At the individual awards ceremony after Argentina’s 2-1 win over Nigeria in the 2005 U-20 World Cup final, three players stood out: petite Lionel Messi, lanky Mikel John Obi and Taye Taiwo.
The South Americans owe their triumph to the spellbinding magician whose six goals secured the country’s fourth success in six tournaments, while the disappointed pair on the losing side could not register the West African country’s first victory in the the centerpiece.
Mikel, for his part, was probably the most talented of this iteration of the Flying Eaglets, with his artistry setting him above many in the squad. He came second behind Messi, and there was a particular choice for third place.
It’s often trivial to place stereotypes on players of color, but Taiwo was the embodiment of those ‘classic African’ qualities of pace, strength and power. The left-back wasn’t just a spectator alongside Samson Siasia; he tirelessly forayed forward, often helping to rock the team in the final third and balancing it out with defensive trickery.
The stocky defender’s influence grew as the African side progressed through the competition, leading to his two strikes in the round of 16. His first was a fortuitous cross kick with his weaker foot that won the match against Ukraine in the Round of 16, while the second, a typical powered effort, opened the Aiglons’ comfortable 3-0 victory in semi final. on Morocco.
Moreover, the confidence and poise to step up and dispatch his two penalties in the dramatic 10-9 shootout success against tournament hosts Netherlands underscored his admirable self-confidence and composure. He was also involved in the move which ended with a fine diving header from Chinedu Obasi to put Argentina back in the deciding game.
Taiwo was this team’s second top scorer (Obasi scored three times) and looked ready to take on the world, as Mikel and Messi would continue to do.
Unsurprisingly, the defender’s performances in the biennial competition translated into increased playing time at Olympique Marseille in 2005/06. After making just four Ligue 1 appearances the previous year, new boss Jean Fernandez made the Nigerian defender his main left-back for the new season, resulting in 30 league appearances.
Appearances in subsequent campaigns were 37, 28, 35, 27 and 30 before his departure after the 2010/11 season.
What made Taiwo’s stay in France very special played a major role in The Olympians‘ return to the top of Ligue 1 in 2010, ending an 18-year wait for the title. The left-back was widely backed as the first choice despite managerial changes at the time – Fernandez, Albert Emon and Eric Gerets were at the helm between 2005 and 2009 before Didier Deschamps’ appointment under the late Senegalese president Pape Diouf.
Although the 1998 World Cup-winning captain signed 10 players in the summer of 2009, including Gabriel Heinze (who featured intermittently at left-back), the potent Super Eagles star remained a vital cog in the team. team.
He also featured for 90 minutes in Marseille’s 3-1 Coupe de la Ligue final win over Bordeaux – end The Phocaeans‘ 17-year-old trophy drought – which came about two months before their ninth top-flight success.
While players like Mamadou Niang (the club’s top scorer), Brandao, Mathieu Valbuena and Lucho Gonzalez (a then-record buy) got most of the applause, the contribution of blue-collar workers like Taiwo was also critical to their success.
The left-back’s final year saw Marseille retain their cup title but surrender their Ligue 1 crown to LOSC Lille.
In truth, leaving Stade Vélodrome after helping the club win the league and successive cup titles seemed like a smart move, especially as AC Milan, Bayern Munich and Liverpool were believed to be interested in its services.
After seven years at Marseille, 26 seemed like a good age for him to seek a new challenge and he opted for Milan who won Serie A in 2010/11. However, this turned out to be the turning point in Taiwo’s career.
Massimiliano Allegri preferred either Luca Antonini or Gianluca Zambrotta as left-back for the first half of 11/12, and oddly even opted for naturally centre-back Daniele Bonera in a Napoli game with the Nigerian defender on the bench .
After months without regular action, the former Marseillais exploded in an interview with The Team in December 2011.
“I suffer every day because I can’t play football. I joined this club to play, but I’ve only made six appearances so far,” Taiwo lamented. “I don’t understand how things work in Italy. Sometimes I even have to watch from the stands, but I really need to play to show what I can do.
“Looks like Allegri doesn’t trust me. It’s not like me to sit around and do nothing in a situation like this.”
He also later admitted to having trouble with the language, not helped by the coach’s quick talk. Allegri started the solid defender in the RossoneriWest Africa’s next two games – 2-0 wins over Siena and Cagliari – but they turned out to be West Africa’s last games for Milan (he only played four times in Serie A and played four Champions League matches).
Taiwo was loaned out to relegation-threatened Premier League Queens Park Rangers in January 2012, a major step for a player used to competing for things at the top of the table.
That short spell in England turned out to be the left-back’s last sighting in one of Europe’s major leagues; he spent a year at Dynamo Kyiv, played in Turkey with Bursaspor and featured for Finnish side HJK Helsinki, to name a few.
The ex-Marseillais also played in Switzerland and Sweden before a two-year stint at RoPS where he remained until his release at the end of 2019.
For a career that held so much promise, the idea is that the 34-year-old peaked early and couldn’t continue his upward trajectory after his first burst of success.
Still, one wonders how things might have turned out had he moved elsewhere in 2011 or if that unfortunate fate at Milan had turned out differently.
Internationally, it is poignant that Mikel was the only one from that 2005 Aiglons side to remain relevant for an extended period. The former Chelsea man was also the only one to feature in Nigeria’s 2013 Africa Cup of Nations success, ending nearly two decades of injuries as Taiwo was dropped from the national team a year earlier .
While Mikel has become a cornerstone of the Super Eagles squad, the left-back sadly passed out after his promising spell in France which turned out to be the highlight of his career.