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Taribo West: The Nigerian pastor who practised old-school defending

The changing nature of football means that defenders that adopt a no-nonsense approach to the game are now few and far between, with modern managers largely preferring players comfortable in possession over those who thrive when their teams do not have the ball.

One wonders, then, how Taribo West would have fared these days.

Even in an era when attackers were offered less protection, and referees went easier on aggressive centre-backs, West stood out, renowned for his fearsome physicality.

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He was a fiercely determined character who took no prisoners – Andrei Kanchelskis could vouch for that – and, consequently, collected plenty of yellow and red cards.

There was definitely a bit of the devil about him, which was ironic given he was a devout Christian who would later become a pastor, setting up his own church called 'Shelter in the Storm Miracle Ministries of All Nation'.

However, while West achieved infamy because of his tough-tackling style, he was by no means poor in possession.

Indeed, he was arguably ahead of his time in that he was always willing to carry the ball forward from deep before releasing it to more technically adept team-mates.

That was a side of West that plenty of people have forgotten, perhaps understandably given he made far more headlines for sometimes stepping over the mark.

Taribo West Nigeria Bulgaria 1998 World Cup GFXGetty/GOAL

It was no surprise that he played the game with a real edge, though.

He endured a rough upbringing which saw him move from Port-Harcourt to Lagos as a teenager, and work his way through a series of dead-end jobs in the slum that was Shomolu.

The death of a childhood friend amid those peccadillos 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 club’s only top-flight honour, and left a mark on a young Thierry Henry.

Indeed, when asked to name his toughest opponent during CBS Sports' Champions League coverage in 2021, the Arsenal legend replied, "I would go back in the day – to Taribo West.

“At Auxerre, they were man-marking. He was following you everywhere, even in the dressing room!”

That period from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s represented West’s prime.

He immediately followed up that French league title triumph by playing every minute of Nigeria’s shock gold medal at the 1996 Olympics, where the 'Dream Team' defeated both Brazil and Argentina on their way to claiming top spot on the podium in Atlanta.

By the time Nigeria made her second World Cup appearance two years later, in France, West was already a household name.

Taribo West Inter 1998-99 GFXGetty/GOAL

Just as he had done in 1996, the tough centre-back went into an international tournament on the back of club success, having played his part in Inter's famous 3-0 win over Lazio in the UEFA Cup final in Paris – a game illuminated by a Ronaldo at the peak of his powers.

Much has been made of West getting sent off in that game in Paris, but with the Nerazzurri three goals up at the time, only the most catastrophic of collapses would have seen them throw away such a healthy advantage with eight minutes of normal time to play.

Still, the dismissal cemented his status in the eyes of casual observers as one of football's bad boys.

However, the truth was that when West returned to France, this time with his national team, he did so as a far more mature character to the one that had first made his name 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 squad comprising the majority of the side that had Olympic gold two years before.

However, Nigeria bowed out in the last 16, having been surprisingly routed by Denmark.

Taribo West Nigeria Paraguay 1998 World Cup GFXGetty/GOAL

Still, they had at least already left their mark on the tournament, with their campaign perhaps best remembered for Jay-Jay Okocha’s outrageous skills and the Sunday Oliseh piledriver that stunned Spain in the group stage.

However, West also caught the eye, and not just because of his iconic hairstyle.

He was a mainstay in Bora Milutinovic’s XI for the group-stage fixtures and that ill-fated round-of-16 defeat by Denmark.

Indeed, when it comes to West's performance in that 4-1 loss, two moments stand out that arguably sum him up.

The first arrived after 31 minutes with Nigeria already 2-0 down, with West attempting a roulette on the edge of the Danes’ box. He pulled it off, too, and won the Super Eagles a throw-in deep inside the opponent’s half.

However, the second highlight was more in keeping with his hard-man reputation.

When Michael Laudrup went past Okocha and Oliseh, who looked petrified and unwilling to touch the elegant No.10, West launched himself into a full-blooded – but successful – tackle that stopped one of the game's great playmakers firmly in his tracks.

So, given that he had played the game with his usual ferocity, West was bitterly disappointed to see many of his team-mates deliver strangely subdued performances in Saint-Denis.

Nigeria had, after all, won their group and were the favourites to progress to the quarter-finals.

West, a man never afraid to speak his mind, had his own theory for the team's sluggish display.

Taribo West Nigeria Denmark 1998 World Cup GFX

“I read reports about Eagles visiting nightclubs and driving limousines during the World Cup in France, but, honestly, I don’t know about that,” Taribo told The Punch in 2020.

“But what I know is that some players sneaked women into camp; I saw that.

“The women were Africans who came to watch the tournament and fell in love with our team, because of the way we played in the group stage. So, it was easy for these players to woo them to their rooms.

“That is why on match day, you could see a lot of the players didn’t have the strength to curtail 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.”

While the defender-turned-pastor's story remains uncorroborated, it has been taken as gospel truth in the West African nation.

We may never know for sure what really transpired before Nigeria’s loss to Denmark, but the disappointment of France 98 certainly didn't harm West's legacy.

He is one of his nation’s most celebrated players, which is hardly surprising. He may have had a flashy hairstyle but, for better or for worse, he always gave his all on the football field.

There may no longer be room in the modern game for centre-backs of such an uncompromising nature but, in truth, even back in the day, Taribo West was one of a kind.