It seemed to be a fairytale. At the 98 World Cup in France, the Nigerians freewheeled through the group stage. After two games, the qualification for the eighth-finals was a fact. Denmark waited for this.
A feasible map that could bring Nigeria to the quarterfinals for the first time in their history, but things went terribly wrong. Taribo West (46) collected 42 caps for Nigeria and played against Denmark.
The eccentric West is now a priest in his home country but looks back on that non-match against Denmark: You could see that many players did not have the physical strength and mental readiness to beat Denmark on that day. They had overworked themselves with the women the night before.
Taribo West, with the striking green haircut at the time, was part of a talented Nigerian group. Many of them, including West, had already won the gold medal in the football tournament at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The Nigerian selection was therefore decorated with a lot of talent at the World Cup in France. Jay Jay Okocha (ex-Bolton) and Nwankwo Kanu (ex-Arsenal), among others, had to ensure success.
Spain, Paraguay, and Bulgaria were the opponents of Nigeria in group D. On paper, a difficult task for the ‘Super Eagles’. Getting through the second round would not go without a fight. In the first group match, Nigeria immediately became Spain’s favorite. The Spaniards had a team with strong riders like Hierro and a young Raúl. Despite the Nigerians falling behind twice, they won the match with 2-3. The train seemed to leave.
In the second group game, Nigeria played against stiff Bulgaria. The Super Eagles won again and were immediately placed for the second round with six out of six. And certainly as a group winner. The last group game against Paraguay was one without a stake. Nigeria lost 1-3, an accident on the course. Paraguay placed second, Spain was eliminated.
In the eighth-finals, Denmark waited. The Danes had placed second in Group C after the later world champion France. No one doubted that Nigeria would now also make short work of the Danes…
But that did not happen. On the contrary, the game at the Stade de France was a disillusion for the Super Eagles. Seventy-seven thousand spectators saw how Denmark went smoothly to 0-4. Only substitute Babangida was able to prick for Nigeria, but the calf had long since drowned. A fame-free elimination for the Nigerians that nobody understood at the time, certainly not after their strong performance in the group stage.
Almost 22 years after the facts, things become clear. Taribo West testifies in the Nigerian newspaper Punch about that conscious match. ‘African women were swooning to us. They came to watch the tournament and, of course, enjoyed our success,’ West starts. ‘Players, in turn, enjoyed the attention they received. Their self-confidence got a serious boost. Many were convinced that we would easily put Denmark aside.’
“I read articles that said that during that World Cup, players visited night clubs and were driven around in limousines,” says West. “I honestly didn’t know about that. What I did know is that a lot of players smuggled women into our base camp, even the day before the game against the Danes,” reveals the ex-defender of Inter and AC Milan, among others.
‘I called myself hoarse during that game,’ West continues. “You could see that a lot of players didn’t have the strength and mental readiness to beat Denmark on that day. They had overworked themselves the night before. “I was furious, but I couldn’t do more.”
The escapades of the Nigerians resulted in an early exit. In the next round, however, a dream poster was waiting against Ronaldo’s Brazil. The Brazilians would eventually advance to the final, but there they collided with the hosting country France. The Red Devils also participated in that tournament, but the team led by Georges Leekens did not get past the group stage.
Four years later, Taribo West was again part of the Nigerian selection at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. He played two games there, but Nigeria was eliminated in the group stage without any glory in the then ‘Group of Death’, including England and Sweden.
It should have happened maybe four years earlier…