Sodje keen to copy Hansen's calm

Nick Harris
Tuesday 11 June 2002 00:00
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There are countless reasons why England might yet struggle to beat Nigeria, including post-Argentina syndrome, last-minute injuries and flash typhoons. But none can be more unusual than Efetobore Sodje's love for Alan Hansen.

The Crewe defender, you see, was born in London and made his lifetime football affiliations at a time when Liverpool – and Hansen – ruled. Sodje never had any doubts that at national level his heart would always be with his mother's country. Or that his head would always be covered with a bandanna in respect to her religious beliefs, football's authorities permitting.

But at club level – during a career that has seen him play at Stevenage, Macclesfield, Luton, Colchester and Crewe but never in England's top division – his affections have always been directed towards Anfield.

Tomorrow, if selected to face Sven Goran Eriksson's side, the 29-year-old will not only be looking to counter the threat of his modern-day heroes, Michael Owen and Emile Heskey, he will be seeking affirmation that, despite Nigeria's early exit from the World Cup, Hansen thought he had a good game.

"Since I was a kid in the late 70s and early 80s I've supported Liverpool," Sodje said. "They were the team. And the person who was my hero was Alan Hansen. Every footballer has a hero and he was mine, for the way he played, and for his calm."

The adulation has continued since Hansen stopped playing. "I got to meet him once, a few years ago, which was cool. He came up to me and shook my hand. I didn't know what to say. There was even a time when I was commuting from St Albans to Crewe and I always had his biography with me. I dipped into it every time I took the train.

"He's a great guy as a pundit too. Always talking about defenders, and whether they're diabolical or shocking. I always enjoy that. The best praise I could have after a match would be for him to say: "Sodje did well today. He played his percentages."

However tomorrow goes, Sodje has already made the record books for becoming the first Crewe player to feature at a World Cup finals. And despite being part of the side who suffered relegation in May, he fully expects to see out the two years that are left on his contract, not least because of his respect for his manager Dario Gradi. "The experience he's got is fantastic. Tactically, he's improved me as a player. Mentally, he calms me down. It was a difficult season for us, but we'll hold our heads up, come back up."

It was just this attitude, of steady hope and optimistic expectation, that saw Sodje recalled to the Nigeria squad when Adegboye Onigbinde returned as coach earlier this year. The former schoolteacher, obviously with one eye on the subsequent cull that saw the likes of Finidi George and Sunday Oliseh rejected, cast his net wide and gave dozens of fringe players a chance.

In several pre-World Cup friendlies, Sodje did respectably at full-back even though he prefers a central position. And it was enough to earn his place in the Far East, and a start against Argentina, a game in which he sustained a knock that kept him out of the game against Sweden.

"Playing in the World Cup is as good as it gets in football and this is a big part of my life and my career," he said. "It's been a big buzz being part of the squad. Whatever happens, I can come back knowing that I achieved something."

Not least if a Scot in a television studio thousands of miles away declares he had a decent game.

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