A beaming smile, thunderous shot and tireless running were the qualities that caught the eye as Nigeria’s Taye Taiwo helped his side finish runners-up at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Netherlands 2005. Five years on, the full-back still hits the ball hard and his grin remains as broad as ever as he patrols the left flank for Marseille and the Super Eagles. Shown the ropes at Lobi Stars, Taiwo was just 19 when OM lured him to southern France as back-up to veteran defender Bixente Lizarazu. He did not have to wait long for his chance as Philippe Troussier handed him a first-team debut after just two outings in the reserves. Since then, he has made the left-back spot his own at the Stade Velodrome, despite the regular influx of supposed rivals to his post. Voted France’s best left-back two years in succession and reputed for his fearsome left foot, the fan of Laurent Blanc is now one of the most popular players among the Marseille faithful. His hard work and dedication were rewarded in 2009/10 as OM clinched the Ligue 1 title and French League Cup crown, but those highs were followed by the low of slumping out of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ at the first hurdle. Taiwo reflected on his time with Marseille, Nigeria’s woes in South Africa and the example Ghana have set for the rest of African football to follow.
Taye, every summer you seem to be linked with clubs in Spain, Italy and England but you always begin the next season at Marseille. Do you enjoy playing for OM?
Taye Taiwo: I still feel happy here. I arrived here very young, straight from Nigeria and a long way from my family and friends. But, right from the start, I was made to feel welcome in this beautiful city and great club. They’ve made it possible for me to develop my game and play at the highest level. I feel at home here now. It’s not impossible that I might spend the rest of my career here, but if I have to leave one day I know Marseille will always have a place in my heart. For the moment, though, I’m here and I’m happy to be here. Last May, OM won the French league and League Cup, the club’s first silverware in 17 years. What do you remember about those wins? Obviously, that was an unforgettable time – and for me personally because the thing I love most of all is to win. My whole family in Nigeria was in tears. It was also just reward for the club, which has worked very hard and continued to progress ever since I arrived. We’d come close the two previous seasons and maybe the arrival of Didier Deschamps brought us the little extra we were lacking to take the next step. Lastly, it was also a fantastic reward for the supporters. They always follow us, wherever we go; they give their time and money to follow us by coach, train or plane. We were very happy to be able to thank them for their support by winning them trophies. Since last year, you have been handed more responsibility, including penalty duties and the captain’s armband on occasion. Do you enjoy that? I’m not one of the older players but I’m one of the more senior ones. It’s a pleasure and an honour to see that the coach and my team-mates have faith in me. They’re the ones who decide who takes the penalties, as happened towards the end of last season at Boulogne. It was a difficult match and we won a penalty in the last minute. They said: ‘Taye will take it.’ When people show that they’re counting on you, you can’t miss. I had to bury it and the [2-1] win was very important in the title race.
Since you joined Marseille, the club have recruited several left-backs, but come the end of the season you have always been first choice, having played more matches than your rivals. What is it like to always have that competition for your place? There’s nothing to be afraid of. Whatever the competition, the situation always comes down to work and who deserves it most. Why put pressure on yourself when another player arrives who plays in the same position? Myself, I carry on doing everything I can to show I’m the best in my position. If I manage to convince the coach, all the better: I get to play and I’m happy. If someone else works harder than me, I say well done to him, sit on the bench and support my team-mates. That’s also how you win competitions: with good players but also with a good attitude. Your approach seems to be quite instinctive too. Whether you are playing for club or country, it looks as if you give your all in every match and never doubt yourself, even when you have come in for criticism. That’s my way of playing: to always give 100 per cent. I tell myself that every opponent I come up against does the same job as me, whatever level he plays at. If he gives everything, I don’t have the right to give less. I can’t afford to either under-estimate him or fear him. It doesn’t matter who I’m playing against, my mission is always the same: to stop him from getting past me and to help my team going forward. Whether it’s a World Cup game, a Champions League game or a match against a fifth-division team, for 95 minutes you don’t have the right to take your foot off the pedal. Of course, no one can be good all the time and I might come in for criticism, but I can never be accused of not being combative or not trying to improve.
Nigeria had a disappointing FIFA World Cup, going out at the group stage. What were the reasons behind that? It was a huge disappointment because we have very good players and we could have done a lot better. But you can’t pull off a miracle when you have a coach who’s been appointed just before the tournament. [Lars Lagerback] just about knew the main players, but it takes time to get to know all the players, in which system they feel most comfortable, how to position them, who plays well together and how to get the best mix between experience and youth. It would be stupid to think we were knocked out because of Sani Keita’s red card [against Greece]. What makes us regret it all even more is that our group wasn’t that tough. The appointment of Samson Siasia will undoubtedly be good for us. He knows all that already and he’s very familiar with the players and working methods.
Taye Taiwo You have played under well-known European coaches such as Berti Vogts and Lars Lagerback, and Nigerian coaches like Shaibu Amodu and Christian Chukwu. Which type of coach is best suited to the Nigeria job? We need a coach who has time – that’s all. Time to familiarise himself with the African mentality in general and the Nigerian mentality in particular; time to get to know each player’s strengths and weaknesses; time to find the best system for the players available; and time to improve what’s working after a win and correct mistakes after a loss. The appointment of Samson Siasia will undoubtedly be good for us. He knows all that already and he’s very familiar with the players and working methods. He was my coach at Under-20 level and I’m pleased to be working with him again.
After the failure to qualify for Germany 2006 and the early exit at South Africa 2010, do you get the impression Nigeria have stopped progressing? That’s the overall problem with African football. We lack patience and detachment when we analyse things. When we win a match, everyone thinks we’ll become world champions and the whole country wants a piece of the victory. Then, when we lose, we immediately have to change everything. We’ll only be able to progress when the governing bodies have more patience and stability. We have to use Ghana as an example. They kept the same coach, had time to work and they know each other well and play for each other too. It’s not surprising that they were Africa’s best representatives at the World Cup.
Would you class Ghana as the best African team at the moment? They’re the example to follow. They arrived in South Africa without star names but when they performed it was for their country, whereas in other teams the players were trying to put in the best individual performance possible. The Ghanaians are organised, disciplined, track back as soon as they lose the ball, and they play at pace and combine well together. They had the time to learn how to play together, get to know their coach and put his system into place. Added to that, they also have an excellent youth team. They know the secret and we have to learn it as well.
Lastly, you are reputed for your powerful shot. Is that something you still work on and is there a player who strikes the ball harder than you? I don’t know if they hit it harder, but the Brazilian, Roberto Carlos, and Norway’s John Arne Riise aren’t bad either. I don’t think power is something you can work on, though: it’s innate. Hitting the target is something else, on the other hand – and that’s something I still need to practice .