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The Benin international who lit up Irish football

Romuald Boco recalls his League of Ireland days and the three times he played in the Africa Cup of Nations.

Romuald Boco pictured playing for Sligo in 2009.
Romuald Boco pictured playing for Sligo in 2009.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Updated at 10.53

INITIALLY, WHEN Romuald Boco answers The42’s call, he politely asks to ring back in 20 minutes.

His young son is on the verge of sleep after an exciting day out.

It feels like an apt metaphor. After an intense 20-year football career spent regularly travelling around the world, Boco now appears to be settling into a more relaxed lifestyle.

However, the former midfielder remains a big football fan.

He is currently paying close attention to events at the Africa Cup of Nations — the tournament he played in himself with Benin on three occasions (2004, 2008 and 2010).

“I always watch it,” he says. “Especially in 2019 when Benin did well, reaching the quarter-finals, I was quite pleased with that.

“We can see lots of talent there. It’s nice to see because there is a lot of [relatively] unknown players, and after the competition, they get good moves and people start to know about them. It’s hard to see in Europe sometimes because we nearly know all the [more local] players.”

2004 was the first time that Benin had qualified for the competition. Boco was just 18 at the time and on the books of French club Chamois Niortais.

Despite not being involved in the qualifying campaign, Boco started his country’s first two games as they were beaten by South Africa and Morocco and exited the completion at the group stage.

They did not qualify for the 2006 tournament but made amends two years later, and Boco looks back with particular fondness on that qualifying campaign.

“We beat Sierra Leone [to qualify] and from the moment our plane landed, thousands of people were waiting outside the airport. It was just crazy — motorbikes, cars, everything, it was probably the best moment when you see that. It’s kind of apparent, but you’re not prepared [for the excitement levels]. The reception was amazing.”

2010 led to similarly spectacular scenes in a country with an estimated population of just over 12 million, making it one of the smaller parts of the continent, certainly when compared to the likes of Nigeria (206 million) and Ethiopia (114 million) — it ranks 29th out of 58 African countries in terms of the overall population, according to worldometers.info.

“We qualified and beat Ghana 1-0 at home for the 2010 tournament [thanks to a last-minute Mohamed Aoudou winner] and the stadium went mental.

“We scored in the 93rd minute. In stadiums in Africa, we’ve got plastic water. It’s like a plastic bag but they’ve got a system where you just bite the corner of the plastic and there’s a small hole so you can take the water. Everybody threw all their water in the air and everything they had. I had never seen that — it was just ridiculous.

“The referee couldn’t even whistle. He had to stop the game because we scored in the 93rd minute with four minutes of extra time. So he looked at his watch and because of the celebration from the players and everyone — people were running on the pitch — the referee said: ‘Okay, that’s fine, the game’s over.’

“But after that, just getting out of the stadium was impossible. They were prepared in case, so there were military and the police and special forces, but they could do nothing. Inside the stadium was 50,000 fans and outside, there were even more. The people that lived that moment understand that it was incredible. For a moment, you feel very special and you have the privilege to live that in sport.

“I’ve been lucky I lived that in a few places in my life but Africa was in the extreme because it is people’s favourite sport. When it comes to Ireland or England, they have plenty of sports — they love rugby, cricket, obviously football is mental but it is mental in many sports. But in Africa, that would be the main sport and the people cheer up, it’s so important for most of the country, so any time you qualify for them, it’s a huge celebration. For us, it was kind of like winning the World Cup.”

soccer-international-friendly-benin-v-gabon-stade-des-vertus-romuald-boco-benin Romuald Boco pictured before a Benin game. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

It was far from Boco’s only special memory representing Benin, for whom he won 50 caps in total.

He also competed in the 2005 World Youth Championships — a tournament won by Argentina and in which a certain Lionel Messi finished as top scorer with six goals, having just turned 18.

“It was the time of Messi, Ronaldo and that generation. So it was incredible to play in the World Cup and I was captain as well.”

Boco also could theoretically have played for France, the country in which he was born.

“When I was a kid I was unsure because my mum’s French and my education was more of a Benin education. But when the opportunity came, I was only 18, I never thought twice. Straight away, I said ‘yes’. I’ve always had Benin in my heart.

“I’ve always liked France as well. When it comes to the World Cup, I would always support France. And yeah, basically, I would have been a happy man if I’d been asked by France to play in the World Cup. Could I have refused? Probably not.

“But straight away, when you’re a young player and you’ve got the opportunity to play for two countries, they will often wait until they get a call from the biggest country because they know they can. I won’t mention any names but you can see it with England and Ireland. Eventually, you see them being called up by England because they’ve got more opportunities to play in big competitions and they can win trophies.

“In my case, I was only 18, I could have waited but straight away when they called, I jumped at the opportunity and I was very happy.”

It may not have had the glamour that international football provided at times, but Boco still also looks back with a sense of nostalgia on his time with Sligo Rovers.

After starting playing in France, Boco had joined Accrington Stanley in 2005 and made a big impression there.

He helped the club earn promotion to League Two and scored eight goals in 88 appearances in total in those three seasons at the club. However, in February 2008, Boco’s contract was terminated, with the club citing homesickness as the reason.

“I thanked him and gave him a hug,” boss John Coleman told BBC Radio Lancashire at the time. “He’s been vital to where the club finds itself today. When he first came he was exciting, a breath of fresh air, someone who I think will be missed.”

paul-cooke Paul Cook originally brought Boco to Sligo. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Yet Paul Cook, who was in charge of Sligo at the time and had played with Boco at Accrington, managed to persuade the youngster to make the move to Ireland.

“He convinced me that there was a project there, that the club wanted to move forward and he needed me to help him going forward, so I accepted the challenge.

“It was a lot of pressure at the time because of the expectations with all the things he was saying about me, saying that he would expect me to be changing [the team].

“In sport, you have to accept challenges and take your responsibility and it was a bit tough because when you come to a place where [people think of you as] an international player who is ‘going to make the difference’.

“But I accepted [the pressure] and I was welcomed by the lads and I felt really good there. It was probably one of my favourite clubs where I enjoyed my football. People were probably most friendly at Sligo. It was a great moment. They’re great people that I’m still friends with at the minute.”

Boco was a regular for Sligo between 2008 and 2010. The stint began encouragingly as he helped the team finish fourth and qualify for the Europa League.

However, the country was hit by recession around this time and the downturn was felt by League of Ireland clubs in particular.

Sligo were no exception — performances deteriorated and they lost several players, with Boco ultimately departing in 2010, after publicly expressing frustration with the financial situation in a BBC interview the previous year.

“When I came in, the standard was not as high as in England,” he recalls. “But you could see there were a lot of young players that were talented and could stay an extra few years in Ireland because clubs at the time I came were paying ridiculous money for the standard. You had clubs like Cork, Drogheda or St Patrick’s Athletic paying decent money to be fair if you remember those days — 2006-2008. It was insane. The clubs were paying four or five grand a week.

“When you look at how many fans came to the stadium, they managed to keep the players and eventually, those players were top players and they managed to eventually all go to England — Seamus Coleman, Dave Mooney, James McClean, all of them were in Ireland and we all knew they were top players. At the time, they were playing locally and they were happy. If the clubs could pay the money they could at the time, they’ll stay for extra years. Eventually, they were sold to top British clubs. I’ve seen many players move on because they were top players.

“What you see now is younger players won’t wait anymore. When they’re 17-18, they’ll just go. I was lucky, I’ve seen some top players in my time. The difference with England was in England, the full squad are top players. [In Ireland] of 25, you’ll have 15 who are top and could move to any other club in the league.

“When you look at the few years after I came, I saw the money drop completely. Then a lot of clubs went bankrupt and we saw new clubs like Dundalk doing well. That tells you a lot about how the financial situation is key in football to attract players to play in Ireland. There is only one way — to invest money. If not, Irish footballers will train to go to England.”

paul-cook-with-conor-ogrady-gavin-peers-joseph-ndo-and-romuald-boco Manager Paul Cooke with captain Conor O'Grady, Gavin Peers, Joseph Ndo and Romuald Boco at a 2010 FAI Cup final media day. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Despite these financial problems, Boco ultimately reflects positively on his time at the Showgrounds, having had three spells there in total with only brief departures in between (2008 to 2010, 2010 to 2011 and 2011 to 2012)

“I had a great life in Sligo. It was quiet and the people were really friendly. You could go to the town and people would come every weekend to see you play. They were chatty and kind.

“Sometimes you had bad games, but even after a bad game, I could go into the town and do my shopping. People understood that a player can have a bad game and stuff like that. So it was nice when you’ve got a good feeling.

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“As a player, we play and then go to the next club. But I’ve kept a lot of friends from my time in Ireland, especially in Sligo. We try to meet sometimes, we call each other and stuff like that whereas I’ve played in other clubs or even when I played with Benin, there wouldn’t be many people I still speak to. We’re there. We were contracted. We were professionals. We do our job and we go home, and that’s it.

“But in Sligo, we were quite close. We were making things together — dinner together, we shared houses, it was nice. The fact that we were living like that showed in the results we had. We were quite tight. We managed to win the league. We won the cup twice. We went to the final of the cup. There’s always a reason behind it. We didn’t spend the most money. We were quite close as teammates. Most of us were friends, so that helps when you compete instead of only being professionals doing your job when your chemistry is good with your colleagues, it always helps you to achieve things.”

He sounds somewhat regretful of the fact that he was no longer at the club when Sligo officially ended a 35-year wait to win the title in 2012.

Boco had returned to Accrington Stanley the previous August, but still received a winners’ medal, having played in 22 of Sligo’s 30 fixtures that season, and by the time of his departure, the team were looking well on course to triumph.

“I got the medal. I played a high percentage of the games. But by the time I left, I think it was eight games left. We were so many points clear, we were already nearly champions.

“We tried new stuff. The club went in another direction — yoga and different types of training. But the key thing was the team had been building for the last three years and most of the players had been there for three years, we managed to get the best players and keep the best players at Sligo — Gavin Peers, Alan Keane, Raff Cretaro, Jay McGuinness. We just had a few good players and we were doing so great in the league, we won most of the games and it was easy at the time. Even if we were not performing, we were getting the three points. That’s the sign of a strong team.”

romauld-boco-of-leyton-orient-during-billericay-town-vs-leyton-orient-friendly-match-football-at-the-agp-arena-on-29th-july-2017 Boco pictured playing for Leyton Orient in 2017. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Boco was present on other memorable occasions, however, as the club won both the FAI Cup and the League of Ireland Cup in 2010, in the process helping to consolidate his reputation as a much-loved figure in the Bit O’Red’s history.

The former player says he still retains an affinity with Sligo to this day. While now based in London, he always keeps an eye out for their results.

“I’ve been lucky to have gone to clubs where there’s been no bad feeling [afterwards], even leaving, I never had any problems with any of my old clubs. I am always supporting them, so when I look in Ireland, I will always support Sligo by heart because of all the moments I was there.”

After leaving Sligo for the final time in 2012, Boco had spells at Accrington, Plymouth, Chesterfield, Bharat (in India), Portsmouth, Accrington (again), before finishing his career at Leyton Orient.

Boco was just 32 when he stopped playing after losing his place in the team for the National League side.

His reasons for early retirement, however, were down to matters beyond football, and he would still be open to returning to the sport someday in a coaching capacity.

“I wanted to be a family man and I had to make some commitments. When I looked at my life over the last 15 years, I started being away from home in an academy when I was 13 in 1998 and since that day, I never went back to my family. I had just been travelling.

“I had the experience to play in France, England, Ireland, India, China, I’ve travelled for my country, Benin, to play in the Africa Cup of Nations, the U20 World Cup and every couple of months I was making a trip to Benin to play. We went to play in Brazil, all over Africa, we had games in Dubai, and that’s why I never had time to set up a family. I wanted to be part of my children’s lives, I didn’t want them to grow without me being next to them [due to] travelling.

“I still had a contract running for an extra year [at Leyton Orient], but the people had said it was in everyone’s best interests to cancel the deal so I could move on.

“That’s exactly what happened. My partner at the time was pregnant. I became a dad and I’m very close to my child now. It means the world to me.

“I was still young. I’ve been lucky enough as a footballer to avoid any [serious] injuries. Something that I don’t think happens often, because I did play every three days for at least 12 years. I never had any proper holidays in my career. Every time it was the summer, I was playing with Benin. Every time it was winter, I had a competition away. But with friendlies, pre-season and all this stuff, I avoided any cruciate or major injuries. I was never out for more than a few weeks, so I kept playing.

“With my fitness and the way I live my life, I could have played for at least three or four years extra. But when I gave up, it was for something special as well. To feel more responsibility as a dad, I’ll be as proud as being a dad, if not more, than being a footballer. It’s always been my dream. I come from a family with five children. My mum and dad have stuck together for 50 years. To see the way my dad has been with me and stuff like that, I’m always wanting to have a certain experience. A day like today, going to see my son have some fun, it’s quite special in my opinion.

“I know people say play as long as you can — it’s true. You earn good money, you play in front of a lot of people and stuff like that is a privilege. But I would swap nothing against having time with my son. That’s the way I see it now — I look back with no regrets. The best moments I’ve got have been with my son.”

He continues: “I do things now I couldn’t do before because I was always committed to everything. I’m so obsessed with not having regrets — the worst feeling for anyone is to look back and say: ‘I should have done that.’ Or ‘if I did this’. There is none of this in me. I did my best and if I didn’t play at the top level like in the Premier League, it’s because I wasn’t good enough.

“I think if you had a chat with anyone at any club I have been to, you will have the same chat. It would be that: ‘Well, he might not have been the best player, but what you get from him is 100% and we can’t say anything bad about him. He did his best, he gave it all on the pitch.’ That’s me, pretty much.”

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Paul Fennessy

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