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The Benin international who lit up Irish football

Initially, Romuald Boco kindly begs The42 to call back in 20 minutes.

His small son is exhausted after a hectic day.

It’s a great analogy. Boco appears to be settling into a more tranquil existence after a hectic 20-year football career that took him all over the world.

But the former midfielder is still a football lover.

He is currently following the action at the Africa Cup of Nations, where he represented Benin three times (2004, 2008 and 2010).

“I always watch it.” “I was satisfied with Benin’s performance in 2019, reaching the quarter-finals.

“We see a lot of talent. It’s amazing to see because there are a lot of [unknown] guys who make good movements and become known after the competition. It’s difficult to see in Europe because we know practically everyone.”

Benin first qualified for the competition in 2004. Boco was 18 and signed to French club Chamois Niortais.

Boco started his country’s first two games, which they lost to South Africa and Morocco, and left at the group stage.

They missed out on the 2006 tournament but made amends two years later, and Boco remembers the qualification campaign fondly.

“We beat Sierra Leone to qualify, and thousands of fans waited outside the airport when our plane landed. It was insane — bikes, vehicles, everything, it was certainly the best time. It’s obvious, but you’re not ready for the exhilaration. “Wonderful reception.”

2010 saw amazing spectacles in a country with a population of just over 12 million, making it one of the smallest African countries compared to Nigeria (206 million) and Ethiopia (114 million) – worldometers.info ranks it 29th out of 58 African countries in terms of population.

For the 2010 tournament, we qualified 1-0 at home courtesy to a Mohamed Aoudou winner, and the crowd went insane.

Our 93rd minute goal Plastic water in African stadiums It’s like a plastic bag, except you bite the corner and a small hole appears so you can take the water. Everyone flung their water and possessions into the air. I’d never seen that — absurd.

He couldn’t even whistle. He had to stop the game because we scored in extra time in the 93rd minute. After checking his watch, the referee announced that due to the players’ and fans’ celebrations — people were sprinting on the field — the game was ended.

“But getting out of the stadium became impossible. They had military, police, and special forces ready, but they couldn’t do anything. 50,000 people were inside the stadium and thousands more outside. Those who were there know it was wonderful. You feel incredibly exceptional for a time and you get to live it in sport.

“I got lucky.” I’ve experienced that in a few countries, but Africa was the most dramatic. They enjoy rugby, cricket, and football, but mentality is present in many sports. But in Africa, it’s the main sport, and it’s vital for most of the country, so if you qualify for
Boco had many fond memories of his 50 caps for Benin.

He also played in the 2005 World Youth Championships, where Argentina won with six goals from a young Lionel Messi.

“Messi, Ronaldo, and that generation. So it was amazing to be captain and play in the World Cup.”

Boco could have theoretically played for France, since his mother is French and his education is Beninese. But when the chance came, at 18, I jumped at it. I said yes right away. I’ve always loved Benin.

“I have always liked France. In a World Cup, I will always support France. Basically, I would have been delighted if France had invited me to play in the World Cup. Could I say no? Doubtful.

“But when you’re a young player and you can play for two countries, they’ll often wait until the largest country calls because they know they can. No names, but it is evident in England and Ireland. They will be called up by England because they have more chances to compete in significant competitions and win trophies.

“Being only 18, I could have waited, but when they contacted, I leaped at the chance and was really happy.”

While it may not have had the glamour of international football, Boco still has fond memories of his time at Sligo Rovers.

Boco joined Accrington Stanley in 2005 after playing in France.

In three seasons with the club, he scored eight goals in 88 games, helping them gain promotion to League Two. Boco’s contract was terminated in February 2008, citing homesickness as the reason.

“I thanked and hugged him,” boss John Coleman said at the time. “He’s crucial to where the club is now. He was vibrant, a breath of fresh air, and I will miss him.”
But Sligo manager Paul Cook, who had coached Boco at Accrington, persuaded the teenager to transfer to Ireland.

“He persuaded me that there was a project, that the club needed me to help them, so I accepted the task.

“It was stressful at the time because of his expectations, saying he expected me to change [the team].

“It was difficult because people thought I was an international player who was ‘going to make a difference’.

“But I accepted the pressure and was welcomed by the lads. It was undoubtedly one of my favourite football clubs. Sligo had the friendliest people. It was fantastic. I’m still friends with them now.”

Boco played for Sligo from 2008 until 2010. His first season saw him help his team finish fourth and qualify for the Europa League.

A recession rocked Ireland at this period, affecting League of Ireland clubs in particular.

Sligo suffered the same fate, with Boco leaving in 2010 after openly voicing his displeasure with the financial position in a BBC interview the year before.

“The standard was lower than in England,” he recalls. “But there were a lot of young bright players who could stay in Ireland for a few more years because clubs were paying crazy prices for the standard. If you remember 2006-2008, clubs like Cork, Drogheda and St Patrick’s Athletic paid decent money. Crazy. The clubs paid $4-$5k per week.

“They kept the guys and finally, those top players went to England – Seamus Coleman, Dave Mooney, James McClean, they were all in Ireland and we all knew they were excellent players. They were thrilled to be playing locally at the moment. If the clubs can afford it, they will stay for more years. Sold to major British clubs. I’ve seen several elite players leave.

“Younger players won’t wait anymore. They’ll leave at 17-18. I was fortunate to see several great players. In England, the entire squad is a top player. Out of 25, 15 are top and can move to any team in the league.

“I witnessed the money entirely diminish in the years after I arrived. Then many clubs went bankrupt, and new clubs like Dundalk flourished. That tells you a lot about how important money is in football. The only way is to invest. And if they don’t, they’ll train in England.”
Despite his financial issues, Boco looks back fondly on his three years in the Showgrounds, with only brief departures in between (2008 to 2010, 2010 to 2011 and 2011 to 2012)

“I loved Sligo. It was peaceful and nice. Every weekend, people would flock to see you play in town. Weirdos and chatty

“You had horrible games, but I could walk into town and shop even after a bad game. People recognised that players might have terrible games. So it was lovely to feel good.
We play and then go on to the next club. But I kept many Irish friends, especially in Sligo. It’s rare that I still speak to people from other clubs, or even from when I played for Benin. We got it. We were hired. We were pros. We go to work, and then we go home.

 

We were close in Sligo. We shared houses and made dinner together, it was great. Our results reflected our way of life. We were close. We won the league. We won twice. We made the cup final. There’s always a cause. We didn’t overspend. As colleagues, we were close. Most of us were friends, and having excellent chemistry with your coworkers helps you do things.”

He seemed to lament not being with the club when Sligo finally won the title in 2012.

Boco had returned to Accrington Stanley the previous August, but had still won a medal for playing in 22 of Sligo’s 30 games that season, and the team were on course to win.

“I got it. I played a lot of games. But there were just eight games left when I left. We were nearly champs by that stage.

“We experimented. The club shifted focus to yoga and other forms of exercise. We got Gavin Peers, Alan Keane, Raff Cretaro, and Jay McGuinness from Sligo and kept them for three years. We had a few good players and were dominating the league at the time. We got the three points even if we didn’t perform. That shows a solid team.”

In 2010, the team won the FAI Cup and the League of Ireland Cup, cementing Boco’s status as a beloved character in the Bit O’Red’s history.

The former player believes he still feels a connection to Sligo. Now in London, he keeps an eye on their results.

In fact, I never had any problems with any of my prior clubs when I left them. I always support them, so when I look at Ireland, I will always support Sligo.”

Boco had time with Accrington, Plymouth, Chesterfield, Bharat (in India), Portsmouth, and Accrington again before concluding his career at Leyton Orient.

Boco retired at the age of 32 after losing his place in the National League team.

His early retirement was due to factors other than football, and he would be open to returning to the sport as a coach.

Then I had to commit to being a family man. In 1998, at the age of 13, I left home for an academy and have never returned to my family. I’d been travelling.

“I played in France, England, Ireland, India, China, and I travelled to Benin to play in the Africa Cup of Nations and the U20 World Cup every couple of months. We played in Brazil, Africa, and Dubai, so I never had time to start a family. I didn’t want to miss out on my kids’ lives because I had to travel.

“I had a year left on my contract [at Leyton Orient], but they suggested it was best if we cancelled it so I could go on.

“Exactly. My then-partner was expecting. As a father, I am very attached to my child. It means a lot.

“I was young. As a footballer, I’ve escaped serious injury. This doesn’t happen often, as I played every three days for at least 12 years. In my profession, I never took vacations. Every summer I played with Benin. Every winter I had a competition. But with friendlies and pre-season, I avoided any serious or severe injuries. I never went more than a few weeks without playing.

“With my health and lifestyle, I could have played for three or four more years. But I gave up for something amazing. Being a dad will make me as proud as being a footballer, if not more. It’s been my dream. My family has five kids. My parents have been married for 50 years. Seeing how my father has treated me, I always wish to have a similar experience. A day like today, going to see my son enjoy fun, is rather unique.

“I know they advise play as long as you can. It’s a privilege to make big money and perform in front of large crowds. But nothing beats spending time with my son. That’s how I see things now, with no regrets. The best times I had were with my son.”

“I do things today that I couldn’t do before because I was always committed,” he says. The worst feeling for anyone is to look back and think, ‘I should have done that.’ Or ‘if I did’. This is not me. I tried my hardest, but I wasn’t good enough to play in the Premier League.

“I believe you would have the same conversation with everybody I have met at a club. ‘He may not have been the finest player, but what you get from him is 100% and we can’t fault him. He gave it his all on the field.’ That’s me.”

It’s a big deal that he was born. It was like winning the World Cup for us.”