporting director Morgan Anderson. Something that Mikel would later claim was forced upon him.
Chelsea has also been tracking the player during this period - quite possibly after CEO Peter Kenyon moved from Old Trafford to West London following Roman Abramovich's takeover at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea management were reported to be - furious" that they'd missed out on Mikel. They had apparently paid £190,000 towards Mikel's 'education'. It has since emerged that Mikel was just one of four Nigerian boys for whom Chelsea paid Rune Hauge's TNG school in Oslo.
Norway is becoming a popular stepping stone for young players from Africa who see it as an opportunity to work in a country that has relatively lenient immigration laws. However, under Norwegian law all minors must receive an 'education' to qualify for a visa. It's also an opportunity for clubs from the major European leagues to park players from Africa while they qualify for work permits.
Shortly after the transfer to United was announced Mikel claimed to have received death threats from people "in London and Nigeria". In the days that have followed it seems that the pressure placed on the player may have come from groups who had a vested interest in the player. Mike then disappeared on May 10th - leaving a cup match between Lyn and Klemetsrud in the back of a car driven by John Shittu. He was taken first not to his home in the suburb of Bekkestua but to the Holmenkollen Park Hotel in Oslo by Shittu and then on the 12th to London.
By the 13th Mikel conducted his first interview with Sky Sports in which he claimed that he no longer wanted to join United, that he'd been pressured into signing a contract, and that he wanted to join Chelsea instead.
- Did you see the press conference with Jimmy Ryan and Obi in Oslo?" There's a hint of disbelief in Fletcher's voice. - Just compare the player then and what has been said since. He was smiling, he was happy; he said it was a dream to join United." Fletcher's been less equivocal in other media, accusing Shittu and Anderson of pressuring the player into saying that he wants to join Chelsea ahead of United. - I've had indirect contact with the player through a very trusted source," says Fletcher. - I have every reason to believe that Obi still wants to join United".
How then does Fletcher justify both the Sky Sports interview held on May 13th by Obi in which he says he was forced to join United? This was compounded on 20th of May in a bizarre telephone interview held for BBC Two's Newsnight with investigative journalist Michael Crick. - Just look at the Sky Sports interview. John is nervous, every time the word 'agent' is mentioned he's looking around. He looks scared."
Fletcher is even more dismissive of the Newsnight telephone interview. Indeed many people in football now believe that the call was a fake. - I told Michael Crick that all he had to do was call me," is Fletcher's response. - Anybody who has ever spoken to John knows that he is softly spoken, he has quite a deep voice. The person on the phone was excitable; he didn't even give any answers. I knew straight away it wasn't him."
Indeed United were unequivocal in their condemnation of what they believed to be Chelsea's intervention. Without mentioning the West London club by name in the media United wrote to Chelsea, then the FA and finally to FIFA.
Given that the player has a contract with both Lyn and United, and Lyn with the Old Trafford club, Chelsea has little legal chance of signing the player on the face of it. However, it would seem highly likely that Chelsea will attempt to prove that Lyn did not have the right to sign John Obi Mikel in the first place and therefore didn't have the right to sell him; that indeed Mikel's original contract was with TNG as Rune Hauge has already claimed on the record. In the end Fletcher argues that FIFA will have to decide.
"I can tell you that United have a legal contract with the player, that I have a contract with the player," Fletcher asserts. "It will end up at the FIFA Player Status Committee but everybody is putting off a decision. It could take months. The FA has washed their hands of it. In the end somebody has to decide and it could end up in court."
It could have serious consequences for the player too as a breach of contract could lead to a FIFA ban of anything up to two years. Indeed for a player who has only played three games in the Norwegian League Mikel - or more realistically his advisors - are taking a huge risk. For the time being Mikel remains with the Nigerian under-20 squad ahead of the World Youth Championships in the Netherlands later this month.
United have jointly petitioned FIFA with Lyn and have the backing of both the Nigerian FA and PFA. - It was at United's behest that I put together the letter to FIFA" Fletcher says. It would seem that Daniel Fletcher is still very much at the heart of a very strange transfer saga.
- June 2003: Mikel and the Nigerian under-17 team are invited
to Carrington by United. Mikel trains with the United first team
- Spring 2004: Mikel fails to turn up to start his scholarship with United
- Autumn 2004: Mikel joins Lyn Oslo on a youth contract
- Chelsea pay £190k to TNG through Rune Hauge; Mikel and three other Nigerians join the school
- 2005: Mikel trains with Chelsea in London while 'studying' at TNG school in Oslo
- April 22nd 2005: Mikel turns 18 and signs a pro contract with Lyn
- April 22nd-28th 2005: Lyn cancel contracts signed by Mikel as a minor
- April 22nd-28th 2005: Chelsea enter negotiations for Mikel; the bid is turned down by Lyn amid accusations of "arrogance" on Chelsea's part
- April 22nd-28th 2005: United make bid for Mikel, which is accepted
- April 29th 2005: Mikel signs a professional contract with United; a beaming player is interviewed on TV, complete with number 21 United shirt
- April 30th-May 10th: Mikel receives 'death threats'
- May 10th: Mikel states on Norwegian TV that he is "delighted with United move"
- May 10th: Mikel is taken by Shittu to a hotel; Lyn call the police
- May 11th: Mikel states that he no longer wants to join United and that he'd been "forced into signing a contract" against his will
- May 12th: Mikel flies into London
- May 13th: Mikel conducts interview with Sky Sports in which he claims to have been forced to sign a contract with United
- May 20th: Newsnight carry interview with Mikel, since proved to be a fake
- May 24th: Mikel joins up with Nigerian U-20s ahead of the World Youth Championships
Full Name: John Obi Mikel
Date of Birth: 22 April 1987
Born: Plateau State, Nigeria
Former Clubs: Lyn Oslo, Norway; Plateau United, Nigeria; Pepsi Football Academy, Nigeria
Senior Games: Three
Internationals: Nigeria U-17s, U-20s
Recently included in the full Nigeria squad for the match against Rwanda
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