YOBO, UNCONSCIOUSLY BEATING MUDA LAWAL'S ALL-TIME RECORD
A LOT has changed in the Nigerian team since Joseph Yobo made his senior international debut on March 24, 2001 in a 2002 Africa Nations Cup qualifier against Zambia in Chindola, Zambia, which the Sunday Oliseh-led Super Eagles drew 1-1 with the Chipolopolo.
Though Yobo then was the youngest member of the team, he was also one of the players whose performance in the game gave a hint of the future of the team. Other young members of the team included Ifeanyi Udeze, Julius Aghahowa, Yakubu Aiyegbeni and Eric Ejiofor.
But even then, Yobo showed that he had something quite different from what the others brought to the team: Resilience, perseverance and the will to survive amidst the chaos that sometimes characterise Nigerian football.
While all the other players faded out of the game even before they were expected to play commanding roles in keeping the Super Eagles among the best teams in the continent, Yobo has been there, playing every single game. In good times, in bad times, he has always stood among the few players of his generation worthy of mention when the truly great Nigerian stars in the history of the game.
Yobo first played for Nigeria at the U-20 level, playing as an attacking midfielder for the Flying Eagles during the Nigeria 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup. But not many people actually reckoned with him then because the whole team had a woeful outing at the competition hosted by Nigeria.
However, he did not allow that setback early in his career to hold him back as he made his senior international debut two years later. Since then, he has not looked back, chalking up 81 caps (including yesterday's friendly against Kenya) to be just within a touching distance of the late Muda Lawal's 86 caps. He has played in five Nations Cup competitions and two FIFA World Cups.
Recounting his experience in the early days of his career, Yobo said: 'Playing for Nigeria has always been my dream and I thank God that it has been successful so far. But things have really changed. When I first joined the national team, I met men with varying experience in international football.
'They took care of business without anybody looking out for them, and it helped me in fitting into the team. It was a delightful experience because it showed me that with hard work I could play with the best players in the world.
'Playing a full 10 years of international football is a great achievement and I just have to thank everyone, especially the fans, who have been there for me all this while. Sometimes people criticise you, but you know it is because they hold you to a higher standard and want you go do well all the time.'
He added: 'And I am grateful to all the coaches who have selected me all these years. Even after 10 years, I still consider it an honour to wear this shirt and represent my country.
'And now that I am captain, I think I have a big responsibility to continue to wear this shirt with pride and let the younger ones know what an honour and privilege it is to be asked to represent their country.'
There is the tendency for Nigerian fans to brand any player that has stayed for a while in the national team as too old to continue serving the nation irrespective of the player's actual age and contributions to the team. But Yobo is not worried by such comments because he believes he still has the ability to serve the nation without blemish.
'I am fortunate to be one of the players who started playing for Nigeria at a very young age,' he said. 'I left for Europe immediately after secondary school without playing in the league and I thank God that he made it possible for me to achieve success early in life.
'I want to play for Nigeria as long as I can, but I will not hesitate to leave the national team once I notice that we have two central defenders better than me.'
When reminded that he was just a few games off the appearance record set by the late Lawal, Yobo, who says he wants to continue playing for Nigeria until he is 36, said he was not actually thinking of breaking or setting any record.
'I just want to do my best for the team on a game by game basis,' he added. 'Hopefully, that will be good enough to get to the record, but the team is more important, and if I can help the team by doing that, why not.'