By Onochie Anibeze
We were returning to Abuja city from Gwagwalada when, at a checkpoint, the police stopped us and asked us to park beside the road.
One of the policemen got closer to the car, bent to stare steadily on the occupants at the back seat. He looked at the driver and turned his eyes again on us. He stood erect and shouted to his colleagues who were checking on other vehicles few metres away: “Come and see Westerhof, yes, Westerhof. Come and see Westerhof.
The officers left what they were doing and came to us, hailing the coach. “Westerhof, Westerhof,” they shouted excitedly. Warm greetings followed, and as we were driving off, one of them said “But we must drink Pure Water.” Facing me, the policeman asked “we no go drink water from Westerhof? I adjusted on the seat, drew out a note and parted with it. “Thank you coachee,” the man said, apparently knowing that I did that on behalf of the coach.
“Here, you must be nice to the police, I’ve always known that,” Westerhof quipped Monday evening, few hours after the presentation of the letter of allocation for a three-bedroom flat.
We had gone to inspect the house at the Federal Housing Estate in Gwagwalada. It was a house promised each member of the Tunisia ’94 Eagles squad that won that year’s Nations Cup for the country. It was the second Nations Cup trophy won by Nigeria, and the first time the cup was won outside the country.
Honourable Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Raji Babatunde Fashola, a sports enthusiast, made it possible for the government to fulfill the promise it made to the team 25 years ago.
Few minutes before the presentation of the allocation letter, Westerhof had met with Fashola in his office. It was only then that Fashola knew that many members of the team were yet to receive their allocations. I told him so. It was also in Westerhof’s letter of acceptance. Fashola expressed shock. He was hearing that for the first time.
When, therefore, Shehu Diko, NFF’s Vice President who represented his President appealed to the minister to revisit the case of players who have not benefited from the allocation, Fashola made it clear that such requests must be made officially in a document. Diko had read out the names of those yet to receive from a paper jotting. That didn’t impress Fashola, and he promptly made it clear, although subtly. He said that federations must not only be concerned about preparations for tournaments but also the welfare of their teams and staff.
During his brief stay in Abuja, Westerhof paid glowing tribute to Fashola not only for ensuring the Federal Government fulfilled the promise made by Sani Abacha, but also his contributions to sports development and his performance as Lagos State governor.
As we walked out of Fashola’s office, Westerhof said “always a sportsman,” referring to the minister’s interest in sports. “Why was he not governor when I was here”, he asked?
At 79 Westerhof still eloquently discusses football but his passion appears more pronounced in discussing family matters. That makes him happier than any other thing now. His humour is still alive, and he entertains when he cracks jokes on family matters especially his new daughters, Lana who is three, and Kloe who is one.
“I lived and worked in South Africa and Zimbabwe when I left Nigeria. From Zimbabwe, I took the best of Africa,” he said of his new wife, Lilian. They have been married for ten years now but they have been together for 15 years. “She is the best you can think of, the best woman from Africa,” Westerhof repeats all the time. He has always had an eye for beauty just as he has an eye for good players. The wife is a black beauty, a model.
He longed for a companion and he got a beautiful one in the Zimbabwean lady. He had hoped to share the rest of his life with only Lilian. But one day, according him, they were chatting when Lilian asked ‘what must happen when you close your eyes and go to heaven? Who will stay here with me?’. Lilian wanted children and Westerhof said to her, ‘you want me to have baby at this my age? She said yes, and I said, okay, we must go upstairs and see how it goes. We go upstairs to begin preparation. The result is that we have two beautiful daughters today. They make me happy. They are babies, but they are gangsters,” he joked.
Interestingly Westerhof repeated this story during the presentation of his letter of allocation, causing everybody to burst into laughter as he thanked Fashola, the Federal Government, and Nigerians for the house.
“In Holland, people ask me every time about my house in Nigeria, the house the government gave to me. I tell them I have a house in Nigeria, but someone else has the keys.”
Fashola and the rest in the new Conference Hall of the Ministry laughed hilariously. It was a full house. The ministry’s directors and top officials, the media and up to ten NFF top officials including the Secretary-General Dr Sanusi and spokesman Demola Olajire.
Westerhof continued: “But, I tell you, I’m very happy now that I have the house. I feel more Nigerian than before. This is my second fatherland, and now I have a house here. We worked hard when I was here and throughout my stay, we won matches and never lost at home. We were one family. We took Nigerian football from 79 in Fifa ranking to number 5 in the world. When we qualified for the World Cup, I wanted to be in USA as African champion, and we won in Tunisia and came to the World Cup as African champion. It is sad that some members of that team are no more. It was shocking to lose Keshi, Yekini, Oliha, Agbonibavre, and Uche Okafor. May their souls rest in peace”. The hall chorused ‘amen.’
HIS DAYS IN EAGLES
At different settings, Westerhof recalled the past and entertained with stories of the Eagles. He recalled how he battled poor administration in his first two years before he stabilized few things.
Saturday Vanguard columnist, Dr. Ugoji Egbujo was almost rolling on the ground, laughing when he met Westerhof. The Dutch recalled how the team curator forgot match jerseys, and they only discovered they didn’t have jerseys for the game only in the dressing room, few minutes to kick off. Yekini advised that they cut their tracksuits to shorts. They beat Burkina Faso 7-1 in that match at the National Stadium in Lagos. He spoke about rats in NFA offices and how he made T-Shirts from Holland and inscribed ‘OK, NO PROBLEM’ on them. Officials always told him not to worry as his complaints were being addressed. But the problems persisted. So, on return from one vacation, he shared the T-Shirts as gifts to many, including officials who failed in their duties to solve the problems.
The officials even struggled for the T-Shirts. Westerhof told the story of a player who had the potential to be one of the best players from Africa but who lacked the discipline to achieve that. “I always told my players that women and alcohol could destroy their careers.” The player (name withheld), Westerhof said kept two girls in one of the hotel rooms and had two in his room. The hotel manager informed the coach. “We asked the girls in the separate room, and they named the player who invited them. We went to his room, and another two girls were there with him. I asked him if he was a sex machine. I sent him out of the camp. That was how he lost his place in my team. But he was a good player, an exceptional player, I tell you. With me, it’s discipline first.
Keshi begged me to forgive him, but I said no way. Another regret I had was Friday Elaho. He did not go far in Europe as a professional. He was a very good left attacker, the best, I tell you. He went to Brondby in Denmark with Uche Okechukwu. Uche Okechukwu remained but after Elaho’s one-year contract was over, he was back. It pained me that Elaho didn’t go far in professional football. He was the best left attacker I saw in Nigeria.”
He told the story of Nigeria’s last USA ’94 World Cup qualifier in Algeria and the battles he had with then chairman of the National Sports Commission, Alex Akinyele.
Akinyele had stormed the dressing room at half time when Eagles were leading 1-0 to tell them that they were not playing well and that he expected Nigeria to score four goals.
Westerhof insisted that he was the boss in that dressing room and asked Akinyele to excuse them. Akinyele, in Westerhof’s estimation, knew little about football but when the man left he did not condemn his comments before the players. He told them the man meant well but as they had one leg already in USA, they didn’t need to be too adventurous and expose their defence. Algeria was not in contention for a World Cup ticket. They had lost matches. But if Nigeria lost and Ivory Coast won their home match they would qualify at the expense of Nigeria. Ivory Coast had sent officials to Algiers before the game and Algeria wanted to win for them. It was a difficult match for Nigeria but the game ended 1-1 and Nigeria qualified for their first ever World Cup finals.
Akinyele tried to stop Westerhof from leading Nigeria to the World Cup, saying even on television that “Westerhof is not the coach that will lead to the World Cup.” This was after the qualification. On arrival from vacation Westerhof told me “I’ll go to World Cup with Nigeria, Akinyele will not be there, I tell you.” It so happened. Sylvester Akinwumi was the National Sports Commission Chairman at the time of the World Cup.
Hakeem Bello, Special Adviser to Fashola had the privilege of listening to some of Westerhof’s stories when he visited the hotel to say hello to the coach. He was entertained and left there with more respect and greater regards for the Dutch.
In another friendly and warm gathering in Abuja, Westerhof recalled the dummy he sold to his players while on a training camp in Papendal Sports Resort in Holland. He told them he had gifts from Mercedes which had agreed to give them a car each in a sponsorship deal. It is a story that Daniel Amokachi had told this correspondent before. Amokachi spoke of how he made plans to ship his own car to Nigeria while Keshi sent for his wife to hurry down to Holland from Strassbourg, France. The camp was full of excitement. They looked forward to the car. When the officials of Mercedes arrived it dawned on the players that their gifts were toy Mercedes cars which he came with as souvenirs for them. Outrage. They did not know what to do with Westerhof. It was not a laughing matter then. They were enraged. But they laugh it off these days.
Westerhof was and is today still full of humour. But he worked very hard and his watchword was discipline. Once at night, he took a seat and sat at the entrance of the hotel’s elevator with a novel. Some of the players had dressed gorgeously, ready for a night outing. But each one that stepped into the elevator to go out quickly returned to their rooms on sighting him. He was there till about 3 am. “In one night a player can destroy the fitness level it took you one week to achieve”, he says.
In Abuja he recalled the day he paid two hotel staff to mark the players who would leave the hotel at night. The players did not know Westerhof had engaged people to monitor their movements and actually report those who would sneak out at night. “At the morning training, I divided the team into two. I told Christian Chukwu to train a set of players while I took on the ones who went out in the night. They did not know I knew them until they started complaining about the rigorous training. They did 50 metres race ten times, 100m eight times and in 400m I timed them. They must do it in one minute or you would repeat it. So, they were repeating the 400m. They were shocked when I told them the fitness training would help them rebuild what they lost in their night outing.
They were looking at each other, wondering how I knew. When you work with players you must work hard and you must protect your work otherwise you fail. You protect your work by insisting on discipline. Sometimes you allow a player who breaks the law to remain in the team but you must penalise him. I fine them. They lose allowances or bonuses. But you must be a father. Every time I told the players ‘I fight for you but you fight for your country. It’s a deal. I fight for the welfare but they fight for their country on the field. How many times did I want to resign when they owed my players and staff? Even when we qualified for the World Cup, somebody took the money. I made war and the government brought another money to pay the players. Hayayayaaya, I fight all the time but the players must fight also on the field. They must fight for each other and make a family on and off the field. That way, you make a good team”.
In Abuja, he still played the father that he was to his team. He made a case for the players who were yet to receive their allocation papers. He met Bewarang, one of his assistants and spoke to Christian Chukwu on phone. “What are you doing in a London hospital,” he started in a telephone chat that lasted about five minutes. He wished Chukwu well and told him to feel strong and get well soon.
When he returned home Thursday he called and put the phone on speaker.
“There’s a festival here,” he said of the atmosphere and what Lana and Kloe had turned the house to. They were screaming, celebrating his return. He spoke about them and his wife every time in Abuja. Certainly, Westerhof has found a new life in his new family. They make him happy and talk about them with so much excitement. He looks good for his age. But when he walks you appreciate how time tells on everyone. That’s the man Peter Rufai described his shots as gunfire. Before he engaged a goal keeper trainer in Gerry Van Iyke, Westerhof handled the training. His shots were terrific. He would place balls on the 18 yard box and his shots were nightmares to the keepers.
“This is no shooting, it’s release of gunfire,” Rufai once told Westerhof of his shots in training.
The great man of Nigerian football is 79 now and derives joy in talking about his daughters and beautiful wife. They matter a lot to him now. He was happy visiting Nigeria which he said refreshed memories of his stay here.
From the airport to the Bon Hotel in Asokro where he lodged to the ministry and few other places he visited people asked for selfies and pictures. They told him nice things and how Nigerians still appreciate him. He felt good.
Below is his letter of acceptance to the minister of Power, Works and Housing, Raji Babatunde Fashola who ensured the promise made to his team in 1994 was redeemed on May 27, 2019.
The Honourable Minister,
Federal Ministry of Power, Works and Housing,
LETTER OF ACCEPTANCE
With great gratitude I accept the allocation of a house at the Federal Capital Territory by the Federal Government.
The Federal Government then led by General Sani Abacha announced a reward of a house to each member of the Super Eagles team that won the Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia in 1994.
The fulfillment of the reward coming 25 years after our feat in Tunisia gladdens me because I thought that it would never be realised again.
I, therefore, most sincerely thank the government of President Mohammadu Buhari for making it happen. Let me, in a special way, thank the Honourable Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr Babatunde Raji Fashola for making this possible. Honourable Minister, thank you very much. I really appreciate this tremendous gesture and huge honour. It makes me feel special. I have always felt Nigerian. They call me Dutchgerian. I am. And giving me a home here in Nigeria makes me more Nigerian than I was. Once again, thank you.
May I also thank all Nigerians for their tremendous support while I worked here. Together, we did it. I’m always proud of the work we did here. It feels good to know that we have not been forgotten. I love you, Nigerians.
Tunisia ’94 was emotional for me because it happened after we qualified for the World Cup and I wanted to be in USA ’94 as African champions. We made it. We were a great family. That’s what my team was. It therefore feels very sad that some members of that great family have passed on. I pray for the souls of Stephen Keshi, Rashidi Yekini, Willy Agbonibavre, Thompson Oliha and Uche Okafor. May their souls continue to rest in peace.
I understand that some of the players in our team have not received the award. I strongly appeal that those yet to be given their own awards be rewarded too. The families of those who passed will appreciate the reward highly.
Thank you President Buhari, thank you Honourable Minister, thank you Nigerians. It feels good to be home, again.