Onochie Anibeze, who edits the Saturday Vanguard newspaper, was without question the closest sportswriter to Clemens Westerhof. The personable Onochie witnessed the Class of 94 at close quarters. In his house in the Okota area of Lagos, Onochie spoke to Uzor Maxim Uzoatu. There was also the opportunity to watch a documentary on Westerhof’s work in Nigeria aired by Andere Tijden Sport television of Netherlands on June 5, 2014 in which Onochie was the major talking head. This chapter was dedicated to him in the book.
My relationship with Clemens Westerhof dates back to Algiers 90, that is, the African Cup of Nations that took place in Algeria in 1990. That was my first cap in covering international sporting competitions. It was a competition that Westerhof paraded local boys. The Algerian national team had renowned professionals such as Rabah Madjer. It was a time the NFA was paying players to play for Nigeria.
The players kept on deceiving the NFA that if they were away from their clubs there was the need to pay for their absence. Westerhof stopped that by saying: “I make fax to their clubs; if they can’t come I make fax to FIFA!” That was how the bad blood started between Westerhof and some NFA members who were in alliance with the players. The players were reluctant to play without collecting the payment.
Skipper Stephen Keshi had club engagement that prevented him from coming. Even Philip Osondu who was only starting his professional career was involved in the payment issue and thus couldn’t come. Only Andrew Uwe and Ademola Adesina were the professional players from Europe; even so they were in the lower leagues. Westerhof came up with the idea of training the players in Papendal, Holland. “I go to Papendal, I kill them!” Westerhof said.
In the first match against the hosts Algeria the Eagles were trounced 5-1! Westerhof’s assistant coach Sebastian Brodericks was angrily knocking on the players’ doors the next morning insisting that team needed to train three times daily to make amends. Westerhof advised against that, saying that there would not be any training that day. He asked for time to study what went wrong. He got to know that the camp was divided, such that the players carried bitterness into the field of play.
He took walks with the players in the garden to unburden their minds. When I talked with Westerhof we had a shouting match. I insisted he must talk to me because as a journalist I represented 120 million Nigerians. “Tell me what happened? I asked Westerhof. He looked at me and said: “Onoch, now I know I have gangsters in my team! Next time, I play the gangsters!”
In the final group match against Cote d’lvoire, the Ivorians had to fly in hottest African footballer then, Youssouf Fofana, in a private jet. I had registered as reporter and as a photographer, so I had access to the dressing room and the field.I remember the tension gripping the then NFA chairman Yusuf Ali as he lit yet another cigarette when he had a burning cigarette in his mouth as he screamed to Westerhof: “Fofana is here!” Westerhof promptly told the NFA chairman:”If you behave like this in my dressing room I may not allow you in again!” Westerhof walked about,stressing: “Who is Fofana?
Who is Fofana when I have my strong Igbo man, Uche Okechukwu? Who is Fofana when I have elastic Friday Elaho? Who is Fofana when I have gangling Rashidi Yekini?!” Westerhof then blackmailed Yusuf Ali by telling the players that the NFA Chairman promised to double their allowance if they won the match! The players became charged, asking to get on the field immediately. Actually Rashidi Yekini knocked on the door of the match officials, saying that they were ready to start filing out. It was in such spirit that they started the game and scored in the first minute, and that was the only goal. Moses Kpakor marked out Fofana until the star was substituted.
Along the line my relationship with Westerhof grew. I vowed that for life I would support the man. He was not just a friend but a brother. He trusted me. He would tell me everything.
I went to Annaba to watch Nigeria’s prospective opponents for the semi-finals. The team to beat was Zambia who could really pass the ball about. “We are already in the final!” Westerhof said as we sat under a tree by the side of the hotel. “I think you can be my friend. With what I have here you can become rich.” Westerhof drew in my diary the formation, the tactical approach to the match. He revealed his plan that Uche Okechukwu would mark the Zambian danger-man Webby Chikabala.
Then he said that any player who marked Chikabaia would definitely get a yellow card, and Okechukwu was already on a yellow card which would make him miss the final. “I bring Isaac Semitoje to mark Chikabala,” Westerhof said. Then Westerhof who ordinarily did not like much dribbling by Friday Elaho changed his mind, telling the left-winger: “Now I permit you to dribble!” Westerhof said that as Zambia had better skillful players than Nigeria he would not contest the midfield with them. “They can pass the ball one thousand times, it doesn’t matter; we go on counter,” Westerhof said.
He drew on my diary where the Eagles would start marking and how they would play. Striker Yekini would be moving in from behind to meet the crosses of Wasiu Ipaye while the attacker Emma Okocha played deep. The thing that Westerhof drew on my diary was how we got our goal. So, why would I, Onochie Anibeze, not believe in that man?
“If you give this my plan to the opponents you can become rich, they pay you,” Westerhof said to me, adding, “If you want to sell me, sell Nigeria, you make so much money but I want to see if I can trust someone!”
In the preview of the match I published in Vanguard, I wrote: “Fellow Nigerians, when the match begins and Zambia begin dominate, to pass the ball around, don’t panic. The strategy is for them to enjoy their passing in their own half but the Eagles will be the ones to score!”
The Deputy Editor of Vanguard Chris Okojie sent me a telex in the course of the match thus: “We are so proud of you. The match is going according to your report.”
Against Algeria in the final, the Algerians couldn’t believe it was the same team they had beaten 5-1 in the first match. They couldn’t play. We had two clear penalties that were not given by the referee. Westerhof told me: “I shook hands with the referee before the start of the match; his hand was shaking!” He knew we would not have fair officiating but he did not tell the boys.
Coaches like Westerhof come once in a lifetime. Nigeria was gifted with him but we didn’t know what God had done for us. When Westerhof was hired the then NFA chairman Chuba Ikpeazu told him that as Nigeria had never gone to the World with all our talent, the FIFA World Cup was the goal.
Westerhof found out that administration was the biggest problem. He had to perform administrative duties. That’s how he got drawn to Military’s second-in-command, Chief of General Staff Augustus Aikhomu. Nduka Irabor who was Aikhomu’s press secretary said that when Westerhof came to see Aikhomu in Dodan Barracks he did not have an appointment. “I am here to see the VP,” Westerhof had told them. He was about to be turned back but Aikhomu had heard he was waiting and asked that he be allowed in.
I saw Westerhof do letters that NFA would send for the release of our players from clubs abroad. He insisted the players were the ambassadors of Nigeria who should not be made to sleep in the Games Village. He chose Sheraton Hotel where his fellow Dutch Per Ingamasson , the GM of the hotel wanted him to succeed and approved huge discounts. He was a father to all the players. He once left his room in Sheraton for Keshi only to go and sleep in a friend’s place in Apapa when Keshi returned for vacation and could not secure a room at Sheraton.
After winning the silver medal in Algiers ’90, Westerhof dropped to bronze in Senegal 92, but he had built the crux of the team that won gold in Tunisia 94. Of course,the World Cup was the goal.
In the first match of the final rounds of the qualifiers to the 1994 World Cup, Nigeria lost to Cote dTvoire 2-1 in Abidjan. When the team came back to Nigeria, Westerhof went to see Aikhomu and said: “Sir, I go to USA with Nigeria, I tell you. If I won’t qualify I won’t come here. All I need is your support.” Aikhomu asked the coach: “What support do you need?” Westerhof gave his proposal to Aikhomu on camping, qualification bonus etc.
It was approved by Aikhomu. Westerhof said: “If I know I won’t qualify, I come here, shake your hands for your support but will tell you that at this moment I go back to Deutschland. But we go to USA together, I tell you.”
I toured with the team in Holland. We played matches. The team did not camp at Papendal. Westerhof took the team to village, to a hotel that had only 18 rooms. According to Westerhof, “If anybody from the ministry comes, they stay faraway; they don’t stay in the village with us, we don’t want their distraction.” It was the final preparation for the last qualifier in Algeria. Westerhof thought I was coming from town, not knowing I shared a room with Christian Chukwu, his assistant. After they had started training for about 15 minutes, I would appear and Westerhof would think that I came from the town.
The final qualification match against Algeria was very emotional. On the last day of camping, early in the morning, Westerhof woke everybody up. He banged on each player’s door and said: “Good morning, USA!”
We got to Algiers only to hear that Cote d’lvoire football bosses had come to “see” the Algerians to make sure that Nigeria would not qualify in lieu of their team. It was resolved that the Nigerian players should carry flowers as a showing of love to the Algerians. Keshi tried to be friendly with the Algerian captain in the dressing room but the man rebuffed him, retorting:”You play your game!” Keshi had to tell his teammates: “Uche! Finidi! Make una play o, our people no settle o!”
In the match, Algeria put up a great effort but Finidi scored in the first half. At halftime, National Sports Commission (NSC) Chairman Alex Akinyele got into the dressing room to chastise the team for not playing well at a time Nigeria led 1-0. Westerhof told him to leave them alone while Keshi asked players to concentrate on their game.”The Algerians equalized eventually. The last 20 minutes of the match were the worst moments of Westerhof’s life.
Westerhof was given a yellow card for encroaching on the field. He was restless and when it was full time and the extra time was getting too long Westerhof was everywhere, shouting instructions. Referee approached again with a hand in his pocket as if he was going to pull the red card. He heard Westerhof shouting “Referee, it’s time, it’s time, you want to spoil all the work I did in Nigeria? The referee then smiled and ended the match. There was joy everywhere. Some cried. Nigeria had at last made it to the World Cup finals for the very first time.
Westerhof went on vacation to his homeland. I went with him from Algeria. He took me to where he was born. I went to the orchestra. We went to Old Dutch in Arnhem owned by Westerhof. When I returned to Nigeria I saw Akinyele on TV saying that Westerhof was not the coach to take Nigeria to USA. Akinyele stressed that Westerhof did not have control over the team, alleging that nobody supported Westerhof except one journalist he took to Europe to feed with bread and butter! I had to inform Westerhof of the development and he said he would come back to Nigeria the very next week.Westerhof said on return: “I go to USA, Akinyele doesn’t go!” It was then that Akinyeh was replaced by Sylvester Akinwunmi.
We had a team that would have gotten to the semi-finals of the World Cup. The team was strong physically and mentally. FIFA wrote after the World Cup to inquire about the training the team got. Air Force man, Stephen Edema started as the physical trainer. Westerhof brought Bonfrere Jo as a fitness trainer. It was as a physical trainer that he was hired, not the story that he did the coaching for Westerhof. The professionalism Westerhof brought included the hiring of the goalkeeper trainer, Gerry Van Iyke. He once stayed in the lift overnight, going up and down,to ensure that no player sneaked out. Westerhof was unbelievable.
Throughout the training sessions and friendly matches on the road to USA ’94, Chidi Nwanu never played as the libero. Keshi was playing and Westerhof could not drop him. Sometimes Chidi played as defensive midfielder, other times in the full back position. Against Oliseh’s club Reggiana Chidi had to ask Westerhof: “Coach, where do I play?” Westerhof replied: “Go in and play or you are out of the team!” Chidi retorted: “Tell me where to play or you are out of here”.
After the match Westerhof turned to me and asked: “Onoch, you heard what Chidi said to me?” I nodded, only for Westerhof to say: “Chidi make war with me, so he plays. It means on match day he makes war with opponents. That’s good.” Then Westerhof queried me: “Is he Igbo?” I said, Yes, and Westerhof went on: “You did not tell me he is Igbo. I have so many Igbos in my team. I’m in trouble. If you don’t pay them they fight you but I like them. They fight for you but you must not owe them.”
When it was time to play our first match with Bulgaria, Westerhof said their names were Balakov, Stoichkov, that they sounded “cuv-cuv cuv” like the AC in his house in Ikeja, Lagos. In naming the team list for that match, for the first time Westerhof did not start from the goalkeeper. He started from the top striker Yekini. When he named Chidi Nwanu as libero, Keshi “died”! That was the beginning of the crisis in the Super Eagles in USA. Keshi could not reciprocate the support that he enjoyed from Westerhof. Keshi as it were started working against the team. The NFA also failed Westerhof.
There was indiscipline in the Nigerian camp. The team was camped in Holiday Inn, Mansfield, Boston, which was like a marketplace. Anybody could just enter there. It was our first time to the World Cup. The players probably could not appreciate the magnitude of the stage. After Nigeria qualified for the second round, Westerhof announced when the players were having breakfast that the Nigerian team should immediately move to the Hilton Hotel. “After ten minutes, you are in the bus for the new hotel or you are out of the team,” Westerhof said.
Keshi led a mutiny. Some of the players refused to obey Westerhof, insisting that they had been registered for the World Cup and as such that nobody could at that time get them out of the team. t Westerhof had good intention but went about it the wrong way. But the boys obviously did not appreciate that we were in the World Cup. It was not WAFU. Westerhof went alone to stay in the Hilton. The team could not train. For four days we were going to the Hilton to beg Westerhof to return to the team.
The players remained in Holiday Inn. Assistant coaches: Christian Chukwu and Bitrus Bewarang were always going to the Hilton to beg Westerhof to come and lead the team in training. I felt that Sampson Omeruah as NFA chairman was not firm enough. He ought to have called the boys and told them not to mind the way the coach spoke to them but note his good intention to move to a more conducive place.
Eventually Westerhof returned to lead the team to play Italy in the Round of 16 match-up. That was just after a loosening up training on the eve of the match. It was obvious that Augustine Eguavoen was injured but Emeka Ezeugo who would have played in his place was in the Keshi camp and Westerhof did not trust him. It was an error. If we had trained properly we would have beaten Italy by 2-0 or 3-0. We led Italy by a lone Amunike goal until two minutes to the end of the match. Westerhof summed it up thus:
“We were two minutes from victory, but victory was too far away.” It was from that quote that I began my story for Vanguard. It became one of the popular quotes of the World Cup. I remember Mike Emenalo running with the ball from the back, outpacing about three players and with the goal at his mercy he decided to be unselfish by passing the ball to a better positioned Yekini. Rather a one-time shot, Yekini tried to position the ball. Before he could kick it a leg from nowhere cleared the ball. My colleague, Sam John could not but ask: “Wetin happen?”
My view is that in the last moment when Westerhof needed support Nigeria failed him. The top players disappointed him before that match against Italy. Keshi whom he had helped failed him. The NFA too failed him. After the World Cup, Westerhof went back to Deutschland. He wanted to come back. He knew our strength and worked on it. He said our players were strong and had speed and he worked on those qualities. That’s why their explosion from the midfield to opponents’ area was always in blistering pace.
We will never find a man like Westerhof again. I once went to his house only to find him pounding yam. He liked Nigeria and our food. He was inspired by the support of the masses of Nigerians. According to Westerhof, “I work for the common people, not the people upstairs.