When it comes to the World Cup, it seems quite usual that the name Clemens Westerhof is recalled. Westerhof, of course, set the bar on Nigeria’s World Cup expectations with a Round of 16 appearance in 1994 with a team that even today is still regarded as Nigeria’s best.
Yet, that adventure and the capture of the Nigerian imagination occurred more than 20 years ago! That means the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho, Wilfred Ndidi, Tyronne Ebuehi, Francis Uzoho, Alex Iwobi, and Ola Aina were not even born then. Several others were barely a few years old.
To remove Westerhof from that pedestal will take some extraordinary display in Russia next June. On the shoulders of Gernot Rohr falls that responsibility. Are his shoulders large enough?
For sure, getting to the final 16 will not do it as Bora Milutonivic in 1998 and Stephen Keshi in 2014 found out. To make Westerhof second best requires getting past the Round of 16, not matching it! For Gernot Rohr, that quest to surpass Westerhof and capture the Nigerian imagination in history all rests in what happens in Russia in the next few months.
Rohr, to his credit, appears quite methodical as he plans towards a World Cup that could elevate his squad above that of 1994. It is a tall task, nonetheless. He has been perhaps, the most reluctant Nigerian coach to make squad changes. He has shown, time after time, a conservative streak that dictates the use of experience over newness.
It is a method largely alien to the Nigerian football psyche.
Think about this statistic in comparison to Westerhof: Rohr has debuted more than two players in only one of his games in charge of Nigeria compared to Westerhof who did that in at least eight games.
Even when Rohr introduces a player that he had not previously used, it involves using an experienced international such as the case of Joel Obi in the recent March friendlies. In Rohr’s first three games he failed to debut a single player. This is in stark comparison to Westerhof who sent on 10 previously uncapped players in his first three games!
In essence, these two managers could be seen as quite different at least on those issues.
However, it will be a mistake to think that only Westerhof’s methods work the best. We note his willingness to experiment when all seems lost. Recall his 1990 AFCON trip when he called the bluff of experienced boys and took a chance on new faces. Recall his penchant to build a team that largely focused on offense but was just as balanced as ever across the starting line up.
Yes, in our minds we may think that his methods are prime. After all, Westerhof led Nigeria to a final 16 and was two minutes away from a quarterfinal place at the 1994 World Cup before Roberto Baggio struck.
But there are always several means to an end. Westerhof demonstrated just one of them.
Rohr has an alternative. Just maybe, Rohr’s method could become best practice if he goes past the Round of 16 in Russia. He has stressed team chemistry over introducing players based on their weekly accomplishments in Europe. He has been conservative in his team play, stressing a more defensive focus with quick counters. That method and faith in his current team may pay off in June because of team stability and chemistry.
Gernot Rohr has already won 61% of his games compared to Westerhoff’s 53%. His efficiency at 0.69 is slightly better than Westerhof’s 0.62 (see Table). But Rohr has no major trophy to underline his impact.
One has to cautiously remember that it took Westerhof time before he secured his first and only continental trophy in 1994. For Rohr, his first opportunity at an AFCON is still a year away. Thus, we have to focus on the upcoming World Cup in Russia.
Rohr’s Russia will surely be under the microscope of Westerhof’s 1994 accomplishment in the United States, but it is a test that Rohr could match and pass with his own style. It is a test that may, for years to come, be presented as an example of what Nigeria’s best manager accomplished.
It is either Rohr will pass that test in flying colors or Westerhof will remain the icon for a third decade and counting. In reality, it is a battle for the Nigerian historical imagination.