BY ONOCHIE ANIBEZE
It’s unforgettable, it’s unforgettable,” Westerhof said, clinging to Stephen Keshi moments after he had embraced Christian Chukwu as Nigeria’s most successful senior national team made history 2,300 kilometres away from home in Algeria.
Keshi held tight to Westerhof saying “so we did it? So we did it?” His head rested on Westerhof’s shoulders. His eyes were heavy and tears rolled down his cheeks. Chukwu’s eyes were heavy too.
The other players were hugging themselves even as they took turns to hug Westerhof. Nigerians ran into the field, celebrating. It was so emotional. This reporter also battled tears. History had been made, the Nigeria had qualified for its first-ever appearance at the World Cup.
When Clemens Westerhof was signed as Nigeria’s coach, the chairman of the Nigeria Football Association, NFA at that time, Pa Chuba Ikpeazu made it clear that Nigeria had won the Nations Cup in 1980 but that with all our talents we had not been able to qualify for the World Cup finals.
Ikpeazu told Westerhof he could win more Nations Cup titles but what mattered to his board and Nigerians was a place in the World Cup finals.
The Dutch, who started his career at Feyenoord and later coached Vitesse, all top Dutch clubs, went to work.
He did everything he could to achieve results. He changed the welfare of the players and Eagles moved camp from the Games Village in Surulere to posh hotels like the Sheraton, Ikeja. He introduced attacking football and found players who would fit into his system. He spent his money when and where necessary, frowned at administrators and players when and where necessary, and employed diplomacy when necessary.
In Holland where Nigeria prepared for the last qualifier in Algeria, Westerhof was mindful of the distractions delegations from Nigeria caused teams each time there was a crucial assignment as we were one match away from history. The training was hard. The players did road work, shadow boxing and all such in training. He wanted absolute concentration and knew visitors, including government delegations, could distract the team.
He opted for one small but efficient hotel in a remote town. The hotel had about 20 rooms. By the time the players paired up in rooms, only about four rooms were remaining. His assistants, team doctor, Physiotherapist and himself took them. No rooms for visitors or other guests. Those who came from Nigeria stayed away. Westerhof achieved the concentration he wanted. From there the team moved to Algeria for the last match.
The battle for qualification had been between Nigeria and Ivory Coast.
Nigeria needed a draw to qualify for the World Cup finals, and the last match in the qualification series was away to Algeria. Ivory Coast, which was playing Congo, would qualify if Nigeria lost the match in Algeria. Algeria meanwhile was not in contention having lost points.
However, as the Nigerian team arrived Algiers the news in town was that emissaries from Ivory Coast, a Francophone African country just like Algeria, had been around and approached the Algerians to make sure Nigeria were beaten.
Rumour had it that they even parted with huge money. Eagles were a better side, but anything could happen in away matches in Africa.
How could Nigeria buy their sympathy or friendship? The leadership of the then National Sports Commission led by Alex Akinyele, suggested that bouquets of flowers should be purchased for members of the Algerian team and on filing out each Nigerian player would present one to the player facing him.
Ivory Coast were said to have parted with some dollars, and Nigeria would be presenting flowers! Fear gripped many, but Nigeria would be better not doing anything that could smear the country’s soaring image in football.
Officials finally settled for flowers which symbolise friendship and love.
This correspondent who had followed the team from camp in Holland observed that as the match was about to proceed, Keshi tried to approach Algeria’s captain just to exchange pleasantries, but the man became hostile.
Keshi turned to the other players and yelled “Uche (Okechukwu), Austin (Eguavoen), Finidi (George), Rashidi (Yekini), Thompson, Willy (Agbonibavre), make we play o, no nonsense here. We have to die today. Don’t give room for any nonsense. The people (Algerians) want to win this match. They are out to beat us, and we must prove that we are better. We must go to USA.”
Keshi was shouting and repeating his words to the players as they filed out just before hostilities began. I had accredited myself as a photo journalist and had the chance to be at the ground level.
I heard Keshi loud and clear. The game started and Algeria, who had nothing to gain if they won, played as if they were possessed by the spirit. A 10-0 victory would not have earned them qualification but they pulled all strings and antics to win. And the crowd backed them. Their moves were sharp when the game started, and they hit the post. Nigerians were panting. Fever gripped everybody.
Keshi was defending and charging on his colleagues to muscle the opponents.
Relief finally came when Finidi scored. At half time, Akinyele addressed the team and told them that they were leading but not playing well. He urged them to do better. He left, and Westerhof told the players that it was better the door was shut behind him, and spoke on the game plan for the second half.
Westerhof’s plan nonetheless, Algeria equalised in the second half and the last ten minutes were my longest moments in football! It was probably so for Westerhof and the entire Nigerian delegation. Pressure mounted and Westerhof, who stood throughout marshalling instructions unknowingly stepped into the field. Famous referee Lim Kee Chong from Mauritius warned him. Everybody was panting heavily.
On 90 minutes Westerhof stepped into the field again as the incessant attacks from the Algerians continued. Chong raced to the touchline with his hand moving to his pocket as if he was going to pull out a card for Westerhof.
But on getting there, Westerhof was pointing at his watch and shouting “it’s time, it’s time referee, it’s time. You want to spoil all the work I did in Nigeria?”.
It was already stoppage time and the man apparently felt for Westerhof. He looked at his watch and blew the final whistle. Madness ensued. Wild celebration took over. Nigerians were hugging one another. Keshi was crying. He shed tears of joy. History had been made.
Nigeria’s biggest achievement in football, so to speak, at the time had taken place with him as the captain. Hard work had paid off. Westerhof was the driver, the mentor, the trainer, the manager, the father and the greatest. His vision, his plans, doggedness, determination and tremendous passion for Nigeria had paid off and overwhelmed whatever Public Relations Ivory Coast did.
Keshi, the Big Boss, was his Field Commander. On the day we were leaving for Algeria from the Dutch camp, Westerhof had knocked on every door to wake the players up with a loud “GOOD MORNING, USA.”
And if you were slow in opening your door he followed with ‘YOU DON’T WANT TO GO TO USA WITH US? THE BUS IS LEAVING. DON’T BE LEFT OUT.”
Later, Keshi joined in the ‘good morning USA’ alert. The headline of my story as we left the training camp for Algeria was GOOD MORNING USA. And on the pitch in Algiers, it was truly “good morning, USA.” We were all emotional. We qualified for our first World Cup finals, the USA ’94 World Cup.
Last Thursday when I called Westerhof to get his reaction on the passing of Keshi the previous day, he said it was one of his saddest days.
“We lost our son,” he cried and told me that he lit four candles in the evening of that day and had very quiet reflections. I reminded him of that emotional scene in Algeria when Keshi was crying and shedding tears on his shoulders. Westerhof spoke eloquently about the player his colleagues called The Boss and ended with these words.
“Yes, I remember very well. And when we returned to Nigeria, and the fans were celebrating us as we rode on Lagos streets, Keshi held me again and said: “brother, we did it together.” I will never forget that moment. It’s unforgettable.”