In this concluding part of our interview with former Nigeria international, Chidi Nwanu, he takes us through the politics that shaped Nigeria’s campaign at the USA ’94 World Cup, why Nigeria football has stagnated and steps to take to improve the playing personnel in the national team.
The former central defender spoke with Weekend Editor, Onochie Anibeze and Deputy Sports Editor, Jacob Ajom. Read on:
After the ’88 Olympics, Manfred Hoener left. So, the mafia you talked about took control again and you were left out for long time?
I was blocked completely because the person I took his place came back and made sure I was never invited again. And that went into a lot of things. When finally this call came, I said, Okwaraji died, I knew what some players said when we came together to talk about his death. One of the key players opened his mouth inadvisedly to say things that you could charge him with the death of that young man. When you look at somebody that died and you say, “him wan show power. Him wan show say him get power”.
That is stupidity, from somebody who was supposed to be a leader. I took a lot of s- -t there and one day I will say what I know about the national team. Most of them that were with the team in 1994, were responsible for robbing Nigeria of the World Cup. They put Nigeria football where it is today. All of you are there looking like you don’t know what is happening. I am not happy that we lost the World Cup. We had everything to win that World Cup.
If I open the World Cup chapter, you won’t go anywhere until Jesus Christ comes. There are a lot of pretenders who lacked the moral discipline otherwise we could have gone far in that World Cup. We lacked the discipline. And the leaders also failed because they could not organise the team when discipline broke down.
In a Senegal ’92 qualifier, I confronted coach Westerhof that I did not come here to be on the bench. I was sure he had been brainwashed. They must have told him, invite him and put him on the bench, frustrate him and the whole people would say at least you tried.
I wondered why most of the players (in the Eagles’ defence then), who could not even make the bench in their clubs were made to look like super stars at home. I, who played every week in Europe and a regular feature in the competition’s best eleven would come to warm the bench for them in the Super Eagles. Even some who featured in amateur clubs, and were not even regulars in their amateur clubs, they were preferred here by the national team coaches. It’s never done, it was clear injustice. There was one of them who was clubless, but each time I came to Nigeria he was one of the super stars and I was the bench warmer. How could that be?
I challenged Westerhof in that match, and he said to me, “My team is made up of stars and you are not a star,” and I said to him, ‘Westerhof listen to me, when the going gets tough, only the tough gets going and only the tough people will last. You will come for me’. I left. Until that World Cup in 1994. Even the dogs on the streets, were crying go and take Chidi. Everybody was crying for Chidi because they observed Keshi was getting old and Chidi was the best option.
One day, I got a call from one army captain. He introduced himself as captain so, so, so from this place. And I asked, ‘What can I do for you sir?’ He said, Chidi, I want to tell you that the whole Nigerians believe in you. The national team camp is open for you, and you can walk in any time. I told him, ‘no sir. It does not work that way. I need to talk with the coach because you are not the coach’. They invited Westerhof to my place and he came, we sat and didn’t speak much. He said, I want you to come and join the team. Everybody is talking about you and I have received good recommendations from European coaches about you. I need you now. I said okay, I am coming. That was how I went back to the national team.
Even when I came back they planned to rig me out of the team again. It was real war. It was in the USA ’94 World Cup, while we were training 2-a-side that supporters walked into the pitch and told the coach, that number 3, let him play in Team A and let Keshi go to Team B. At that point, Westerhof had no option but to effect the change. Instantly, there was a massive difference. And when he did that, they ganged up against him and almost overthrew Westerhof at the World Cup camp in the USA. He was out of camp already. It became a shameful thing to the officials.
The Secretary-General of the NFA then, Alhaji Sani Toro knocked on my door. When I ushered him into my room, I told him I was surprised that the FA Secretary would come to me in my room. He told me the problem. He said Westerhof had left camp; that a group of boys had pursued him and asked Bonfrere Jo to take over.
It was Bonfrere that backed the rebellion against Westerhof in America and from that moment, I didn’t want to have anything to do with him(Bonfrere) anymore. I had his record on the tips of my fingers. He was coaching a second division team in Holland, just behind me here. He challenged the referee, because the team was doing badly, he was suspended for eleven months and the club had to sack him and took somebody else.
He never coached any big team here; not even a first class team. The same thing Nigeria did later; somebody who coached an amateur club and was sacked after three months. He had no experience, nothing. You all saw what he did to Nigeria football. From that time till now, Nigeria football has never felt its place again. It has lost everything; the ovation, the atmosphere, the passion is all gone. That is how wrong choices kill a nation’s dream.
I am in Europe, I played this game and I find it amusing but sad that Nigeria cannot find people to scout out players for them. Somebody would be somewhere and because he is connected, they would send his name and they would take him, based on connection and not because of his productivity.
Back to USA ’94. The court today found Bonfrere Jo guilty of defamation against Westerhof, as Bonfrere had in an interview alleged that Westerhof sold the Nigeria versus Italy match. Your reaction.
Honestly, Westerhof did not sell any match and the verdict is correct. What Bonfrere Jo did to Nigerian football was so bad. He was a desperate man. After all, it was Westerhof that took him to Nigeria as an assistant, as a fitness trainer, not even as an assistant coach. You can see that Nigerians are easily swayed, either because of the colour or whatever, they trust a white man more than a black man. What he did in America against Nigeria should attract sanction and a claim for damages, because it was a betrayal of trust. Surprisingly, they made him succeed Westerhof and he took Nigeria to Atlanta ’96 Olympics, which I don’t want to talk about because most of the people that played there were in the World Cup team, but when they came back from Atlanta, the same people that cost us Italy match began calling us Papa Eagles. Were most of them not married?.
There is something I want to say here, which is also the problem with Nigeria football. A certain NFA official(name withheld) travelled to Europe and came to me. He took my match(Anderlecht against AC Milan), he edited this video, presented it in Nigeria and made it look like I was too bad to be in the national team. If I made a pass, he would rather show the one that was intercepted by an opponent than show where I made a good pass. This was a match I was rated as the best player. After that match, a debate ensued as to who was the better central defender between me and Baresi. All this was because the official was projecting a particular player(name withheld) who was playing in Asia and at that time, Asian football had no place in world football. This also is part of the problems confronting Nigeria football. Our officials are not honest, not disciplined. They are so gullible, so willing to sell a great talent just because of peanuts. I held that official too high and for him to have stooped so low, for a man of his calibre to be involved in such a mess was disappointing.
I challenged him openly, when we had a meeting at the World Cup because of his attitude. I challenged Westerhof also, I challenged the NFA boss then Omerua. I challenged all of them. I challenged Keshi when he fell out with Westerhof and I told him we should not wash our dirty linens in the public. I told them I was there to play. I was in form and ready to play. They may have kept me away from the national team for sometime, but that was in the past. So I had an issue with most of them because that was how they deliberately shut out some players from the national team. There were issues of bribe taking in the national team. There were times some Nigerian coaches took bribe to invite players to camp. Many things have affected our football. We could have done better than the results we had in some tournaments we have played.
That is why since then, we haven’t been to the same competition two or three times and performed at the same level. We won the U17 several times but at the senior level, we never won anything because money is playing a damaging role. Can somebody look into this area and ask, how come since the 1994 World Cup, we are still using the team as yardstick till today. Does it mean we can’t progress? Does it mean we are maintaining the same standard. Does it mean we build and scatter so that whoever comes starts from the scratch again? I think we are making a lot of mistakes in our football.
Have you been following the Nigeria national team of late?
Actually, I have watched a few matches of the national team. I took time and watched them from here. From all I have seen so far, I don’t want to watch again until there is another major competition. But there is no one player that can make a difference in the team, they are all playing telephone passes. You can be sure the way forward will be very difficult. You can be sure of that. There were no creative passes, no clear cut passes that could take out two or three defenders for the strikers to connect and score goals, then you can see why the Eagles have become a low scoring side since that 1994 World Cup. Where are we going? What happens now is that whoever comes starts from the scratch; no continuity. Things don’t ever work that way. They would cry invite players from the domestic league, he would call them, dress them but would end up using foreign based players.
The foreign players he invites now are mostly children of Nigerian immigrants in the diaspora. Most of them passed through the European academy football system. Do you see this as a way forward for Nigeria football?
It is not because there are a lot of factors: climatic, food, environmental and the atmosphere are factors that come into play in match situations. For instance, some die-hard supporters would not have that connection as they can’t fully support ‘total strangers’, something like that traditional connectivity would be missing, the passion won’t click. And for the players, it will just be fly in, play and go. We knew we were playing for our own nation.
There is a difference from when we were playing for the national team. We understood nationalism better when we wore the green-white jersey. You could understand what we were talking about because we grew up on that soil, we fed on that soil and cut our teeth on that soil and we knew what it was to satisfy Nigerian fans. The fans want to be happy. You can’t come and play European football in Africa. That is why when they leave Europe to come and play in the Africa Cup, they don’t shine.
What is the way forward?
The way forward? Ask the coach the way forward. That coach who came to take over, ask him what he has to offer. Can we not mandate a coach to do what we want? Must we always fall prey to whatever the coach has to offer? Anything a new coach tells us we would agree and say, let us give him a chance. So every coach that comes we give him a chance. Is that how to build a national team? Which national team in Europe, the teams you want to compete with at the World Cup gives every Dick, Tom and Harry a chance? When do we move ahead with the rest of the world?
Look at our last outing at the World Cup, most of our players were heavy, they carried bodies like bodybuilders, they could not run. They had short muscles, not explosive muscles. You don’t see those explosive, action-packed muscles in them. There was a coaching problem. You may give coaches targets and also monitor their performances. You must have a culture they have to respect. I mean football culture. Of course, you must support your coach but you must also guide him and know when he begins to derail. But what do you want me to say when the coach does not watch our league? Where do you want me to begin?
So you find something wrong in their coaching, in their training?
They had lost the elasticity to play football so any little tackle results in injury. Look at Messi, he can turn you within millimetres space because he has his natural bodies. You don’t play football with built bodies. We didn’t build any muscles, that is why we were elastic. You push us, we push you back. When you see players who build muscles, just walk past them and you would find them fall like a bag of tomatoes and start begging for the referee’s help.
The greatest moment in your football career?
The greatest moment in my career was the World Cup. When we came into the stadium, it was full to capacity with over a hundred thousand people cheering… Oh my God… and I knew that any time I was playing, the first touch of the ball mattered a lot; it is very important to every player. At that moment, whatever you do with the ball either gives you the confidence or gives you away for the rest of the match. It was my greatest moment. I faced some of the biggest names in world football like Leichkov, Balakov, Stoichkov and we got someone like Maradona to make sure he didn’t do those things he used to do best; scoring goals. So that was it.
My worst moment in football was losing out to Italy and we lost to Italy due to indiscipline. Somebody fouled you and you were in possession of the ball and the referee said play on, and you, instead, kicked the ball out of the field. You stood there complaining and they took a throw-in, you were still standing there complaining and that was it. It was terrible. When they scored against us, I knew it would be a miracle to get us through. We went so far, to have given up just like that.
There is this belief that if not for the gang-up against Westerhof, that USA ’94 team could have got to the final?
I am telling you that we had all that was needed to win that World Cup because, another thing was that we had officials that were only after their estacode which they had already gotten, because it was too much for them. They robbed us, the players. Maybe they were more interested in going home because if you look at that match, you would feel bad we lost the way we did.
What was it like, marking Maradona?
Actually, it was not my place to mark Maradona but I had no option when I saw that he was waltzing through our defence, and I was the last man in the defence. When he came and Cannigia came, Uche was on Caniggia. Where was the midfield player, the man in the middle who should have been taking on Maradona? So there was a gap and that was the problem. Why would somebody work against his team because he was not playing? Why would players gang up against the coach who felt that we needed to change the hotel to have better concentration?
I was the one who stood up against them when we had a meeting with officials and I told them whoever left this place I would make sure they stoned him at the airport when we arrived. We had a lot of issues, some of the players went out, carrying women and some slept where they were not supposed to sleep. The coach wanted to change all that and they ganged up against him. Today I see some of them coming to the national team as coach; something you destroyed?
I was so disappointed after the match against Italy because I was not ready to leave the World Cup at the time we left. It hindered a lot of things for me personally because I had a target. That was how I saw football. It was my calling and I gave everything into it.
Advice to young, aspiring Nigerian footballers
My advice to them is that when I started playing, I had role models I looked up to. I watched Benjamin Okorogu and wanted to play like him. Okorogu was a former Enyimba and Rangers player, now late. I watched him play and how he did it and when I came to Europe, I watched former Italy international Baresi every single time he played. I liked his game. I wanted to play like him too. I watched some strikers; their movements, with and without the ball, which was the trick behind my defensive ability. I got to learn some of their tricks.
Our players today just dress, go there and start running around with the ball. When we were playing for the national team, you could see the formation we were playing, you could see our build up. But today, you don’t see that kind of build-up, except teams like Barcelona, you could stand up even before a goal was scored because you could predict that a certain move would end in a goal..
So which club would you say is the best playing club in the world today?
At the moment I have a few clubs in Europe that when I have time I watch. I hardly watch Nigerian football because nothing interests me there anymore. I watch teams like Barcelona when they are playing against Real Madrid, I watch Paris Saint Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich because they have begun to play good football now. Before, they were playing like the old Rangers of those days. (Laughter). I just want to watch good football because I don’t follow any particular club.
I just want to ask one question. Can I?
What are the expectations of the Nigeria Football Federation on this current coach.
The current coach, his employers, the NFF seems to be satisfied with his performance so far. Just before the coronavirus pandemic, his contract was renewed for another two years. So we want to believe they were satisfied with his performance so far, that is why they are giving him another chance.
However, there is a campaign here at home that Nigerians should take over the national team and guide it by themselves.
So, do you think Nigerians can pilot the affairs of the Super Eagles successfully?
If you look at European national teams here, the coach is not the ultimate. They have managers. He has a technical group. You have the President of the club, secretary of the club and you have other officials who all work together for the good of the club.
We are talking about the national team set-up.
Yes. When you take people who are always embracing each other to lead the national team, you would never achieve good results. You have to choose people whose presence would make everyone tremble. Someone who can keep watch on the others and make them be always on their toes.
That was what happened in the 1994 World Cup. I had confidence and I was bold. When the Secretary General came to me to speak about Westerhof who left our camp when crisis broke out. I called Westerhof directly and said, you got to come back and finish the job you started with me. He called me Chidi, because of you Chidi, I will come. So when they saw him at the training ground, they couldn’t believe their eyes. You have to get people who would kick themselves and people with an insight of the game, people who can see and select players who can be good for every match. There are players who can only be good for training, in match situations you don’t see them.
In European national teams, they also have former players who are scouting for their national teams; they are everywhere. You fly somebody from Nigeria to come and watch me play one match. How can you use one match to assess me? It is totally wrong. You have people who are already in Europe. Call them, prod them and mobilise them to be able to move around, visit Nigerian players, go to their clubs, talk to them on behalf of the FA, watch them in training and watch them in matches. You don’t watch them on video where someone would edit and piece it together. It doesn’t happen. You got to monitor a player very well before you invite him to the national team for trial.
That is how it works. So national team set-up is not a one-man show. That is the way I look at it. They have to have people to help them in order to achieve results. Brazil, Italy, Germany do it. When the coach comes to watch a player, he meets the scout that had been here and they go together secretly to watch the player he had recommended. It’s the coach who would say, that quality you highlighted about this player, I have seen it in him.
If you were asked to come to coach the Nigerian team, would you?
I have always answered this question in a particular way. To be a coach is not the only way you can help a team to succeed. There are many other ways. Like in Europe here, they have motivational speakers to stir up their spirits. The one that is emotionally down, maybe he finds himself not playing well, he goes through that process in order to get well. Somebody can be in the technical team, helping the coach to select players in their various positions. If you look at some teams today, they seem to have players who play in the same position but scattered in different positions. When you do that, you can’t have a strong team. One can help the national team in the area of fitness, welfare, disciplinary aspect because some players could be better players if they were disciplined, etc. Sometimes it could be bad lifestyles and you help them.
What do you do now?
I am in ministry. That is why I said, a team that has all these fetish things will not do well. And that is what some players do and they have destroyed a lot of talents. That is what Nigeria needs to look into; moral discipline and moral behaviour. If you look at the way we carry ourselves and project ourselves here, there is a lot of difference between us and European counterparts. The Europeans play with all their hearts, but we take it easy as if there is nothing at stake.