Players demanding their rights not unpatriotic, says Yobo
For over 13 years, Joseph Yobo was a sure starter for the senior national team, the Super Eagles. He made his debut for Nigeria on March 24, 2001 in a 2002 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Zambia. From then until June 30, 2014, Yobo was a mainstay in the Super Eagles, which he led to the 2010 and 2014 World Cup tourneys, having earlier featured in the 2002 edition, bringing his record to three. He featured in six editions of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) and won the sixth. And with 10 matches at the World Cup finals, his record of appearances was the highest for his country on that stage. Now retired from the national team, Yobo, who says he is bidding his time before returning to the field following the expiration of his contract with Turkey’s Fenerbahce, is engaged in various enterprises, including championing the re-election campaign of President Goodluck Jonathan. Fielding questions from some journalists at the weekend, Yobo, who with 100 appearances is also Nigeria’s highest capped footballer in recorded history, talks about his career, the events of the 2014 World Cup and the way forward for Nigerian football. CHRISTIAN OKPARA reports.
JOSEPH Yobo is just one of the few who had the privilege of serving Nigeria uninterrupted for over 10 years. He first made his appearance as a junior player in the build-up to the 1999 FIFA Under-20 World Cup, which Nigeria hosted, before amassing 100 caps for Super Eagles, a team he also captained.
Since retiring from the national team after leading the country to the second round of the Brazil 2014 World Cup, Yobo has been engaged in some activities he says are aimed at helping the youth to find their bearing.
Whatever he does, however, Yobo cannot stop thinking about Nigerian football, which, according to him, has the potential of being among the world’s 10 best due to the abundant talents available in the country. The former Marseilles of France star is, however, worried that rather than toe the line of development, the game is continually bogged down by crisis. Some of these issues, according to him, are avoidable if everybody works for the good of the game.
“We lack consistency in a lot of things. Instead of building and progressing, we are either looking to destroy or perfect, which is a serious problem,” he noted. “You have to build on what you have if you see the light. A lot of people take things too personal and for their own selfish reasons, but football is a professional thing and you should treat it like that.
“As a captain, I made the country always come first. We tend to forget, whether you are the NFF boss, the coach or player, you need to know that the country comes first and it is not about your personal position. That is where we have issues: we are egoistic. Sometimes we forget that what we are doing is for our country, regardless of our background and differences.
“For instance, if a player is good, let him play and get a chance. Of course, there must be discipline, but don’t take it personal. Look at the big clubs, there are players who have ego problems and are troublesome, some people are not even in good terms, but they play together for the club because they need to win games. It is a business and the team must win. As administrators or coaches, we need to learn from that and use it in our daily activities.
“The coaches and administrators have all been out there and learnt the best, so we should do it here. Select players based on performance and what they can offer, not because you don’t like them personally. Officials, too, must give the coaches their due respect and meet their obligations. Once we all act like professionals and see it as collective success, we can move forward in a positive way. Love does not cost a thing and together we can make it happen if we love ourselves for the good of the game and country.”
Yobo revisited the crisis during the second round game against France at the 2014 World Cup, when the players embarked on strike over unpaid bonuses, stating that the incident could have been avoided. According to him, “when you have agreed something with people, make it happen. At the World Cup or during bonus rows, it was not about the money for some players but the motive behind it. As a captain, my concern was for some of the local players and youngsters, who travelled thousands of miles, sacrificed themselves on dodgy planes and gave their all on the pitch.
“For those of us playing in Europe for years, by the grace of God, $10,000 is not our problem, rather, those playing at home are deprived an incentive promised. And knowing our society, that money can do a lot of things in their families and communities – then you deny them something to take back home after all the sacrifice.
Sadly, people only hear negative things about the players. Have you heard about those with flying phobia being kept on dodgy planes? Mentally and psychologically, they suffer and still give their best on the pitch, but when they ask for what’s promised they are called greedy and unpatriotic lots. Once that game is over, some players are forgotten and are labelled finished by some people.
A professional footballer’s life span is short, so it is right they are paid for what they have worked.” Reminiscing on his international career, Yobo said it was one of the best periods in his life: “It is amazing when you look back and see how far you have come. I think I probably didn’t realise how important it was until I quit international football. I think it is a great achievement. I will encourage anyone that could reach that height to do so because it is something that you can look back to and be proud of.”
At some point, it appeared the 100 caps would never happen due to the problems he had with the coaches after the 2013 AFCON, but Yobo sad he knew he would achieve that milestone, noting: “I had no problem with anyone because when God holds you, no one can harm you. There were a lot of challenges and some people did not want me to get it, but the hand of God was upon me and I had my opportunity again and took it.
“Looking back, I am very happy… it is a lot of sacrifice playing for the national team, to be a player for over a decade and to get to the 100 caps. I am proud to have done that and I know someday my kids will look back, appreciate and be proud of what their dad did.”
Yobo wants upcoming players to put their careers first and above every other pursuit, adding: “It takes a lot of sacrifice, humility and hard work, but especially, God’s grace. When you are gifted and the hand of God is upon you and you believe in Him, He makes everything possible. I’m a testimony to that.”
Yobo revealed that he prayed for a proper trophy when it seemed that his international career would end without any major honour, stating: “In 2013, I said it was my last tournament and I prayed so hard in spite of all odds – the controversies and problems surrounding the team. I stayed calm to be part of the team that achieved that success. I think that was the only thing missing after playing in six Nations Cups consistently and three World Cups.
“So, it had been a long road, but I tried to enjoy every moment of it despite the odds and distractions. One thing you cannot avoid at a certain time in your career is injury, because when injury kicks in, it pushes you back a little bit and you start asking questions whether it is the right time to just focus on your club and put your international career on hold to fully recover. You start wondering whether to concentrate on one and then get back again.
“Those things come to your mind but as a player, I was very proud representing my country. Even when we were not the strongest team, I was always out there, that’s one of the things that made me stand out. I have seen a lot of things happen, but I was never afraid to play again.”
Though he was one of the most consistent players for the national team during his time, Yobo was also one of the most criticised stars of the team, especially during the later years of his Super Eagles’ career. Nevertheless, the former Everton defender sees criticism as part of the game, as he said: “That is life, you cannot win them all to your side, so you will have to accept it as part of the game and life.
“However, I try to preach to people to take it easy on the young players because they will always have good and bad days; it doesn’t make them a bad player. I went through all that and it made me who I am today, stronger and more vocal.”
When Nigeria plays against Uganda at the Uyo Stadium on Wednesday, goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama would make the 100 caps mark if fielded. Enyeama also stands in a good stead to surpass the mark and set a new record, but rather than fret that somebody was about to erase his record, Yobo only has adulation for the former Enyimba captain.
According to him, “he is a great goalkeeper, but we took a different route. He had to start from the bench, coming off and fighting for his place before he became a super regular. I started and just continued. We started about the same time, so I am happy that he is about to reach the record and I hope he can break all the records because he deserves it. It is always difficult for players to achieve that, but goalkeepers go longer.
“On his day, he is a top goalkeeper. He had his moment when he was in and out of the squad and we struggled with communication. But the period that we played together consistently, we had a great time. On his day, he can match any top goalkeeper in the world; he can make those unbelievable saves. He shows up when you need him. I keep saying to the coaches, you need to keep your older players and experienced players as long as you can to influence the team positively. I say this because when you take them out at the wrong time, it could break the young ones who look up to them for guidance.”
”For those of us playing in Europe for years, by the grace of God, $10,000 is not our problem, rather, those playing at home are deprived an incentive promised. And knowing our society, that money can do a lot of things in their families and communities – then you deny them something to take back home after all the sacrifice. Sadly, people only hear negative things about the players. Have you heard about those with flying phobia being kept on dodgy planes? Mentally and psychologically, they suffer and still give their best on the pitch, but when they ask for what’s promised they are called greedy and unpatriotic lots. Once that game is over, some players are forgotten and are labelled finished by some people. A professional footballer’s life span is short, so it is right they are paid for what they have worked”.
On his campaigns for President Goodluck Jonathan’s re-election, Yobo clarifies that he has not delved into full time politics, saying, “I am only doing this now because I believe in the president and what he can still do for our great country given another mandate.”
Yobo reiterated that he was not done yet with active football, but has put things on hold for now as, “my son grew up a great Fenerbahce fan, but I want him to experience something new and watch me play one more time before I hang my boot completely. If not for anything, I will do it for him. I love football but I have to consider my family before taking a decision on the next step. My family has sacrificed a lot and I have moved them around a lot, but I want to make the next decision based on what makes them comfortable. We will see what happens in the next couple of weeks or months.”