Why the Curse of Chelsea’s No. 7 Could Strike John Obi Mikel

Posted on September 2, 2010


Football is  battle of superstition as much it is technique, skill, dedication, and the other morally praiseworthy elements of professional sport.

In a game so heavily ritualised – after all football displays the outward form of any religion, with its revered figures, faithful congregation, litany of terrace chants and so forth – superstition is as part and parcel as the half-time pie.

Its manifestations are bizarre and multiple (the writer in question admits to remaining nil-by-mouth 5 hours before kick-off). One of the most long-standing phenomena of the mumbo-jumbo kind is the dreaded ‘Curse of the Shirt Number’ (cue creepy music).

According to one Stevie Wonder: “very superstitious, the writing’s on the wall” or in this case, when it’s on the back of your shirt too, for in search of no other plausible reason why a star-player or new signing hasn’t lived up to his Football Manager billing, fans can turn to the history of the number on his back. Obviously.

For Chelsea fans the cursed digit is the no. 7.

Seven boasts an impressive record in the annals of irrational history, having been associated with both qualities of fortune and misfortune by societies through the ages. Stamford Bridge regulars fit squarely into the latter catastrophy-inducing category. And quite frankly, who can blame them?  The previous three occupants of the Blues’ no. 7 jersey reads as follows:

  • Winston Bogarde: the Dutch-defender who single-handedly set about on a course to bankrupt the club in the pre-Abramovich age. At a cost of approx. £680,000 per appearance, Bogarde was to bench-warming what Cristiano Ronaldo is to the 3-point dive: a pioneer.
  • Adrian Mutu: some karma could have said to have been restored, as the Romanian striker turned casual cocaine-indulger, will be paying back a record FIFA compensation payment of €17million to Chelsea until his dying day.
  • Andriy Shevchenko: this one’s the clincher. Golden Boot and Ballon d’Or recipient, Sheva was awarded the less illustrious title of ‘football’s most expensive owner’s friend’ upon arrival at SW6. Following an agonisingly prolonged three years at the club, the only thing that improved about the then 30 year-old’s game was his Russian.

Flop: the Ukranian striker was the highest-profile victim of the cursed jersey syndrome

Laying mercifully dormant for two years then, the announcement that new midfield signing Ramires was to don the shirt of doom for the ‘10/11 season was met with a shameful ripple of anxiety by yours truly. The  award of the no. 7 to arguably Chelsea’s highest profile new recruit for at least two seasons seemed a risky one. Displaying all the outward forms of a man fated to fail — a hefty price tag and hype to boot — Ramires Santos do Nascimento will, however,  I’m pleased to exclusively announce, finally smash the stigma of seven.

You may think that it’s this sort of unashamed hubris that provokes the divine forces of football to pelt egg on fans’ faces, and you’re probably right. But the Brazilian affectionately known as ‘The Kenyan’ may only be a source of misfortune for Chelsea’s lone Nigerian. It is central midfielder and current holder of the relatively benign no. 12 shirt, John Obi Mikel, who stands to lose most from the arrival of new boy Ramires.

Groomed as an heir to Claude Makelele, Mikel has been Chelsea’s only real defensive midfield option since the diminutive Frenchman’s departure. The injury-blighted absences of Michael Essien and summer sales of Michael Ballack, Deco, and Juliano Belletti have further cemented Mikel’s position as the first-choice protector of the back four. But his performances have not always warranted such a status.

77 starts in all competitions over the past two seasons, Mikel can be identified as a somewhat error-prone link in the Chelsea midfield. Despite reducing his propensity to receive red-cards, the Nigerian is often found taking undue time on the ball and being caught out of position. In a central midfield area that has often been left wanting for pace, his languid play can often hold up, and not quicken, the pace of Chelsea’s attacking threat.

Enter Ramires. A stand-out young performer in Dunga’s World Cup side, the box-to-box midfielder and ex-brick layer is in direct competition with Mikel for the defensive midfield berth. The Brazilian as probably targeted  as a long-term replacement for Frank Lampard, but on current form and injury-permitting, neither Lampard nor Essien will be displaced in the 4-3-3; it is Mikel’s role that’s’ up for grabs. And it is no coincidence that with Ramires making his first Stamford Bridge appearance in a cameo against Stoke on Saturday, the Nigerian produced one of his finest recent displays.

Ramires is the man who can shrug off the numerical albatross that simultaneously sits on his back and around the collective neck of Blue’s fans. However it is the unwitting Mikel who may be the next victim of Chelsea’s no. 7.