He was born in Jos, Nigeria as John Michael Nchekwube Obinna, the son of a former civil servant. As his father was a member of the Igbo ethnic group, "Nchekwube" means "hope" and "Obi" is a nickname for the Igbo name "Obinna" (meaning "Father´s heart").
He started his official football career at the age of 12 when picked as a talented footballer from over 3000 young talents to play in Pepsi Football Academy. A team which at that particular time was well known for going around Nigeria to search for the best there is from all the upcoming future stars, young talents to later move on to rather more professional football. Already then Obi stud out to all the scouts. He got picked to play in a top-flight team Plateau United also known for making stars from players like Celestine Babayaro, Victor Obinna, Chris Obodo and many more which moved on to playing in European teams and representing their country later on in their careers. Later known as John Obi Mikel he was gaining headlines for his country at the FIFA Under-17 World Championships held in Finland. After a brief spell in South Africa with Ajax Cape Town.