Saturday, July 5, 2008

Joseph Yobo's Brother Kidnapped in Nigeria

Anyone who follows the Premiership or any other top domestic league in Europe, especially Ligue 1 in France, knows the talent level and importance of African players. They're coming to Europe in greater numbers than ever before and are making huge impacts with their clubs. I could name an all-African XI right now that I'd be willing to take over any other collection of players in the world for one game.

For all of the positives associated with African players, however, there are far too many downsides and the real shame of it is that these negatives have nothing to do with soccer, at least not on the field itself.

I highlighted Watford midfielder Al Bangura and his quest to remain in the UK when a permanent work permit question was raised last winter. He was, for all intents and purposes, smuggled out of Africa and into France by a man who wanted to make Bangura a male prostitute. Bangura was literally in danger of losing his life if he had been forced to return to his native Sierra Leone because of his personal background, with his father having been a member of the Poro Secret Society. Fortunately, things worked out for the best and he was allowed to stay in England, but he would've been in a grave situation had that not been the case.

Bangura's case is just one of the many that successful players from his continent deal with. Conditions in Africa are so poor in so many countries and we hear and read far too often about players' family members being held for a considerable ransom or even killed, in some instances. Players are extorted for money through gunmen or semi-militant organizations who threaten violence or some other form of intimidation on the families.

Corruption is prevalent throughout Africa and it's seemingly a never-ending cycle: money is being spent to set up modern infrastructure in cities and to provide things like better health care and even life's basic necessities like food and water, but that money is winding up in the wrong hands and nothing is ever improved. Because of this, countries and charitable organizations are hesitant to spend more money to help Africa, which further limits progress, and even when they do spend it, once again, it's not going where it should. Africa has plenty of natural resources -- oil being chief among them -- but instead of being used to better the conditions of vast impoverished regions, profits are going directly into the control of already-rich individuals who wield power and influence.

There is very little stability, either political or economical, in Africa. Civil wars are currently raging in several countries, including Chad, Sudan, and Somalia, and countless others have ended only within the past 10-15 years.

Joseph Yobo was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria and is one of Everton's two starting center backs. He is the vice-captain of his club and of the Nigerian national team, for which he's appeared 59 times, including in the 2002 World Cup and the 2008 African Cup of Nations, since making his debut in 2001. His older brother, Albert Yobo, has also represented his country. There's a youth soccer tournament named after Albert, who assists Joseph in the running of the Joseph Yobo Charity Foundation, which helps under-privleged kids in Nigeria and has handed out well over 300 scholarships for kids anywhere between elementary and university level. Joseph has also started a soccer academy in southeast Nigeria and runs camps in Lagos.

Suffice it to say that Joseph and his family have a fairly high profile in Nigeria, to say the least. It should come as no surprise, then, when you read that Joseph and Albert's younger brother, Norum Yobo, was kidnapped at gunpoint along with two others early this morning as they were returning from a party. The other two, Ifeanyi Nwa and Barry C Lakara, have already been released, but Yobo has not (surprise, surprise). So far, no one has claimed responsbility and no ransom demands have been made.

This is exactly the problem facing soccer players in Africa. It's a catch-22 situation: they desperately want to escape and make it in Europe or elsewhere, and earn a living they'd never be able to achieve if they stay in Africa. Soccer is their key to a good life, but if they have too much success, they and their families can be exploited simply as a bi-product of their talents and abilities. There's really no way for these players to win. They can't stay in Africa because conditions there are so poor and their potential goes unrealized, but it's hard for them to go abroad because they're leaving their families and potentially putting them in danger in the process.

According to the Yahoo! article in which I found this story, kidnappings in common in the West African nation, particularly in the oil-rich Niger River delta region where this incident also took place, but most of them end peacefully after the ransom payment. However, deaths and injuries have occurred when security forces confront the kidnappers.

Obviously we all hope that Norum Yobo is returned alive and well by whomever seized him out of the car, and that the person or persons responsible are dealt with appropriately.

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