He made his international debut for Nigeria against Paraguay in 2002, played in the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) and 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. But he missed out on what would have been the biggest triumph of his rewarding football career, winning the AFCON title with the Stephen Keshi led Eagles team in South Africa 2013.
However Danny Shittu, Nigerian born English based player, has no regrets about his decision. In this interview with the Millwall FC, England defender in London, he talks about his love for Nigeria, family, football experience and why racism should be kicked out of the game.
SU: You left Nigeria at the age of 8. Have you visited since then, for how long and how was the experience like?
DANNY SHITTU: The first time I went back was when I was 22 and that was with the Nigerian (football) team. Then, I had heard a lot about Nigeria. But going back opened my eyes about the place and I fell in love with it. It is one thing when people tell you about Nigeria, but being there yourself is something different. And I can definitely say it is not what people tell you about it. Every time I have time off, I head back over there. Unfortunately, I have been so busy that I have not been able to go there in the last one and a half years. But before that, every end of the season, I am over there spending a couple of weeks because I see Nigeria as my second home now. I have got many friends there now so I do spend a lot of time over there.
SU: Do you have any regrets about your decision not to accept the call up by coach Stephen Keshi to join the Super Eagles preliminary squad, especially now that the Eagles have won the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) trophy for the third time in history?
DANNY SHITTU: Maybe if I were 20 or 21, I would have regrets. But there have been a lot of decisions in my life where it’s either turned out good, but I won’t say bad. The thing about me is that I never have regrets about decisions I make. Even if I had known that Nigeria will win the Nations Cup. We all have personal reasons for doing or not doing something at a certain time. At that time, it was the best decision for me to stay. Up till today I still don’t regret making that decision. Obviously players who maybe wouldn’t have played if I was there got to play. And who knows, I could have played and we may not have won it. So I always believe that everything happens for a reason. I don’t regret it one bit because I am still fulfilling the reasons why I chose to stay. A lot of things have happened (in football and out of football) since Nigeria won the tournament, which has made me realize that it was a good reason for me to stay. So I’m happy for the players and the country. You know, I’m Nigerian myself and I’m just happy we won it, definitely.
SU: What were those other commitments that stopped you from being part of the Eagles AFCON winning team?
DANNY SHITTU: Obviously, there is football commitment, but it’s not just that. I’m a father of four kids and have a lot of personal commitment with family, children, and other things outside of football as well, which wouldn’t have made it right for me to have just left then and gone to the Nations Cup for six weeks. Besides, I had not been involved with Nigeria for a long time before that. I was not involved with the qualifications and stuff like that. You know, leading up to this tournament, my life had been kind of different. So for me to have left these things all of a sudden to get back to playing with Nigeria again wasn’t right for me to do at that time.
SU: You also mentioned family commitment?
DANNY SHITTU: Yes, there was family commitment, as well as football and other things outside of football as well. I wouldn’t really say business because business is there to run itself. And if I’m not there, I’ve got other people to run it as well. The main thing is family. I’m a father of four and my kids are my life, you know. I do a lot for them and they look up to me. They are very young and at that stage they needed me (more). So it wasn’t something I could do then.
SU: You played significant roles for the Super Eagles in the past and was once considered one of Nigeria’s most reliable defenders. If you’re called up again, would you think twice about it?
DANNY SHITTU: I think I would always consider going every time I’m called up. If I wasn’t thinking about playing for Nigeria, I would have retired a while back. It’s just unfortunate when they called me up the last time. Nigeria is my country. I’ve never said I don’t want to play for them again. What I’m doing right now is just working hard for my club. And if my country calls me up again, then it’s fine. And if they don’t, I’m always going to be there supporting them.
SU: Do you think there is still another chance for you to play with the Eagles, especially with the FIFA Confederations Cup and 2014 World Cup around the corner?
DANNY SHITTU: I believe that I still have a lot to give in football. As Africans also, we age well. When we are in our 30s, we are still very fit and athletic. So I never say no to anything. If any tournament or game comes up and I do get a call up and believe that I can do it, I will definitely go. And if I can’t, I’d leave it and give another young person the opportunity to go through and do it.
SU: Who among the recent crop of Eagles defenders have impressed you the most and why?
DANNY SHITTU: I think they have all really impressed me. When they dropped Yobo and put the others after the first AFCON game, a lot of people doubted their abilities, maybe because they were new to the team and didn’t have much experience. But it’s just amazing how they performed, especially against Ivory Coast. I watched that game where people had thought that Nigeria would end up losing by four or five nil, because the Ivory Coast line-up looked pretty dangerous on paper. But it was just so good to see the Nigerian defence do really well, play good together and keep them at bay. And they kept it going since then. They have all come in and done well. It’s hard for me to pick one. I’m just so happy for all of them right now.
SU: Victor Moses chose Nigeria ahead of England and by winning the AFCON title with the Eagles; he seemed to have made a smart choice. Efan Ekoku also played for Nigeria in 1994. In your opinion, why do you think other English-born Nigerian players like Gabriel Agbonlahor and Nedum Onuoha have opted to play for England instead of Nigeria?
DANNY SHITTU: I think a lot of people don’t realise or understand that when you are a professional football player in England and you’re known as an England player, they take you more seriously than when you’re playing for (say) Nigeria or Ivory Coast. Mikel (Obi) and (Victor) Moses have done well. But English teams and managers don’t really like losing their players for a long time during the Africa Nations Cup while the league is going on. Also, they seem to care for you more when you play for England. So why did some of these players choose to play for England? Because they take you more seriously in this country. When I see these players, I try to tell them that it’s always good to choose you own country, you know, your fatherland. But, people need to understand that when you play or have played for England, these teams in England take you more seriously than when you represent another country outside of Europe, really.
SU: Except maybe the Football League Championship in 2010/2011, you have not won any major trophy either with your club or national team. Is that a major blip for you as a career footballer?
DANNY SHITTU: Well, for me, I don’t really care about trophies. Okay, it’s not that I don’t care about trophies. It’s nice to win trophies. But I’m not that kind of player that is all about winning trophies. Whether I’m playing in League One, Champions League, Premier League, for Nigeria, or whatever team I’m playing for, I just want to go out there and give a hundred percent. That’s what it’s about. I enjoy playing football. All I want to do is just go out there and give my all for whatever team I play for. And if I’m winning personal trophies, either for man-of-the-match or player of the month, or my team wins trophies, then that’s great. My aim is to make them try and be the best in that League so that we can finish highest possible and (maybe) win trophies. My aim is just to be give the best in whatever club I play for.
SU: You seem to be enjoying football and life at Championship side Millwall FC. Despite the fact that it is not a Premiership team, how has the experience been?
DANNY SHITTU: I’ve always believed that there is too much politics involved in the Premiership, that’s why I chose to come back to the Championship. I believe that when you’re in the Championship, a manager would want to play the best players he has because he wants to win games. But in the Premiership, there are a lot of politics and factors involved.
SU: What are those politics and factors?
DANNY SHITTU: I don’t want to start getting into details (laughs). But other players would agree that there is a lot of that involved when you’re playing in the English Premiership. All I want to do is to work hard and show the manager that I am one of the best players in the team. And if I do prove in training that I am one of the best, I want to play on Saturday, go there and help the team win. I don’t want to work hard during training to show that I deserve to play and I’m good enough to play. Then on a Saturday, someone else is picked for other reasons. That really affects me because I’m there to work hard for the team, not for another reason. So that’s why I’m enjoying the Championship at Millwall right now. I’m working hard with a team where we are all together, as well as with the manager. And the supporters are amazing. When you add up all these factors and they allow you to play well, you do play well, work hard and show what you can do on the pitch. But when you’re involved in politics, you can’t do that. So, I’m happy right now.
SU: I’m still curious about the politics, but you’ve chosen not to talk about it…
DANNY SHITTU: Yeah, I think there are a lot of issues that I could bring up. But it’s not about that. At the end of the day, I’m just enjoying myself and that’s really all that matters.
SU: Racism has been a sore point in world football, especially against players of African descent. Recently too, you expressed your displeasure over racism by minority at matches, including at your club, Millwall. What’s your view on this subject and how can it be eradicated from football and sports generally?
DANNY SHITTU: I always believe that there is no place in sports now for racism or homophobic behaviours. Just seeing that documentary the other day was a bit sad; to see that such things are still going on in 2013, not just in this country (England) which has a mix of different cultures and races. It’s all around Europe and the world. So it’s about learning to come together. To see things like that in a football game was very disappointing. Like I said in a statement, I am now working with the club to find ways we can train and stop these minorities from doing what they are doing. I know it’s something they’ve been battling for years; like in my club, the chairman, owners, everybody, they are all working hard to eradicate it from our ground and the game. But we still get these minorities that do such things. It needs to stop now. I’m trying to play my part and have a few ideas of my own. My agent and I are speaking to the club about it right now. Hopefully, it’s something we can get out and it doesn’t happen anymore.
SU: English football has a huge followership globally. You have over a decade of experience playing with Premiership clubs like Bolton Wanderers. For you, what are the major contrast and comparison playing in the Championship and Premiership?
DANNY SHITTU: The Championship has really stepped up its game from a few years ago to what it is now. The quality (of the Championship) today is just amazing because there is no easy game anymore. Everybody is beating everybody. But the contrast is that the Championship is really physical and also technical. In the Premiership, you get time to pass; the players don’t really close you down as much. But in the Championship, they don’t give you time to breathe or time on the ball. Sometimes when you are on the ball, somebody’s going to be in your face to try and take the ball away from you. On the physical side of it, I think that’s why a lot of the Premiership teams find it hard when they play Championship teams. It (the Championship) is an amazing division to play in and I’m enjoying it, especially the physical side of it as well.
SU: How do you think the Nigeria Premier League can become more competitive and measure up to the standard of football and organisation in England and other European leagues?
DANNY SHITTU: Nigeria winning the AFCON tournament shows the quality that we do have in the country because most of the players that played in that tournament started off in Nigeria. It shows that there are talents within the Nigerian leagues to be able to push out and do well. But I think the main thing now is (to work on) the organisation. Once we can sort out the organisation of the leagues and ensure that everything runs properly and smoothly, the Nigerian league can really stand up to all these others leagues. From what I have seen with my own eyes, there is no denying that the Nigerian league can definitely be up there when it comes to the quality. It’s just the organisation we have to sort out.
SU: There are rumours of cliques in the national teams, even football clubs. Is this part of football or just an exceptional case in a few teams?
DANNY SHITTU: I think that in every team, you’re always going to have cliques; because when you join a team, you will always have friends whom you hang around with more than the others. There would always be certain reasons why you go to a club or get friendly with a certain group of people than the others, maybe because you speak the same language or something else. But I think that despite that, the main thing is, you don’t want to have too many cliques in your team. Secondly, these cliques cannot be against each other. Like when I played for Nigeria; even though we were all together, I was more with Taye Taiwo and (Obafemi) Martins because we all spoke Yoruba together. So it wasn’t that we hated the other people. And at that time, I was learning to speak Yoruba well. So I was with them. That was kind of like a clique then. But when we went to play another tournament, I would be with Dickson (Etuhu) or Mikel because we all played in England, not because we hated the others. But when you start getting cliques, where one doesn’t like the other and they start talking about each other, that’s when it starts becoming wrong. Or (maybe) they don’t get along with the manager as well, then those cliques start becoming issues. But when it’s just normal cliques because of healthy reasons; then there is nothing wrong with that at all. The main thing is just making sure that there are not too many cliques. But you know, you are always going to have cliques everywhere.
SU: There have been rumours of people offering bribes to make it to the national team. Have you ever witnessed that?
DANNY SHITTU: (Laughs) I’ve witnessed a lot of things while playing for Nigeria. I started playing for Nigeria when I was 22. Before then, I had been playing in the English divisions from when I was like 17, 18. So, being called up to the Nigerian team kind of opened my eyes about certain things. I’m not talking about bribes or anything like that. But I think what everyone seem to forget is that I was actually called up for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, but I actually turned it down.
DANNY SHITTU: Because I didn’t want to be involved. I just didn’t want to go, for whatever reasons. I think it was maybe, I don’t want to call it a culture shock…I just… turned it down.
SU: What was the culture shock, the experience?
DANNY SHITTU: (Laughs) There were a lot of experiences you know, a lot of good and bad. I think there were just a lot of things that I wasn’t used to.
SU: Things like what?
DANNY SHITTU: (Laughs) There are certain things I can’t go into. But I think there were a lot of things I was surprised about and so didn’t want to be a part of it. I remember calling up my sister that night and telling her to come pick me up. I took my passport and then went home. If Nigeria is going to move forward, and we are going to move forward in a positive way, then things have to be done right. At that time, I didn’t think it was. It took me a long time to get involved in Nigeria properly. Like I said, I still don’t regret playing for Nigeria. If I were to choose again to either play for England or Nigeria, I would still pick Nigeria because it is my country. But I always believe things need to be done right. And it’s moving forward now. We won the Nations Cup.
SU: But do you think things are different now, that, for instance, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) should be run differently?
DANNY SHITTU: I try not to get involved. Obviously, we have our (different) opinions. I and my other Nigerian team mates have seen a lot of things that we may not agree with.
SU: But what are those specific things that should and can be done right?
DANNY SHITTU: I think when I become manager or when I start getting into the manager side of it; then maybe a lot of these things would come out. There are a lot of things I’ve seen and I’m sure if you ask any other players about those things, they would tell you as well.
SU: Just like you’re not telling me now …
DANNY SHITTU: Yeah, the thing is that I love my country and I never want to say anything bad about them. It’s not that the things I want to say are bad. But sometimes, maybe some things need to be said so that the country can move forward. Yet, it’s about saying it at the right time. And right now is not the right time. All I care about is Nigeria football and players moving forward, as well as Nigerians being more accepted in the English leagues than we currently are. Although we do have players like Mikel (Obi) and (Victor) Moses of Chelsea and Efe Ambrose for Rangers (Scotland) at the moment, but we can be accepted even more. And there are certain factors we need to eradicate from our game, so that we can be fully accepted.
SU: Besides football, what else do you do, what are your other interests, do you play other sports as well?
DANNY SHITTU: Obviously, training and playing football every day is kind of hard and stops you from playing other sports. But before I started playing, I used to hate football and was more into athletics – 100m, 200m, basketball and volleyball. Those were really my main sports then. My eldest brother plays volleyball professionally and that‘s a sport we all used to play and I really used to enjoy. Volleyball kind of made me, you know. Everyone ask why I can jump so high. It’s because I use the volleyball jump. But since I got into football professionally, I had to stop doing all these sports. But asides football, I’m into business. I get involved in the right businesses as possible. I own and run a couple of businesses at the moment. Most of the time after training, I’m on my laptop or on the phone making calls and doing business.
SU: When you retire from active professional football, what do you see yourself getting into?
DANNY SHITTU: A lot of people have been talking about me getting into coaching (because) I run football academies. And I’m told I have a gift when it comes to managing players. So when it comes to coaching and management, it’s something that I may consider. Ideally, what I want to keep on doing is running my business and making them grow. Apart from that, maybe I might get into coaching. A lot of people get worried about what they are going to do when they get to the end of football. But before I started football, I went to college and got my degree. So football is not my life. I’ve got a lot of things going on asides football. So when the football finishes, there would be opportunities that will give me more time to do more business not just in England alone, but in Nigeria. One other thing I do wish is that I have more opportunities to spend more time in Nigeria with my friends and family, and also do a lot of business out there as well. When it does come, I would be happy because it would be an opportunity for me to start the next chapter of my life; which is to grow my businesses to where they should be.
SU: Nigerian music is on the upswing on the African continent. I was in a club the other day in central London and they were playing D’Banj. What kind of music are you into, do you have any favourite Nigerian musician?
DANNY SHITTU:My number one is always Nigerian gospel (music), because I believe that no matter the mood you’re in, Nigerian gospel/praise makes you happy. So if you ask what music I have in my car or on my phone, I listen to Nigerian praise because it just gets me up all the time. Apart from that, I listen to a lot of American hip-hop and R & B. But Nigerian music is definitely what I listen to all the time, from what it was back then to where it is right now. Like you said, about that London club playing D’Banj; that shows how much progression we have made right now. I also listen to D’Banj. I like Wande Coal and others as well. There are just a lot of them I listen to right now and really like.
SU: Have you been to any Nigerian comedy show?
DANNY SHITTU: When I was in Nigeria, I went to one (hosted) by Basket Mouth
SU: And did you like Basket Mouth?
DANNY SHITTU: Oh yeah, he’s funny. I watch his show online as well. But here in the UK, I’ve not been able to go to a Nigerian comedy show because I was busy the days that they were on. But it’s definitely something I look forward to. I keep up to date with what is going on in Nigeria all the time.
SU: There are many young people in Africa who want to be football stars like you. What advice would you give them?
DANNY SHITTU: Never, ever give up. There are lots of French football players I know who became professionals when they were 24, 25 or 26, but they have good careers. A lot of people think that that when you reach 18, 19, you’re too old. You’re never too old. It’s never too late. I got into the game when I was 18. Before I signed for Charlton, I had been to like maybe 12 other trials with clubs where people told me no, that I was not good enough or they don’t need me. But because I gave it one more go, I am where I am today. One thing I always tell people is that, never, ever give up. If you believe you’re good enough, then make sure you keep going, because you’re going to have some friends, even family members, who would say you’re not good enough at this. And I think this is not just down to football players alone. Whatever you want to become; never, ever listen to people who tell you that you cannot do it. There were many people who laughed at me when I told them that I wanted to become a professional footballer. Today, they are the ones begging me for tickets or come to watch and support me when I play for Nigeria. So I always believe that, no matter what they say, if you believe you can do it, then it is definitely possible. Just keeping working hard and do what you need to do to get there. Just never give up. Because you are going to get a lot of people out there who would tell you that you can’t do it. But it is definitely possible. I’m an example of that. You just have to believe, work hard and make it happen.