Yobo hails Steven Pienaar the best in AfricaThomas Kwenaite
Former Nigerian captain Joseph Yobo created his own legacy when he played every single minute of Everton’s league fixtures during the 2006/7 season Premier League in a career that has taken him to France, England and Turkey. The lanky defender ranks among an elite group of African players that have reached the milestone of 100 national caps for their country. In addition, Yobo has featured in three FIFA World Cup tournaments and six CAF African Cup of Nations, winning bronze and silver medals and a single gold at the 2013 edition in South Africa. In this frank interview with THOMAS KWENAITE, the former Super Eagle skipper reveals people that played influential roles in his career, his unfortunate bust-up with the legendary Big Boss – Stephen Keshi – and how much he admired former Bafana Bafana skipper Steven Pienaar, a former teammate at Everton.
Thomas Kwenaite: Joseph, welcome to South Africa. What brings you to Mzansi?
Joseph Yobo: Oh, thank you. I have been invited with compatriot Victor Ikpeba to the Big Brother Naija House by Multichoice. It was certainly a great experience. I got a call from the organizers of the event to attend, telling me that they wanted me to go into the BB House; I was obviously wondering what it was going to be like.
TK: And what was it like in the Big Brother House?
JY: It had been quite an eye opener. I consider the experience as similar to starting a football career. They (BB House mates) are on the show and it will propel them to unprecedented heights in their respective careers. It was a great experience, chatting with them and reminding them of when I was still playing; when we were in camp; getting together from different backgrounds and cultures, but we somehow knew we had to stick together for a common purpose. I told them about my own life experiences. We shared views and I told them about what people expected from them and how they should make sure they understood the platform they had been privileged to occupy.
TK: Now that you have spent a couple of days in South Africa, what have been your impressions?
JY: Gobsmacked! I have in the past visited this country as a player, holed up in hotels, going to training and back to the hotel but this is the first time that I had the opportunity to explore the city of Johannesburg and in particular Sandton. I must confess that you have one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
TK: How did you feel during the staging of your Testimonial match knowing your were finally bowing out of the game?
JY: It was kind of a bittersweet experience. To have a testimonial attended by the who’s who of African football was an honor and a privilege because not everybody can have a testimonial and for me it affirmed what I had attained in the game, even captaining my country. It made me realize that I had left a legacy that my children would be proud of.
TK: Tell us the challenges of captaining a proud nation like Nigeria?
JY: I was privileged to play alongside stars like Nwankwo Kanu, Daniel Amokachi, Finidi George, Samson Siasia, Sunday Oliseh, Jay Jay Okocha, to mention just a few. I learned a lot from them collectively. I started to captain the Super Eagles from a young age. One thing about Nigeria being who we are, you have to bring in a strong personality. You have to command respect because if you don’t, then you are going to be pushed around.
TK: Why is that?
JY: A Nigerian man is a different kettle of fish. We come from diverse backgrounds, different cultures, tribal, religious denominations and a very emotional people. New players that came into camp, I tried to bring myself lower to them. I made them feel comfortable. I tried to make sure that the team spirit was very good and team bonding was superb. However, I also delegated duties and tried to empower others. I consulted a lot, but when it was important, sometimes I used my position and the powers vested in me to make a final decision.
TK: Who played an influential role in your career?
JY: I looked up to a lot of people but the person that inspired me the most was Sunday Oliseh. When I came though I was probably the youngest in the team. He put his hand on my shoulder and guided me through a very turbulent period. He gave me the confidence that I could not only contribute to the improvement of the team but had the ability to become the next captain of the Super Eagles. He always found time to speak to me.
TK: There are reports that instead of Everton, you were supposed to have gone to Juventus.
JY: I was actually supposed to have gone to Arsenal. Apparently they had been following my progress and prior to the 2002 World Cup, Nigeria played Ireland. My agent happened to know the Everton gaffer (David Moyes) and invited him over. I was playing for Olympique Marseille at the time and after the Ireland match, the Everton manager came to my hotel and we spoke a little bit. I told him there was nothing I could do as I was under contract at Marseille.
TK: So you kind of diplomatically snubbed Everton while holding out for Arsenal but ended up joining the Toffies?
JY: In-between, I was also supposed to have gone to Juventus. I came back home hoping for either the Arsenal or Juve deals to go through. At the end of the World Cup, I travelled to England under the impression that I was going to Highbury. But I realized that I was flying to Liverpool and when I arrived, I met the Everton manager again! We had lunch. I think he convinced me. He said everything that I needed to hear. I signed on the spot.
TK: True to his word, in the 2006/7 seasons you played every single minute of the EPL fixtures for Everton.
JY: To be quite honest I simply wanted to make sure that my place in the team was guaranteed. My pre-season had been good. But people started talking about it and it was then mentioned that there had only been 18 other players that had played every minute of the first round. So in the second round they started counting. I wasn’t paying much interest. I was merely taking one game as it came. Towards the last 10 games it became a big deal in the British media. But to finish the season after having played every single minute… looking back I think it was a phenomenal achievement.
TK: You also played with former SA national captain Steven Pienaar, what kind of player was he at Goodison Park?
JY: (Laughing) Ohh Steven, Steven is a wonderful guy. Great professional blessed with an incredible football brain. He brought a lot of difference to that Everton team. When he arrived, we became more of a football team. We had Mikel Arteta, Tim Cahill, Phil Neville, Joleon Scott, Victor Anichebe, James Beattie, Tim Howard and other people that could play. But when Pienaar came, he brought so much value to the Toffies. He was an easy-going type of fella. We of hung out together. We spoke Pidgin English and played our own kind of music. As a person, he was a superb guy… as a player, he was exceptional.
TK: There was a section of the media in South Africa that was critical of Pienaar and some claimed he pulled back for the national team and only reserved his all for Everton.
JY: I’d say it was harsh and unfair criticism. Steven was a hard worker. I have seen players that did not put in any effort. But Steven put in the mileage every day and with the talent that he had, he earned a lot of respect among his peers. But I guess it also depended on the manager and the team you were playing in. You see Everton was structured in a way that suited Steven. He was given the freedom to make the team play and dominated the left side. I think when you have a player like Steven; you build your team around him. That’s my opinion.
TK: How did you feel when Bafana turned the tables on Nigeria recently?
JY: Shocked! But we go though an evolution and you know you cannot beat a team forever. Someday they will have their moment because eras are always changing, teams are changing, players are changing, new players come in, and at some point anything becomes possible. For me it’s exciting because we are not fighting to kill one another. We are just fighting to be the best in our craft. It’s for the bragging rights. No excuses. In that game, South Africa followed a solid game plan and were exceptional.
TK: The 2018 World Cup is around the corner and you have played in three World Cup finals that is quite an achievement.
JY: We went through the usual screening process for the 2002 World Cup. We saw experienced players dropped. We had a new coach. He was also experimenting with players. But coming to the opening game it was difficult for him (Jo Bonfrere) to pick the team. He had to restructure and integrate the players into a cohesive unit. Our first game was against an Argentina team that had Gabriel Batistuta. And our team was a rag-tag combination. But somehow I went into that game without fear. We lost the game but even after losing, I went to my room very contend because the World Cup is such a huge stage and for a young player to get through 90 minutes unscathed was phenomenal.
TK: Do you have advice to the Nigerian team going to Russia?
JY: They must believe. There are two phases within the team, with those that have been to a previous World Cup bringing in their experience. They bring leadership. For those going for the first time, this is a unique experience, the pinnacle of your career. Go there and express your God-given talents. Remember few people get the opportunity to play at that level.
TK: There were reports that in spite of your close relationship with the late Stephen Keshi, you once had a serious fall-out.
JY: The Big Boss. May his soul rest in peace. He personally told me I was one player that could match his own achievements. He guided me, nurtured my career and appointed me captain of the Super Eagles while there were senior players ahead of me. He told me he believed in me and gave me responsibilities in addition to teaching me how to lead a group of grown men. I am what I am because of the Big Boss.
TK: Then what led to the alleged toxic relationship towards the end of his tenure?
JY: Meaning no disrespect and I hope people do not misinterpret my explanation to imply I am attacking someone who cannot answer for himself. But if truth were told, I enjoyed a father/son relationship with the Big Boss. But at some stage, perhaps due to pressure from his own employers, I suspect that he allowed things people from outside said about me to come between us. However, I am glad that before I retired, we patched up our differences and he even tried to persuade me not to hang up my boots.
TK: We read report that bandits once kidnapped your brother and they demanded a huge ransom.
JY: It was very traumatic. I was in the country and went to visit somebody in the neighborhood. I think my brother was grabbed by these people unaware who he was. It was only during questioning that they discovered who he was. They contacted me and demanded a ransom. As a family we kept asking if my brother was dead or alive. They contacted me again and assured me that because of me, they will not harm him, but that I must do “something” for them. In the end, mercifully my brother was released. But I want to express my gratitude about the role played by Everton during that difficult period. They really came out for me. I will never forget their support as well as many others during that time.
TK: What drove you to succeed at the highest level, playing in France, England and in Turkey?
JY: The love of football and the passion knowing that playing for my country is the biggest honor. The respect that national team players commanded across the country influenced me to try and reach the same level. I also wanted to be considered a hero like the likes of Finidi George at that time. The passion I harbored to become better, to leave my own legacy, to reach the levels of Oliseh and Keshi among others. I wanted to be successful but to also serve my country at that level is what pushed me. That is why I played in three World Cups and six African Nations Cup tournaments during my playing career.
TK: Thank you so very much Joseph and best of luck.
JY: It had been a pleasure.