By Bisi Lawrence
My compliments to Solomon Dalung, the Honourable Minister of Sports.His is a truly “goodly heritage”, as the Holy Bible might have called it. Football, especially at the seat where he is called upon to inhabit at the moment, has had several colourful and successful occupants and most of them did not have a notable connection with the game, sports generally before their arrival either.
In fact, I have often wondered if he came in through his military background as his red or maroon beret, sported on his newspaper photographs, seem to suggest.
But he has demonstrated a forthright acumen and wisdom, like his biblical namesake, in his outright rejection of the suggestion of Amaju Pinnick, the Nigerian Football Federation chairman, to appoint a foreign coach for the Super Eagles. We have had many foreign coaches for our national team. Even from the time they were known as The Green Eagles; they became “Super” when Augustus Aikhomo, who was the “Vice President” to Ibrahim Babangida as the “President, re-named them after Maroc ’88. But that only shows how important football was to us as a national pastime, more than just a game, was to us in the past.
One of them has just shown some interest in the vacancy we now seem to be nursing in the position of our national coach—a situation which should not have occurred if we knew our onions. After all, we sacked the former coach ourselves and should have prepared for the vacancy. But we seem to have been working towards that event—and shame on us if that is actually true.
The expatriate coach who is openly showing an interest in the job is Clement Westerhof, well known for leading the Eagles to what is perhaps the most glorious World Cup effort we have made up till now. If we were to mislead ourselves into thinking that we should ever employ a foreign coach, I would have been rooting for him. He was, first of all, very sincere as a human being, beyond just being a coach. He was totally absorbed in his work. That must be why Aikhomo was given to listening to him on every occasion. So was I too. (I ought to add that I was, at this time, the chairman of the Technical Committee of the NFA, a more onerous task than you would have imagined.)
On the other hand, I could hardly stand his replacement, Bonfrere Jo, another Dutch, Who shamelessly took over when Westherhof withdrew from his post in protest against indiscipline in the team. It was an incident that cost us a possible chance in the semi-final of the World Cup in 1994 in USA. Our coach had discovered that there was an unhealthy increase in the wing of our quartered hotel of female visitors. He therefore ordered that our team should move to another hotel for which he had paid. But the team refused to leave in open defiance of the coach. Our next match, which was against Italy, was almost a give-away, as our team clearly lacked concentration and lost to a team they could have taken to the beaten if they had concentration. Westerhof left in a huff! And his kinsman took over.
But he was not half the coach that Clement was. He demonstrated this in many ways. He clearly showed how devoted he was to his team when I asked him what he thought our chances were against his own national team, which was in the same Olympic Games with our team. As the coach, his answer would have been expected to express some confidence in his own handiwork, But, you wouldn’t believe it, this man showed a measure of pique at the very idea! But that was the only Olympic Games Football medal we ever won.
But just in case you feel he should take some credit for the success, I have to inform you that he was a passenger most of the game. Kanu Nwakwo, the team captain was late to arrive in camp because he was delayed by his contract arrangement with the club to which he was just going to join. The man asked him not to play in the first match which was against Belgium.
But the team, every member of them, refused. They simply went ahead, chose their team, and won. And that was how they went on to win the trophy, defeating both Argentina and Brazil, the favourite teams, to claim the palm.
The finals of the World Cup in Paris were hardly different. The coach, Bora Milutonovic had watched us defeat Spain in amazement. Obviously, he had under-estimated his own team.
Everybody was amazed. But the coach was to destroy the team. He dropped Mobi Oparaku from the right full back position and moved our most hard working midfielder Mutiu Adepoju to the full back position. In fact, Segun Odegbami, a former captain of the Eagles and an accepted guru travelled to the camp, which was some distance from Paris, to plead with him to retain the structure of the team. Imagine our dismay when we got to the stadium for the next match. He had destroyed the structure of the team. At least two of the players were new players. He made sure that we lost! His changes destroyed our team. We lost the fire we had against Spain in subsequent matches and he stuck to his error. That is a foreign coach for you.
One could go on and on about the perfidy of expatriate coaches. What we need to do is to train our own coaches, which was a policy of the NFF. There are a few of them still around, and they may not win the next World Cup for us. But we would have started, or continued, a foundation for the establishment of a sound tradition of our own coaches, for our own teams. That is a resilient strand of the fabric of our soccer development.