The Nigerian was renowned for his hard tackles, but he was also arguably ahead of his time, given his comfort on the ball.
The changing nature of football means that defenders who take a pragmatic approach to the game are now rare, with modern managers largely preferring players comfortable in possession of the ball to those who thrive when their teams don’t have the ball.
One then wonders how Taribo West would have fared these days.
Even at a time when forwards were offered less protection and referees were easier on aggressive centre-backs, West stood out, renowned for his fearsome physique.
He was a fiercely determined character who took no prisoners – Andrei Kanchelskis could attest to this – and, as a result, collected a lot of yellow and red cards.
There was definitely a bit of the devil in him, which was ironic considering he was a devout Christian who would later become a pastor, starting his own church called “Shelter in the Storm Miracle Ministries of All Nation.”
However, while West achieved infamy due to his hard tackling style, he was by no means poor in possession.
Indeed, he was arguably ahead of his time in that he was always ready to carry the ball deep before releasing it to more technically gifted teammates.
It was a side of West that many people overlooked, perhaps understandable given that he made a lot more headlines for sometimes going over the mark.
It was no surprise that he played the game with a real advantage, however.
He endured a difficult upbringing which saw him move from Port-Harcourt to Lagos as a teenager and work his way through a string of dead-end jobs in the Shomolu slum.
The death of a childhood friend amid these peccadilloes saw West return to Port-Harcourt before getting his big break in the beautiful game in France in 1993.
Four seasons with Auxerre yielded a Ligue 1 title in 1995-96, which remains the top-flight club’s only honour, and marked a young Thierry Henry.
Indeed, when asked to name his toughest opponent in CBS Sports’ Covering the Champions League in 2021, the Arsenal legend replied: “I would go back in the day – to Taribo West.
“In Auxerre, they marked the man. He followed you everywhere, even in the locker room!
This period from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s represented West’s heyday.
He immediately followed that French league title triumph by playing every minute of Nigeria’s shock gold medal at the 1996 Olympics, where the “Dream Team” beat Brazil and Argentina before winning the title. first place on the podium in Atlanta.
By the time Nigeria made their second World Cup appearance two years later in France, West was already a household name.
Just as he did in 1996, the tough centre-back entered an international tournament thanks to the club’s success, having played his part in Inter’s famous 3-0 win over Lazio in the Champions League final. the UEFA Cup in Paris – a game lit up by a Ronaldo at the height of his powers.
There was a lot of talk about West being sent off in that match in Paris, but with the Nerazzurri’s three goals at the time, only the most catastrophic of slumps would have seen them lose such a healthy advantage with eight minutes from normal time left. to play. .
Still, the dismissal cemented his status in the eyes of casual observers as one of football’s bad boys.
However, the truth is that when West returned to France, this time with his national team, he did so as a much more mature character than one who had made a name for himself in Ligue 1.
At 24, he was in his prime and confident of helping the Super Eagles make history by reaching the quarter-finals for the first time in their history.
They certainly had the talent, with the team comprising the majority of the squad that had won Olympic gold two years prior.
However, Nigeria pulled out in the Round of 16, after being surprisingly routed by Denmark.
Still, they had at least already left their mark on the tournament, their campaign perhaps best known for the outrageous skills of Jay-Jay Okocha and Sunday piledriver Oliseh who stunned Spain in the group stage.
However, West also caught the eye, and not just because of his signature hairstyle.
He was a mainstay in Bora Milutinovic’s XI for the group stage fixtures and that unfortunate round of 16 loss to Denmark.
Indeed, when it comes to West’s performance in that 4-1 loss, two moments stand out that arguably sum it up.
The first came after 31 minutes with Nigeria already trailing 2-0, West attempting a roulette at the edge of the Danes’ penalty area. He also managed and won the Super Eagles a throw-in deep in the opposing half.
However, the second highlight was more in line with his reputation as a tough man.
When Michael Laudrup walked past Okocha and Oliseh, who looked petrified and unwilling to touch the dapper No.10, West launched into a bloody – but successful – tackle that firmly stopped one of the great playmakers Game.
So, given that he played the game with his usual ferocity, West was bitterly disappointed to see many of his teammates deliver oddly subdued performances at Saint-Denis.
Nigeria had, after all, won their group and were favorites to advance to the quarter-finals.
West, a man who is never afraid to speak his mind, had his own theory about how slow the team was.
“I’ve read reports of the Eagles visiting nightclubs and driving limos during the World Cup in France, but, honestly, I don’t know about that,” Taribo told The Punch in 2020.
“But what I do know is that some players have brought women into the camp; I saw that.
“The women were Africans who came to see the tournament and fell in love with our team, because of the way we played in the group stage. It was therefore easy for these players to seduce them in their rooms.
“That’s why on the day of the match, you could see that a lot of players didn’t have the strength to reduce the Danish players. They were tired after overworking themselves the night before.
“I was yelling at them on the pitch. I was very angry with them.”
Although the story of the defender-turned-pastor remains unsubstantiated, it has been seen as the truth of the gospel in the West African nation.
We may never know for sure what really happened before Nigeria lost to Denmark, but the France 98 disappointment certainly didn’t hurt West’s legacy.
He is one of the most famous players in his country, which is hardly surprising. He might have had a flashy hairstyle but, for better or worse, he always gave it his all on the football pitch.
There may be no place in the modern game for centre-backs of such an uncompromising nature, but, in truth, even back then Taribo West was one of a kind.
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