joseph yobo: I slept with 2013 AFCON trophy by my side in my room
Former Super Eagles captain Joseph Yobo talks about winning the 2013 AFCON, reaching the 100-cap milestone for Nigeria, Merseyside derby and the Eagles’ chances at Egypt 2019 in this interview with ’TANA AIYEJINA
You recently turned a football pundit, analysing top football games on TV. Are you enjoying the experience?
The experience has been great and I would say it’s something I wasn’t really looking towards but I was forced away. It doesn’t get any better than analysing Champions League games on SuperSport. So, when they came calling, I knew it’s the right time to do it. I love it; I’m enjoying it and it’s brilliant.
What do you think are the Super Eagles chances at the 2019 AFCON in Egypt in June?
I hope that they get to the final and win it. I think we have a good team but we know this tournament requires a lot of experience. I went to the tournament six times and only won it at my sixth attempt. So, they have to be careful, take one game at a time, try and progress very well from the group. Looking at the antecedents of the Super Eagles, we seem to build as the tournament progresses. But what is more important is try and win our first game, build on the confidence and try to get out of our group. There are other teams seen as contenders for the trophy but I also think Nigeria can win it.
But close followers of the Eagles are sceptical that the players are too young to win the tournament. Do you agree?
We do have experienced players too. We have Ahmed Musa, he’s been there for some time now; there’s (Kenneth) Omeruo and (Ogenyi) Onazi. These are some of the players that won the Nations Cup with me in 2013. So, they have a lot of experienced players. It’s not about their ages but about what they have achieved in a few years. We have some other players who have come in and have been dominant; so you can’t say we don’t have experience in the national team. We also have William Troost-Ekong; he’s doing very well for his club (Udinese) and he’s shown that he can be counted on in the Super Eagles. He’s been dominant for the team. I think this team is solid, there’s a balance of youth and experience. As a footballer, the first thing on your mind is to go out there and win, whether you play well or not. The team qualified with a game in hand; that’s what’s important to me. I’ve been there six times, so I know what I’m saying. We always struggled (to qualify) but they’ve done that with a game to spare. We saw them at the World Cup in Russia. They did well against Argentina, even though they lost. All they need is work on their strengths and improve on their weaknesses. This team can do well but (they need to take) one game at a time; get out of the group and the confidence keeps building till the final.
We have an Egyptian side led by Mohamed Salah; Senegal with Sadio Mane as well as the other big names like Nigeria, Cameroon, Tunisia and Morocco in the competition. If you were asked to pick a winner for the 2019, which team will you go for?
Goals change the game and the players you mentioned (Salah and Mane) are great goal scorers. But I look at players like Ahmed Musa. As a defender, if you ask me, ‘Joe, will you like to play against a player like Musa?’ I will tell you, ‘No, never!’ His pace is terrific. He has an eye for goal; he’s scored at the World Cup and led this team to qualify for the Nations Cup. We also have players like (Alex) Iwobi that can cause these teams problems. It’s who shows up on the day, not the person who gets the attention of the world. I think we have players that can also match the best in Africa.
Do you think Africa is ready for a 24-team AFCON?
Why not? It’s experimental and I’m just happy that it gives other nations the opportunity to compete as well. These nations might not be as big as Nigeria, Egypt or Senegal but they have players too. So, why not? Give them the opportunity; let the global focus be on other smaller nations as well. I’m happy about it because it brings more competitiveness. You never know; there could be surprises here and there.
As a former defender, what’s your impression about the current defence line of the Eagles?
They’re good. I’m impressed. Omeruo played with me and he’s still improving and playing very well for Leganes in La Liga. Troost-Ekong is solid, I’m impressed with him. He’s brought stability to the back as well. For me, I like what they are doing. They just need more understanding and that would only come by playing together.
You are the first Nigerian footballer to reach the 100-cap milestone for the Eagles…
(Cuts in) To be honest, I didn’t really know what it was until I got close to it. Breaking the record and getting to reach 100 games is phenomenal. It’s very special to be the first player out of the many legends that we have in the country to be the first centurion; it’s no small feat. I give thanks to God, my family and fans for pushing me, even when the times were tough, to make sure I achieved it. It’s something very special that I’ll cherish forever.
You achieved that 100-game mark during the Eagles’ 2-0 second round defeat to France at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Did the loss spoil the fun for you?
No. It doesn’t really matter. I play every game with my heart. No matter what happens, it can’t dent my record. You can’t win every game and we knew what we went through before going for that tournament. We had a good team but we were unfortunate to get knocked out in the second round but my record stood. I’m happy with everything I’ve done for the national team; from one cap to 100, it’s a lot. So, I’m used to everything that comes with football. I’m just proud of every moment that I wore the green and white jersey. Every moment that I was captain and walked on the pitch was just a proud moment for me and my family.
In 2013, nobody gave the Eagles the chance of winning the AFCON. What was the secret behind the success?
I think it is God. God wanted me to win that tournament. Before then, a lot of things happened. I even ruled myself out of the tournament because of injury. After the fifth one (AFCON), I said that was my last one but God had His plans for me. To your question, there was togetherness in that team regardless of what was going on behind the scene. There were games we didn’t play very well but we got the right results. It was our time to win it. I’ve been with good teams that we played so well, but we never even got to the final. So, it was just Nigeria’s time to win it. The players worked so hard; the coach did brilliantly and told ourselves irrespective of what was going on, this is our time to win the Nations Cup and make Nigerians proud.
You are just one of three captains to have lifted the AFCON trophy. What did it feel like lifting up the trophy in South Africa six years ago?
I can’t quantify; words can’t put it together. Everything that I did for the country, every game that I played, six AFCONs, three World Cups showed that I wasn’t a fringe player. But people were saying, ‘Joe, you haven’t won the Nations Cup for the country.’ I can’t do it by myself. So, winning it eventually was the biggest moment for me. And I will tell you today what I haven’t said before – I didn’t want to leave it; that trophy actually slept in my room. So, I having it, was like someone looking for a child for 14 years. It meant everything. Apart from God and my family, that was everything for me.
Can you remember your first cap for the Eagles?
It’s two games that are actually significant. My first match was away (against Zambia) when I was called to camp and the coach said, ‘you have everything, prepare your mind, you are going to play.’ I think we drew that game away. We were having a bad run and I came in and we drew. From then, the coach told me, “you have the position. Whatever you want to do with it, go ahead. If you want to keep it or lose it, its okay. But with what I’ve seen you do, this position is for you.’ It couldn’t be any better because my next game was played in Port Harcourt; that’s my home, where I was raised. So, coming back home as a young kid to play against Liberia and George Weah in front of my friends and family was so special. It was everything for me. And I was glad I put up a good performance. So, from the beginning till the end, I had great moments with the national team.
In your era, the country’s players were among the big stars in Europe plying their trade for the big clubs, but that has since not been the case…
(Cuts in) One big reason is the choices that you make. If you don’t make good choices, you may not get the right results. For instance, regardless of the club you play for, the Premier League is very tough. If you get consistently on the pitch it’s very good. It’s also very good for the branding and hype of the Nigerian players, that they are playing for Manchester United, Barcelona or Real Madrid. We have players that can do that, it’s about consistency. Our players who played for the big clubs then were consistent and they took their chances when the opportunities came. So, if you don’t take your chance when it comes, and you are not consistent, it’s going to be difficult. But talent wise, I think we have it. We just have to be a little bit more consistent.
Which striker gave you the toughest moment on the pitch?
It’s difficult, very difficult (to pick any striker). Players are different, players that always come off the number nine, they are like strikers, always gave me problems. Former Tottenham Hotspurs’ Robbie Keane was a second striker, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Gianfranco Zola were all second strikers and they gave me problems. The main strikers like Thierry Henry and Didier Drogba, you can play against them. But the second strikers are hard because they pull you out of position to where you are not comfortable and it makes it difficult for a defender to play.
You played 10 seasons for Everton in the Premier League before a short stint with Norwich City in the English topflight. What was it like playing at this level?
It meant everything! It was a dream come true. When I was at Olympique Marseille in France, Franck Leboeuf came from Chelsea, I came from Standard Liege and he saw me play and said, ‘Hey, Yobo you are young, but you have everything to play in the Premier League. That’s where you are made for.’ So, when my chance came, I took it. Playing for Everton meant everything. If you look at my statistics, (I played) over 238 games for Everton, I wasn’t a fringe player. I was consistent. For me, it was everything and I’m blessed that they gave me that opportunity to play for so many years for them. It was phenomenal.
What was the Merseyside derby like starring for Everton against arch-rivals Liverpool?
It was very special, a prestigious moment that you fight for ownership rights. There is an extra incentive when it’s a derby game; you fight for your club and try to win. Every derby game I played was very special. Playing against Liverpool was something else.
What were your best and worst moments as a footballer?
For me, good and bad moments are what made me Joseph Yobo. So, I thank God for everything.
Are you of the opinion that ex-footballers haven’t been given their rightful position in the country?
We can go on and on about things that should be done and things that shouldn’t be done. But I don’t want to get dragged into that. I have a lot to say about things that are right or wrong but personally, I’ve been blessed and privileged to play for my country and I thank God for that.