This Feature was originally published on Goal Nigeria
Gradually, over the course of a year, the question of Joseph Yobo’s international future became one of the great ‘will he, won’t he’s of African football.
Like so many in the recent and current Nigeria set-up, Yobo’s fortunes appeared to have pivoted on the 2013 Cup of Nations. For a convocation of Super Eagles, this tournament was the making or the breaking of their international careers.
All 23 were thrown into the deepest ocean, and they either sank or swam.
Ogenyi Onazi, Victor Moses and Kenneth Omeruo all started paddling and headed for land, whilst Ike Uche, Nosa Igiebor and Yobo seemingly slumped beneath the waves.
The nation of Nigeria, under Stephen Keshi, is, it seems, no country for old men.
Buoyed by the AFCON triumph, emboldened by the prospect of an unobstructed run to the World Cup, Keshi has largely had the power and felt the freedom to renovate and revamp the Super Eagles.
The odd veteran, men like Shola Ameobi have been kept on, enjoying a final evening in the sunlight, but the squad is largely populated by the young and the hungry, the bold and the untarnished.
When Keshi has needed to generate more diversity and more precision in his attacking line, who has he turned to? Not Peter Odemwingie, not Obafemi Martins, not Uche…no, those three have been left at home while 20-year-old Imoh Ezekiel has been drafted in.
When he has awoken in the middle of the night, tossing and turning as he decides who the ‘Third Man’ in the midfield should be, who has assuaged his fears? Not Lukman Haruna, not Ayila Yussuf or Fegor Ogude, but Ramon Azeez, still only 21.
So why then, and it is a reasonable question to ask, has the Big Boss reverted to 33-year-old Joseph Yobo as he attempts to give the Super Eagles more solidity in defence?
Why has Yobo returned to the fold and, now that he is back, what effect will he have on the Nigeria backline? Should we, the average Nigeria fans, be excited or concerned about the skipper’s impending return?
This January Yobo returned to the Premier League, the division where he had once spent a decade with Everton. Relegation-threatened Norwich needed a player, ideally with EPL experience, to cover for the injured Michael Turner. Yobo, meanwhile, was struggling to get minutes at Fenerbahce and was keen to demonstrate his enduring qualities before Keshi made his final decision on the World Cup squad.
Goal International reporter and Norwich fan Alex Ward spoke to Goal Nigeria about the Nigerian’s impact since his arrival at Carrow Road: “First impressions are the most lasting. Barely minutes into his debut, Yobo’s scuffed clearance had eyes rolling on the terraces. A last-gasp recovery may have denied the loitering David Silva a sight at goal, but the Nigerian’s blunder had already cost him the trust of the Norwich faithful.
But how wrong they were. By the end of the day his name was echoing around the stands after a man of the match display against the Premier League leaders. Norwich had conceded seven times against Manchester City earlier in the season, but the likes of Álvaro Negro and Yaya Touré had no such luck against a Norwich rearguard with Yobo at its heart.”
This draw against City seemed to re-energise the Canaries’ battle to avoid relegation, it also immediately vindicated manager Chris Hughton’s decision to bring the veteran defender back to the famously intense and high-impact EPL.
The way that Yobo managed Edin Dzeko—a player who Nigeria will need to contend with this summer—will surely not have gone unnoticed by the Big Boss. The centre-back, however, looked keen to prove that this was not simply one inspired outing.
Ward continued: “In his next home outing, he would play an instrumental part in a famous, watershed victory over Tottenham Hotspur, denying the red-hot Emmanuel Adebayor even the faintest sniff of goal. Initially, Yobo was drafted in to deputise for the injured Turner, but after such robust displays, the Nigerian shows no signs of relinquishing his place in the starting eleven.”
Yobo had demonstrated that he could compete with—and deny—some of the Premier League’s most feared strikers.
The showing against City was not merely one exceptional afternoon.
Ward summarised the admiration felt among Norwich fans towards their new man, particularly within the context of the club’s struggles: “It was a seamless return to the English top-flight, with his ten years of experience with Everton coming to the fore.
Indeed, Yobo had stared relegation in the face with his former club and his experience of escaping its clutches is exactly what the perilously-placed Canaries need.”
So, for any Nigerian fans who have forgotten what Yobo, the grand old man of Keshi’s collective, can bring to the national set-up: “His athleticism, strength and presence of mind have eluded the ravages of time and his almost instinctual partnership with Sébastien Bassong has brought much-needed ballast to Norwich’s threadbare defence.”
Here is not a crumbling vet looking glibly towards the end of his career. Yobo, it seems, is in an ochre stage where he can marry his immense physical gifts with his considerable experience and nous. Placed in a partnership with an athletic partner such as Bassong, the elder statesman has flourished…is there any reason why he couldn’t form such a resilient pairing with Kenneth Omeruo or, more likely, Godfrey Oboabona?
Ward, however, has some reservations and expressed concern that “such convictions could prove premature.”
The weekend’s crushing 4-1 defeat against Aston Villa supports his nascent apprehension.
The Yobo/Bassong partnership was found wanting, with the elder player, at times, being far too tight to his opposite man and, at others, to have given Christian Benteke free rein to send the ball hurtling towards the Norwich goal. The Belgian forward took great advantage of Yobo’s generosity.
Keshi too, will have to balance the hidden realities of group dynamics and team spirit. Let us not forget that the former Everton man was culled following his disquiet during the Cup of Nations. In a ruthless streamlining of his options, dubbed the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ by Colin Udoh, Keshi decided that Yobo was expendable and could be made an example of.
Yobo rebelled and was “tossed out to the cold”.
Now he’s back and, while cautiously optimistic about his impressive defensive stature, one can only wait and anticipate how the veteran skipper’s return will work in this, the country of the young.
By far the biggest casualty of Keshi’s night of the long knives has got to be captain Yobo. Left out of the first team during the Nations Cup after picking up an injury, the defender threatened to return home after failing to get his place back on his recovery.
The bust-up was quietly settled. But Keshi did not forget, and since that triumphant return from South Africa, Yobo has not been involved in the squad.
It is a lesson that the other players are learning from. Conform, and be rewarded. Rebel, and be tossed out to the cold. So far, it’s working.
It does, however, remain to be seen whether Yobo can continue to shine as the relegation battle unfolds; to have such convictions could prove premature. But, by all indications, his signing on loan has already proven to be an astute one for manager Chris Hughton.
And if he continues to provide the heroics that could help steer Norwich to safety, expect there to be no return flight to Fenerbahçe this summer.