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May 30, 2014

Yobo deserves his century

Joseph Yobo could become Nigeria's first player to hit the 100 cap mark.
Joseph Yobo could become Nigeria's first player to hit the 100 cap mark.

Esteban Cambiasso, Ronaldinho, Ashley Cole, Seydou Keita, Rafael Marquez, Roque Santa Cruz, Damien Duff, Robbie Keane, Xavi, Diego Forlan, Joseph Yobo.

What do all these players have in common? Easy. They all represented their countries at the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1999. Fifteen years on, not many will do the same at the FIFA World Cup. Joseph Yobo is one of the rare few who very well could. If he does, and plays the five games -- two friendlies and three World Cup matches -- between now and the end of the final group game of the World Cup, he would become Nigeria's first player to hit the 100 cap mark.

That would be a phenomenal achievement if it comes to pass. But one that would have come on the back of intense personal dedication to the cause. Bizarrely, for reasons that are at once obscure and inexplicable, Yobo, despite his long and distinguished service, does not quite seem to command the sort of adulation that should accompany what has been an unwavering commitment to the Nigeria cause.

Which is a pity because these 95 caps were earned through genuine dedication, patriotism, passion and love for the green and white.

In a country like Nigeria, where until very recently, organising regular international friendly matches bordered on rocket science, anything above 50 appearances would usually be considered a remarkable achievement. Kanu's appearance record of 86, equalled by Yobo in November 2011, marked a major departure from this norm.

Some of the country's greatest footballers were left in his wake. Segun Odegbami, the first Nigerian to really challenge for the African Player of the Year prize, stood at 46. The late Rashidi Yekini topped out at 58. Stephen Keshi, who served as the longest national team captain managed 64. And Austin Okocha only stretched it as far as 75.

The reasons are two-fold, with the second a direct, if somewhat unacceptable, consequence of the first.

Until very recently, organising and playing friendly games, even after FIFA's introduction of the unified international calendar, bordered on kindergarten kids let loose in an advanced astronomy class. Complete with the attendant chaos.

Consequently, players would find the flimsiest of excuses to skip not only friendly games, but even qualifiers away to the continent's more obscure outposts. Yobo being this close to 100 is neither by accident nor deliberate design. It is because he would never miss a game for which he was fit and available for, no matter where it was played. At the height of the "Big Boys" syndrome in the Nigeria set up, players with the remote scent of stardom around them (even if it was the after scent of being left on their behinds by Ronaldinho or whichever top player they came across) would pick which games to report for.

Not Yobo.

Back then, it was not uncommon to see the Super Eagles turn up for an international friendly with 14 players. Sometimes less. Yobo was always a constant, playing presence.

When other players would conveniently develop injuries just before trips to unwelcoming places like Rwanda and Angola, Yobo was not only present, but always among the first on the scene. And when he came close to missing a friendly a few years ago, he chartered a private jet to take him there.

Even as captain, he was always among the first to report to camp when it was fashionable to stroll in way after deadline. I can recall players calling me to find out who and who was in camp before they'd show up. Not Yobo. When he called that he was in town, he was usually on NIS way from airport to team lodgings.

And just to put things in perspective, some of Yobo's 1999 contemporaries have gone on to hit and surpass the century mark. Xavi is on 130, the recently retired Ashley Cole did so on 107, as has Diego Forlan, while Rafa Marquez is on 118. There are those who argue that the Nigeria skipper has lost it. And needs to give way to a younger generation.

In fairness, he has already. No longer is he the starting centre half, even though he can still play 90 minutes as he showed against Scotland. But he can give a quality half hour or more. He may not have been at his best against Scotland, but then, nobody who has been out for 7 weeks would be. He knows it, he admits it.

And while he concedes that the mark would be special, Yobo is more concerned about what he can lead his team to "It will be special if it is achieved but it's not my priority right now. Getting back in the squad for the World Cup is more important," he told me.

Dedication like Yobo's should be rewarded. Not for the sake of handing him the caps on a platter, but because he has worked to merit it. And also, to allow younger players see that while reward is not the end product of patriotism, it can be a valued by-product.

So as long as Yobo can kick a football -- and he showed with Fenerbahce and then Norwich that he still can kick it at the highest level -- then he deserves the chance to hit that century.

He has earned the chance to hit that century.