Joseph Yobo: 'I Was Always Happy... Until I Couldn't Play Football'

In an interview originally published in Everton’s matchday programme for last month's meeting with Southampton, Joseph Yobo talks about his unquenchable ambition, the former Goodison Park teammate who was a “low-key magician”, a “love-at-first-sight” relationship with the Club and the situation that caused a naturally ebullient personality to lose his mojo for the first time.

An elegant and silky centre-half in a distinguished playing career, it is perfectly apt that Joseph Yobo refuses to tread on anyone’s toes.

Yobo is assistant to Nigeria national team manager Gernot Rohr, gratefully absorbing the German’s wisdom and excited about two major tournaments next year.

Rohr’s time is up after the Qatar World Cup at the end of 2022, however, and Yobo, capped 101 times, is up front about what he wants to happen next.

“National team head coach is one of the biggest jobs in Nigeria,” begins Yobo.

“It would be a privilege and honour if, someday, I could be in that position.

“If I didn’t think about it that way, why start?

“I had that conversation [with his country’s FA]… now I have to understudy to learn.”

That candid vignette neatly encapsulates the go-getting character of a man who played 259 games for Everton after signing from Marseille in 2002.

Yobo is unapologetically ambitious, without tending towards the disrespectful, and an innate optimist.

The sunny outlook was formed in Rivers State in Nigeria’s south and remained undimmed until the 22nd year of Yobo’s life.

“Where I grew up,” says Yobo, who shared a home with five brothers and three sisters, “I didn’t see many toys.

“All I saw was a football. Any kid who had a football was special, everyone wanted to be your friend.”

That ball was snatched away from him, metaphorically at least, soon after joining Everton.

An ankle injury sustained in a pre-season match at Queen's Park delayed Yobo’s debut until late September.

“That was the first time in my career I started noticing injuries and I didn’t know how to act,” says Yobo.

“Mentally, I wasn’t at my best.

“Football enabled me to give my family a better life – but that joy of playing was everything.

“The first time in my life I felt unhappy was when I couldn‘t play football.

Joseph Yobo
Where I grew up, I didn’t see many toys. All I saw was a football. Any kid who had a football was special, everyone wanted to be your friend.

“Any time I wasn’t playing, it felt like the world was closing down on me.

“I have my family… and I am very spiritual, I love God – but football was the next thing.

“If I don’t have football, what is next?”

The schoolboy Yobo’s football was third on the priority list behind his education and household chores – that despite a clamour in home village Kono for a patently rare talent to seriously pursue the sport.

His father was sceptical over football’s viability as a career – “He thought kids who played football missed out on education, he looked at them as bad kids” – until older brother Albert started drawing a wage as a professional and providing for the extended family.

Yobo was inspired nonetheless by Nigeria’s fearless 1994 World Cup team – and would bound around his neighbourhood in a jersey belonging to national team forward Finidi George, whose younger brothers he counted as academy teammates.

“But we could only dream that someday we could be like them,” says Yobo of wanting to emulate a groundbreaking group of players.

“We didn’t know how we could get there but they inspired my generation.”

Yobo’s path opened up when the agent who brokered a transfer for Albert to French club Auxerre in 1998 urged scouts to go back and check on his client’s gifted younger brother.

Standard Liege in Belgium were sufficiently won over to offer a contract to a player who owned no professional experience.

Moving continents aged 17 “wasn’t that difficult”, according to Yobo.

“I knew football was making a better life for me and my family and that was a big motivation,” he continues.

“I went to boarding school, so hadn’t been living at home from the age of 11.

“The new language was tough. But I grew up as a happy kid, so everything was exciting.

“I liked to learn.”

Yobo briskly cottoned on in a football sense. He made a first-team debut at 18 and played 56 matches in all, the only quibble a gradual retreat from an advanced midfield role, with Standard keen to exploit the African’s pace and anticipation.

“I wasn’t happy they changed my position – but I was very happy I had a better life,” shrugs Yobo.

He joined Marseille in 2001, rejecting interest from Germany when Yobo eventually realised his old Standard manager Tomislav Ivic wasn’t teasing about wanting a reunion in southern France.

“It was a step-up from Belgium and a huge experience,” says Yobo.

“It really challenged me and improved my game and was a big learning curve.”

Yobo’s talent survived his Marseiile team’s stuttering form and a starry list of suitors began circling. 

David Moyes’ interest intensified when he watched Yobo shackle the usually irrepressible Republic of Ireland midfielder Roy Keane in a pre-World Cup friendly.

“But,” insists Yobo, “I wasn’t paying attention to which clubs wanted me, I was completely focused on the World Cup with Nigeria.”

He suspected a move to Juventus was in the offing following an outstanding tournament in Japan and South Korea, which featured a supremely intelligent and athletic performance to blunt an England frontline spearheaded by Michael Owen.

“I knew a bit about Everton – but my mind wasn’t at the Club,” admits Yobo.

Indeed, the player’s interest was initially piqued by the thought of Goodison Park as a “stepping-stone for my career”.

“But when I was going round Goodison and the gaffer [Moyes] was talking to me, telling me he wanted to make me one of the best centre-halves in Europe, I knew this was going to be good,” says Yobo.

“With Everton, it was love at first sight… the same as when you meet someone and have the feeling straight away that you want to spend the rest of your life with them.”

The season-long loan deal which brought Yobo to Everton, however, essentially paired club and player in an open relationship.

But the lightening defender, who had a fabulous first season following his belated debut, was ready to formalise matters 12 months later.

“For me, the match was perfect, it was easy to adapt,” says Yobo.

“I had a gaffer who believed in me and teammates who knew I was in a new country and opened their arms for me.

“I love the city, it is like a second home, everybody was great to me, even people from the other side.

“I came alone, which worked in my favour.

“If I had my family, I would have relied on them.

“I had to learn about the culture and food and go out and make friends.”

Joseph Yobo
With Everton, it was love at first sight… the same as when you meet someone and have the feeling straight away that you want to spend the rest of your life with them.

Yobo calls his second season – 2003/04 – “horrible, horrible, horrible”.

That sentiment is reflective of a campaign when Everton’s form tailed off and which was followed in pretty short order by Wayne Rooney’s transfer to Manchester United.

Yobo wondered aloud about the Club’s ambition after answering the phone to a journalist from his homeland and before long there was speculation over a transfer.

“I was talking purely from a football perspective. I wanted Wayne to stay so we could challenge the other big teams,” says Yobo.

“I had offers and people telling me to move.

“I loved Everton so much and didn’t want such an end.

“David Moyes assured me we would bring in more quality players.

“The Chairman [Bill Kenwright] got involved. I told him, ‘I never said I wanted to leave, I love Everton… but I thought me coming here was to help build this club so we can get in Europe’.

“The Chairman convinced me the plans were still on and we all agreed I would extend my contract.”

Kenwright’s word was good. Everton finished fourth in 2004/05 and at the outset of the following campaign met Villarreal in a Champions League play-off tie.

Most folk of an Everton persuasion remember the matches – a pair of 2-1 defeats – for Duncan Ferguson’s infamous disallowed goal in Spain.

Embedded in Yobo’s mind’s eye, though, is Villarreal’s genius attacking midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme.

“He was so experienced and technically on a different level,” says Yobo.

“I was thinking, ‘Should I get close to him?’ But he was too clever. He could just flick the ball and go past.

“Villarreal were a little bit ahead of us.

“The Champions League was everything we’d worked for… going out was devastating.

“Although it wasn’t as tough for us younger players. The older ones were thinking, ‘This is a big chance blown, it might not come again’.”

Everton’s subsequent evolution, from a disciplined, obdurate team into one full of flair and invention, was among the most thrilling developments, says Yobo, of his eight-year Goodison career.

Joseph Yobo
Riquelme was so experienced and technically on a different level. I was thinking, ‘Should I get close to him?’ But he was too clever. He could just flick the ball and go past.

He attributes the change in part to the acquisition of a smattering of premium technicians, including Mikel Arteta and Steven Pienaar, not forgetting the emergence of homegrown “low-key magician” Leon Osman, who was “one of the most technically gifted players I played with”.

Ultimately, though, asserts Yobo: “That transition happened at the training ground.

“It is credit to David Moyes, not just the players who came in.

“Everything you saw on a Saturday had been worked on. He doesn’t leave anything untouched. Nothing.

“We trained more with the ball and it was refreshing.

“I am a football person and watching from the back as Everton transitioned into an attack-minded team was a joy.”

Asked to put his finger on why he fell so deeply for the Club, Yobo references “a family”.

“They are there for you,” says Yobo.

“You have to feel it to be able to talk about it.”

Yobo felt it when his brother, Norum, was kidnapped at gunpoint returning home from a nightclub in home city Port Harcourt in July 2008.

Norum was held hostage for 12 days and spoke to Joseph daily while in captivity.

“It was the biggest shock of my life,” says Yobo.

“That people, because of your success, wanted to hurt your family.

“When I dug deep, I realised it was people who knew us, who set it up for their own selfish interests.

“It was a terrible moment and affected me a lot.

“I came home [to Rivers State] and the kidnappers called me asking for a ransom.

“They said they didn’t know he was my brother, at first.

“It is like a chain, people coming together, they didn’t know how to break it when they realised.

“Every day they made sure I spoke to my brother and that gave me hope that nothing bad was going to happen.

“My teammates rallied around and the Club was completely behind me.

“The Chairman and the gaffer were regularly on the phone.

“That is why my love for Everton is immeasurable.”

Joseph Yobo
I am a football person and watching from the back as Everton transitioned into an attack-minded team was a joy.

Yobo left for Fenerbahce in 2010, initially on loan, after losing his Everton place following that year’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).

“Leaving Everton was a sad and painful moment,” says Yobo.

“But I was driven by me being me.

“It wasn’t about Everton, it was about how I was built.”

Yobo’s fling with the Turkish club proved fertile. He won a league championship and two domestic cups in three full seasons.

“After a couple of games, I couldn’t believe how much I liked it,” says Yobo.

“I loved Everton so much, it was like a marriage.

“But I went to Fenerbahce and won medals, when you finish your career… you want medals to show your children.”

The sparkly prizes in Istanbul came at a physical cost.

Yobo ignored injuries, succumbing to an appetite to play so strong that during a 2010 AFCON dogged by hamstring issues he visited the Nigerian pastor T. B. Joshua for a spiritual healing service.

“I was very sceptical but… it was anything for the national team and anything to put me back on the pitch.,” says Yobo.

“And I went back to the camp and started training.”

Yobo’s involvement on loan with Norwich City prior to the 2014 World Cup was limited by a knee problem aggravated playing through pain in Turkey.

He recovered to captain Nigeria in the Brazilian tournament but retired from international football following his team’s last-16 exit to France.

A plan to rehabilitate the troublesome knee and find another club was kiboshed after nine months.

Yobo suffered a setback and was told his only option was surgery, from which he “wouldn’t return the same player”.

“It was messing with my head and I decided to call it quits,” says Yobo.

“I just wanted to be happy and at peace.”

Yobo’s initial sense of loss was countered by an overdue opportunity for unbroken time with his wife and three children.

He maintained work with his Joseph Yobo Sports Academy, opened in 2007 to provide football and academic and professional opportunities for young people in Nigeria.

Joseph Yobo
It was messing with my head and I decided to call it quits. I just wanted to be happy and at peace.

Yobo added a prominent pundit role with African broadcaster SuperSport and in February last year began his job with the national team.

“Everton showed me to the world, they made me Joseph Yobo,” he says of a sustained global profile.

And that knee?

“I can do things I couldn’t when I retired,” says Yobo.

“I can stand on that leg and jump high.”

It would need some leap to eyeball Joseph Yobo’s sky-high ambition.