By Onochie Anibeze
He called me Onoch and the name stuck. We were friends, so close that I became part of his Super Eagles. Sometimes I trained with them. In one such outing Eagles landed in Holland for training. After one day training session a friendly match with a lower division side was organized. Eagles were 10 in camp. I was to make up the team and had been given a Jersey. I was bouncing, ready to wear my first international cap. If I did, maybe I would have been coaching in Cambodia or Trinidad and Tobago today. As the match was about to begin, Ben Iroha drove in. He was then playing for Vitesse, Arhnem. They threw a Jersey into his car and he quickly dressed up and denied me a place in history. I have forgiven Ben and he remains my close friend. In one of the training sessions, I clashed with Thompson Oliha. He couldn’t continue training. Uche Okafor came to me later and said, “Onoch, Westerhof likes you so much. If one of us had hurt Oliha this way the coach would have been mad at him. But he just said ‘the newspaper man has sent my player away, ah yayayayaa!’.
Yes, he liked me and respected me. It was mutual. Coaches like Westerhof come once in a life time. I mean it. He loved and still loves Nigeria. I once went to his house at Ikeja and saw him pounding yam. We had a meal of Pounded Yam. We did so many things together. But I knew where and when to draw a line. He was Super Eagles coach and I was a sports reporter. We became friends in Algiers ’90 where we lost 5-1 to Algeria in the opening match but Westerhof so transformed the team that we got to final and suffered terrible officiating. Before the kick off I was in the dressing room with the team. Westerhof came to me and said the following: “We will not win the match, I tell, but I must not tell the players. I must make them fight. I shook the referee and he was trembling. He was very cold and his hands shaking. They have ‘seen’ him. He couldn’t look into my face. But let’s see how it goes.”
Yekini was felled twice in the box in what clearly should have been penalties. But the lone goal Algeria scored was a good one. Those were the days of Raba Madjer, Menad, and Oudjani. Our professionals did not honour invitation to play for Nigeria. Westerhof took home-based players and got to the final of the Nations Cup. Yekini was outstanding and the likes of Amokachi, Iroha, Uche Okechukw, Friday Elaho, Isaac Semitoje, Hebert Anijekwu, Emma Okocha dazzled. Andrew Uwe and Ademola Adeshina were the only pros.
Algiers ’90 was to mark the beggining of the Westerhof revolution in our football. Why did I call it revolution? It is a story for another day.
Today is the birthday of Westerhof, Nigeria’s best foreign coach ever.
Join me in wishing the Dutchgerian a happy birthday. May God grant him many happy returns. Picture shows my good friend with his child from his new wife, a wonderful woman from Zimbabwe called Lilian