For Joseph Yobo, the pre-match ritual is as much a part of the game as the half-time team talk. In his 16 years as a professional, the Nigeria defender has always readied himself for action the same way, slipping on his shirt and then singing and praying before stepping on to the pitch. It is a routine he has gone through innumerable times – but on precisely 100 occasions for the Super Eagles. A sterling servant for his country, Yobo had the honour of bringing up his century of caps against Argentina in Nigeria's final Group F game at Brazil 2014.
Although his side slipped to a 3-2 loss in that match, the 33-year-old came away with almost entirely positive memories. After all, not only did he hit a significant personal milestone, Bosnia and Herzegovina's 3-1 victory against Iran ensured that Nigeria tied down a berth in the Round of 16. "Qualifying for the knockout phase was our first objective," the Super Eagles' captain told FIFA.com. "We're very happy because that hadn't happened to us since 1998. This time, we did it with pride, by finishing second and trying to win first place against Argentina."
'I'm proud of our team'
They gave the South Americans a genuine scare too, though Yobo feels they could have done even more. "We're disappointed because we didn't play that game to win it from the very first minute," explained the Fenerbahce stopper, who spent the last six months on loan at Norwich City. "We thought a draw would be a good result, but in the second half we came out even stronger to try and win the match. That's what we should have done from the very first minute."
Lionel Messi's early strike showed up the flaw in their conservative game plan, but Yobo took plenty of encouragement from how the match subsequently played out. "I'm proud of our team and our reaction after we fell behind," he said. "We're happy to have qualified but disappointed not to have got a better result."
That in itself says much about the ambition in the Nigeria ranks, given that La Albiceleste boast a pair of World Cup titles and were able to bring a four-time FIFA Ballon d'Or winner to the party. "They're one of the best teams in the world and it was a huge test for us," added the former Everton stalwart, who hardly needed a second to think before naming the greatest forward he has faced in his long career. "Oh Messi – he's the best by far. I'd already played against him in 2010 and he caused us problems then, but we managed to stop him scoring. He's a really special player. You only have to look at how he made us suffer today."
In truth, the Barcelona star was the one real difference between the teams in Porto Alegre, where Stephen Keshi's men proved that they have made tangible progress since their campaign got under way. "Lots of people said that we started off too timidly against Iran (0-0), but they were a solid team and we've improved since our first game," said Yobo. "Our third match was probably our best since the tournament began, even if it ended in defeat."
With 100 caps under his belt, the veteran is now able to adopt a more detached perspective on Nigeria's results, looking beyond the outcome for a more nuanced take on the performance. Even so, a study of their scorelines suggests that the Super Eagles have been resurgent since 2001. "I've played in this side for many years, so I've been able to see it evolve," Yobo noted, having previously graced the World Cup stage at Korea/Japan 2002. "We won the Africa Cup of Nations, booked our place in the World Cup without any trouble and now we've qualified for the second round. It's not often that I've experienced so many pieces of good news in a row. That shows you we're improving. This team is young, but it's growing fast and learning quickly. We're taking confidence from our campaign so that it can help us in our next match."
That takes the African champions to Brasilia for a meeting with France, where Yobo spent the 2001/02 season during a brief spell at Marseille. Like Argentina, Les Bleus are sure to provide another probing examination, particularly with Karim Benzema in such keen form. "We've just played against the best forward in the world, so we're ready to measure ourselves against anybody," said Yobo, before adding with a grin: "I don't see what we should be afraid of. I believe in this team, and I think we can do it."
Yobo will collect his 101st cap in that encounter, and understandably he hopes to go through his pre-match ritual a few more times yet on Brazilian soil. "If we don't win the next game, there won't be a 102nd cap and so on. But what if I can make it to 104 in Brazil?"