AUTHOR: Kieran Burke – @kieran_b_sport
Central African Republic midfielder Wilfried Zahibo is hoping to put his country on the map by helping Dundalk FC back to the levels of success the club’s supporters have become accustomed to over the past decade or so. The Lilywhites have suffered a slow start to the 2021 League of Ireland season resulting in the departure of team manager Shane Keegan and last seasons head coach Filippo Giovagnoli in what was one of the leagues great soap operas over recent months and while a new manager has yet to be installed there have been hints of an upturn in fortunes of late.
One of those positive hints has been the arrival of towering central midfield player Zahibo who was a free agent after leaving Houston Dynamo having played just four times for the MLS outfit. Prior to that, Zahibo had been something of a sensation in the States as he was named in the MLS team of the year for 2018 resulting in an appearance against Juventus in the MLS all-star game. Detailing how Dundalk had come to pop up on his radar Zahibo admitted the opportunity to play regularly and enjoy his football again were driving factors behind the transfer to Ireland.
“After I left the MLS I had the call and I thought it was the right moment and the right time for me to come here, I want to play and enjoy it so I need to get some minutes and some games to get my fitness back and the possibility to help the team to be one of the best in Ireland and hopefully Europe as well so that brought me here.”
Born in France, Zahibo has also played in Spain most notably with Valencia before moving to New England Revoloution and then onto Houston so travel and adapting to new environments is nothing new to the twenty-seven-year-old who admits he has received a very good welcome from his new teammates at Dundalk.
“It was a good adaptation the team have welcomed me and I’m very happy to have (played) some minutes and to have helped the team.”
As mentioned, Zahibo’s arrival has been a timely one given Dundalk’s early woes this season but having come off the bench in the draw at home to joint league leaders St.Pat’s Zahibi was rewarded with a start in last weekends Louth derby a game which saw the Town pick up their first three points of the season. Not only that but Zahibo was also involved in a flowing move for David McMillan’s opening goal a move Zahibo revealed had been worked on in training.
“This is something that we worked on at training during the week and we had a chance to use it in the game so it’s good and we have to build from that as the win was important to bring the confidence back and now we have to go Friday and have another win (against Waterford).”
With speculation rife that Zahibo is not only Dundalk’s highest-paid player but perhaps the highest-paid player ever to kick a ball in the League of Ireland it’s only natural for interest levels to be high in the midfielder who admits his new teammates have also shown great interest in his past. Former Aston Villa star Carles Gil, current Manchester City defender João Cancelo, ex-Arsenal defender Shkodran Mustafi, Spanish striker Álvaro Negredo, Andre Gomes and Rodrigo all rank as some of the star names Zahibo has shared a dressing room with during his career to date.
“Yes, they (my teammates) have asked me, I was lucky to play with some great guys and players in America so this experience is good and hopefully I can help to make it (Dundalk) better.”
With that win over Drogheda now under the belt Dundalk face into a nice run of fixtures with away trips to two relegation candidates in Waterford FC and Longford Town. Should Jim Magilton and co manage to guide Dundalk to three straight wins it would do a lot to quell some of the unrest among supporters who recently held a small protest outside the ground during the St.Pat’s game in response to what they feel is the mismanagement of the club by chairman Bill Hulsiser who has since hit back in a rare interview with a local newspaper. Despite the drama surrounding Dundalk FC at the moment, Zahibo feels the atmosphere in the dressing room is a positive one.
“After a win it (the atmosphere) is always good, now we have to work together to get the club back to the standard it had before so we have to focus on being better every day and win each game.”
It goes without saying of course that the likes of Zahibo and his fellow international recruits at Dundalk will have little to no knowledge on the likes of Waterford and Longford aside from whatever analytical work they are passed on by the clubs coaching staff on the training ground. However, Zahibo feels that while this is far from ideal the main focus for himself personally is to concentrate on what Dundalk can do to hurt the opposition week to week.
The fact that I didn’t know a lot (about the opposition) is a little bit difficult but at the end of the day the focus is on us and doing the right thing to be competitive on the weekend and I think if we focus on us and do what we have to do we are better than most of the teams so we have to show that.”
Going back to what brought a player like Wilfried Zahibo to Dundalk FC and the League of Ireland the Lilywhites will once again set sail for Europe this summer fresh off the back of last year’s appearance in the Europa League group stages where home and away games with Arsenal were undoubtedly the highlight. Zahibo admits playing in Europe was a big attraction in joining Dundalk and that he hopes to use the platform not only to showcase his talents as a player but to also make the people of Central African Republic proud.
“That is the plan (to perform well in Europe), I think it is not a very well-known country (Central African Republic) but hopefully with me they (Irish fans) will get to know more about it and they’re going to have the chance to watch some games.
“At the end of the day the more you play the better you are and the more the team gets exposed in the European market the better for everybody so my goal is to play a lot, to help the team, to win, and hopefully we can do well in Europe because that will be a benefit for everybody.”
Making the kind of transfer Zahibo has just completed can’t be an easy one even with plenty of experience in adapting to new leagues, countries, and footballing cultures but when you factor in the added restrictions due to Covid-19 it would only be natural for a player to perhaps take slightly longer than expected to settle. Zahibo admits he looks forward to a time where he can explore his new home more freely and get to learn more about the town of Dundalk.
“It’s a little bit strange but now we start to get used to it but I just try to keep my focus on football and doing what I have to do every day and be focused on the game, we’ll have time to go and enjoy Dundalk and know more about it.”
“I can’t wait to have a full stadium and to have a real atmosphere because without fans it’s a little bit different you don’t have this extra motivation so we look forward to that and hopefully we can celebrate some wins together.”