The island of Achill, Mayo, located off the west coast of Ireland, is a beautiful, remote location with just over 2,000 inhabitants. Nestled amongst rugged mountains, peat bogs and quaint Irish cottages lies the home of Achill Rovers, the island’s amateur football team.
With a modest yet soulful ground – boasting a short brick wall preventing nearby sheep from straying on the pitch – it seems like one of the last places you’d expect to find a 1998 FIFA World Cup™ star and a CAF Africa Cup of Nations winner showcasing his skills.
But if you brave the strong gales blowing from the nearby Atlantic Ocean and sample the stunning rural scenery that surrounds Achill Rovers’ ground for yourself on matchday, you’ll find 21-time Cameroon international Joseph N’Do, 40, gracing the pitch with his superb technique and unquenchable thirst for the game.
“I really enjoy it here at Achill, every day is a blessing for me,” N’Do, who acts as a player-coach at the club, told FIFA.com. “I was helping with coaching at the club last year and this year I decided I wanted to play. It’s a privilege for me to pass on my knowledge and experiences to the younger generation here in Mayo.”
After a club career which took him from Cameroon to mainland Europe – and then later from Saudi Arabia to China PR – the globetrotting N’Do moved to the Republic of Ireland in 2003 where he has settled ever since. His sheer flair, combined with his infectious personality, saw the Cameroonian become an instant hit with Irish football supporters.
After turning out for St Patrick’s Athletic, Shelbourne, Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians and Sligo Rovers, picking up four League of Ireland titles and three FAI Cups along the way, the 40-year-old is widely regarded as one of the best midfielders to grace Ireland’s domestic game.
But his playing days are not over just yet, and when not lacing his boots for Achill Rovers, who were voted 2015 Irish Club of the Year in recognition of the work done in their community, N’Do can be seen coaching and passing on his immense experience to the island’s youth.
“I think it was meant for me to be here in Ireland,” said the Yaounde-native. “I feel good here, I can’t explain why – I just do! I want to stay here as long as possible and I’m blessed enough that God has allowed me to be in Ireland.”
A meteoric rise to France 1998
Long before settling on the Emerald Isle, N’Do learned his trade playing in the Cameroonian Premier League – and it was at Cotonsport Garoua that he first caught the eye of a certain Claude Le Roy, then manager of the national team. Le Roy, one of African football’s managerial heavyweights, arrived at Cameroon for a second spell after the country’s 1998 AFCON quarter-final exit and set about putting his own stamp on the team.
When extracting talent from the domestic scene, the Frenchman was impressed with what he saw in N’Do, eventually calling up the skilful midfielder to Cameroon’s senior team for the first time just before the 1998 World Cup.
“Claude Le Roy was a manager who would let you express yourself,” recalled N’Do. “He would say to me: ‘Make me enjoy [watching you], go out there and do your thing.’ I was very young and for a manager to tell me that at my age was huge. I never called him Gaffer, Manager or Sir. I was calling him ‘Uncle’ because that is what he was like to me.
“He organised try-outs for 75 local players and after watching me play in the league, I was invited to the training camp where we played a lot of games to compete for a place in the team. He selected ten players from the camp, along with 25 professionals, so there was 35 of us in the squad in France. When the opportunity came I took it, and I made the final 22-man squad.”
Plucked from virtual obscurity, N’Do would go on to start alongside giant names such as Raymond Kalla, Rigobert Song and Patrick M’Boma at France 1998, playing every game of Les Lions Indomptables’ campaign. While the jump to the world’s biggest tournament seemed astronomic, now testing himself against the likes of Chile, Austria and previous finalists Italy, N’Do took it all in his stride.
“Most of the [Cameroon] team had never really heard of me when I was called-up!” he laughed. “But football is about enjoyment. It’s about exciting people, exciting your team-mates, so I didn’t feel pressure. I didn’t want to be overawed by the occasion, so I wasn’t focussing on who I was playing against.
“I wanted to play at the highest level, the World Cup, and when that moment came I told myself that I had to enjoy it. The only thing on my mind was that I have to savour the occasion and play well. For me, it wasn’t any different than playing with my friends.
“Every game has always been the same for me, so playing for Achill is no different to me than playing at the World Cup because I’m going to do the same stuff, I’m the same player. Maybe the only difference is that you might have 35,000 people watching you!”
While the years have passed since France 1998 and N’Do finds himself in very different surroundings, one thing remains the same for the Cameroonian: his love of the beautiful game is as strong as ever.