By Onochie Anibeze
THE return of Clemens Westerhof to Lagos, last week, made some great memories green again.
The man generally acclaimed to be Nigeria’s best-ever coach was in Nigeria for a television documentary on Nigerian football with emphasis on his era when Nigeria was 5th in FIFA’s ranking, the best ever any African country has attained.
A four-man crew from VPRO, a Dutch national television, arrived Lagos, last Wednesday, with Westerhof for the documentary that is expected to do Nigeria a lot of good by shoring up our declining image.
Shamefully, the crew was not allowed to shoot inside the National Stadium in Lagos due to the bad state of the national edifice, now wasting away. It is my story for next week.
Stephen Keshi, the Super Eagles coach, Daniel Amokachi, his assistant, Peter Rufai, who all played in Westerhof’s team were in Lagos for the documentary, which coincidentally, fell on Westerhof’s birthday, May 3.
The television crew had to do the interviews at Diplomat Hotel in Maryland, Lagos and no longer on a stadium background. It was a big shame, a sad moment for the crew and a loss to Nigeria. But the gathering was excited especially after the interviews and the party to mark Westerhof’s birthday started.
Our days with Westerhof — Keshi, Amokachi, Rufai
Before then, it was all thrills as Keshi, Daniel and Rufai told interesting stories of their days with Westerhof. Even Westerhof, the Dutchgerian was not left out. He is a good story teller, sometimes exceeding bounds. He still looked strong and spiced his stories with humour. There were those who came for him and guests who happened on the event and went home happier that they were part of the exciting moment. Austin Eguavoen, Aloy Agu were expected to be there but missed the show because they were out of town.
It was emotional when Keshi and Westerhof met last Saturday. Westerhof had predicted Keshi would one day coach Nigeria. It has come to pass. And when the Dutch charged Keshi to go to Brazil and do better than he did in USA ’94 when Nigeria got to the second round, arriving the World Cup as Africa’s champions, Keshi’s response touched all.
“You are now Africa’s champions. You have to go to Brazil and get to quarter or semifinal. And if you are in the last four anything can happen. You can do it. You have to do better than I did. You can be better than myself. I wish it for you and for Nigeria,” Westerhof said emotionally.
In an equally emotion-laden voice, Keshi retorted: “You are always the better coach and trainer.”
Throughout the day, Keshi referred to Westerhof as “trainer”.
At a section of the lobby of the hotel, they all sat, chatting. Others listened. Daniel Amokachi recalled some training sessions when Westerhof made them train three times a day and how exhausting it was initially and how strong and fit it made them to be. If you complained, you were made to go extra mile in training.
Westerhof appreciated the fact that Nigerian players were strong. He recalled when Rufai was operated on but still joined them in training camp in Portugal.
“I wondered what he came to do and fumed but Rufai said he would be ready in 14 days. I asked the doctor if he was mentally okay? Rufai was in the gym from the day of the operation and in 14 days he was terrific in training. And I said what is this? Who is this? A machine? An animal?”
How Rufai wormed his way into Westerhof’s heart
But those were days Rufai had wormed himself into the heart of Westerhof. It was rough initially. Westerhof recalled his first match when Rufai came late, just three days to a match. He stormed the training venue while training was already on at the National Stadium. The crowd went Rufi, Rufi Rufi, some yelling Do Do Mayana. Westerhof wondered who was attracting such cheers but he saw it as distraction.
“I ignored him and continued with our training and the crowd booed me for not accommodating him in training. When he introduced himself as Peter Rufai, Nigeria’s number one goal keeper, I congratulated him but told him he should be on the next plane back to Belgium. People were surprised but there must be discipline. Later Rufai proved to be the best and I still see him as Nigeria’s best goal keeper ever. Do do Mayana! What a terrific great man. But he gave me troubles, you know.”
The expensive car joke
There were many stories. Daniel recalled how hard they had given their all in a camp in Holland and Westerhof, so impressed, told them he had a huge surprise for them. He said that he had gotten Mercedez Benz Motors to donate a car to each Nigerian player as a promotional package, which could boost their sales in Africa. He said each member of the team would have a Mercedez Benz car the following day and that the keys were ready.
“And truly, he brought some keys and distributed to us. Excitement reached heavens,” Daniel recalled. “Coach Christian Chukwu was already celebrating this and Keshi had called the wife to come down the following day from Belgium to Holland to drive a car home. Keshi was in Anderlecth at the time. Some of us still in Africa were wondering how we would take our cars home, hoping that some people would help us ship them home. Expectation was high. The time of delivery came and Westerhof directed us to the corner he said the cars were lined up. We got there and saw toy Mercedez Benz cars lined up. It was such an embarrassing joke that Chukwu warned him never to do such a thing again. We were all disappointed but it was part of him to drill you, exhaust you in training and also entertain you with such jokes that make the place lively. He had humour, he had discipline and he could make you fight like a bull in the field. He gave me the name The Bull.” Turning to Westerhof, he said, “ÿou are always the special one, coach!” It was emotional.
Rufai and Keshi told interesting stories too. Those listening had fun. Westerhof recalled a player, who kept two girls in one room in Sheraton and had another two in his room. When he found out he sent him out of the camp and told him he would do better acting blue movies than playing football. He paid tribute to the extraordinary talent in Austin Okocha, saying “he does magic with the ball. And he recalled the day Okocha challenged him but later appreciated him.
“Once, I played Jay Jay from the left in a friendly match in Sweden. Okocha said, ‘coach I play from the right.’ I told him that I knew that, ‘when you have the ball, move as if you want to run down the flank but make a trick, come in deep and shoot if you are close to the goal.’ Jay Jay scored two goals and came to me and said, ‘nobody ever told me this before.’ And I said, ‘there’s always a first time.’
I had a great team — Westerhof
What a great team I had. Uche Okechukwu, Austin Eguavoen, Ben Iroha and later Mike Emenalo. Keshi, Sunday Oliseh, Mutiu Adepoju, Thompson Oliha, Samson Siasia, Finidi George, Emmanuel Amunike, Daniel Amokachi, Rashidi Yekini, Chidi Nwanu. And now Oliha, Yekini and Uche Okafor are dead. Very painful. One day, we shall all go too. That’s how God has made it and we cannot question Him.”
He told friends how I was among those who criticised him and never believed in him but changed after I appreciated his efforts at Algiers ’90 when Eagles lost 5-1 in the first match but ended up with a silver, losing 1-0 to the same team that mauled us 5-1 in the opener.
“I did for Onochie (It was Onoch before now) something I had never done before. I showed him my tactics before the semi-final and I told him he could make money if he sold this to our opponents but that I was doing it to see if I could have a friend one can trust in Nigeria. That was how we became friends in Algiers. The referee in the final was Jean Dirimba and he made sure we did not win. What a man, Jean Dirimba. Something must have gone wrong the day he was born.”
Top journalists, Tijani Kayode and Kunle Solaja who was also in Algiers were among those who enjoyed the day.
We later had a small party to celebrate his birthday, singing Happy Birthday To You and He Is A Jolly Good Fellow, drinking and cracking more jokes.
“I couldn’t have had it better,”Westerhof said of his 74th birthday in Lagos.