Spiritual vision of the West country

Taribo West has won Olympic gold, played for Europe's finest clubs, and built his own church in Milan. Now he has joined Plymouth Argyle
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The Independent Online

Taribo West has played in two World Cups and won Olympic gold. He has played in the top division of four of Europe's leading football countries with Internazionale, Milan, Kaiserslautern, Auxerre and Derby County. Most recently he has played for Partizan Belgrade and in Qatar for Al-Arabi.

So why did the 31-year-old Nigerian central defender join Plymouth Argyle this summer? West, who says he turned down several other offers, agrees that signing a one-year contract with the Championship club was an unlikely move but explains that, like every other career decision he has made in recent years, it was directed by God.

"Before I went to Qatar last year I had a revelation," he said. "I saw myself playing in a stadium in front of a small crowd. I saw myself playing in a certain type of shirt and with a certain group of people. When I arrived at the club to discuss joining them it was the same stadium I had seen in my revelation. They were playing in the same shirt. I just knew it was right.

"Three or four days before I came to Plymouth I had a similar experience. I saw myself playing for a Second Division team in Spain. At first that made me think that Plymouth weren't right for me. Besides, my human nature was telling me that I should be playing for a top division team somewhere. I woke up and I was thinking to myself: 'I don't want to play for a Second Division team'.

"Then I realised that God was simply showing me a sign that I would join a Second Division team somewhere. It was the voice of God. The spirit was telling me: 'Taribo, you have to go.' And the way that Bobby Williamson [Plymouth's manager] received me when I arrived told me that this was the right decision. If you want to know whether you belong somewhere you know straight away when you arrive. You realise that's your place."

Plenty of footballers have found God, but few have led their lives quite like West, who is being described as the biggest signing in Plymouth's history. It was while he was at Internazionale that West's sister, Patient, an evangelist who lives in the United States, helped him realise that it was time to change his life. Patient told him that he would become a pastor, whereupon West promptly built his own church in Milan. He has ploughed much of his football earnings into his Shelter in the Storm mission, where he preaches regularly.

"I wanted to help people who are forsaken and rejected, people who have nothing, so I decided to build a house of God" he said. "There are a lot of things I've learned from football which have helped me in my church: discipline, dedication, working as a team. My church is a centre of education, and so is football."

The mix, however, has not always worked. "I had problems at Derby and Kaiserslautern," West said. "I didn't know how to balance the church and my professional life. I would go to Milan for three or four days and nobody would know where I was. People at the club would complain and I don't blame them.

"Kaiserslautern were a good club and I particularly regretted what happened there. I took time off to go to my church and when I came back they suspended me. I told them I wouldn't play for them again and that was the end of it. But it was my fault. The last time I was there I saw the president and I told him I was very sorry about what had happened.

"Now I will only go back to Milan when I know I have time. When you sign for a club you have to abide by their rules. God has also been kind to me in that he has given me people at the church who can perform the work that I do so it's not so important that I'm there so often."

West says that his faith has been good for his game. "It gives me belief and confidence," he said. "Sometimes when you go on the pitch you know that the club or the coach are under pressure and that can affect the players. Having God with me takes away the pressure and gives me life and joy. It brings me the vitality and the ability to function."

Jim Smith, Derby's manager at the time, believes West's performances in the 2000-01 season were a key factor in the club's Premiership survival. The defender had moved to England after two years with Internazionale and a brief spell at Milan. Two seasons ago he marked Alan Shearer out of the game as Partizan beat Newcastle in a Champions' League qualifier.

West left Belgrade last year for Qatar, where the presence of players like Marcel Desailly, Frank de Boer, Sonny Anderson, Frank Leboeuf and Christophe Dugarry ensured he was playing at a good level. However, West decided that the country was too much of a football backwater, particularly at a time when he was trying to win back a place in his national team.

An outspoken critic of the corruption and mismanagement which he says has held back the development of Nigerian football, West has not been part of the national squad for two years since informing his federation that he did not want to play for them. However, he says he spoke last week to the national coach and will return for the team's last two World Cup qualifying matches. Nigeria are neck-and-neck with Angola in their group.

"I still feel I have at least five or six years to give," West said. "I want to use all my experience to help the younger players who are coming through. I want to retire honorably."

After winning Olympic gold with Nigeria in Atlanta in 1996, West was a key player in the squad that played in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. Nigeria topped their group in 1998 following victories over Spain and Bulgaria, only to lose heavily to Denmark in the second round. Two years later West helped Nigeria reach the African Nations Cup final. In 2002 he played in the first two games, narrow defeats by Sweden and Argentina, but was dropped for the goalless draw with England.

"The night before the England game we had a meeting," West said. "People wanted to discuss what had happened to the team and to Nigerian football. We were encouraged to speak, so I got up and said: 'Can someone explain to me why Sunday Oliseh, who had been our captain, wasn't in our squad?' I asked why other players, like Finidi George, had also been left out.

"Most of the young boys who had been brought into the squad hadn't played in any of the qualifying matches and they weren't good enough. World Cup money was being paid to these players, who had done nothing, while some of the players who had taken us to the World Cup did not receive anything.

"I didn't get any support from other players. Some were just greedy, or they just cared about themselves. I was told: 'This is a past issue.' The coach got very angry. I couldn't stay quiet, but from that night they made up their mind to drop me from the team."

West says that he has never played an international match for Nigeria where there have not been rows about money, training facilities or accommodation. He says corruption has in the past affected selection, with the national coach being bribed to pick certain players.

A return to the national team could be followed by a move into politics. There has been talk of West running for president in Nigeria, a suggestion he does not reject.

"Politics can be a very dirty game back home, but I have the desire to do things to help my country," he said. "As a footballer I've been to a lot of countries and seen a lot of things. I look at Nigeria and I see a country with a lot of resources and gifts - oil, gas, steel, diamonds, coal.

"There's a lot of money coming into the country, but the average Nigerian sees none of it. People are suffering, while others are taking their money overseas. It's wrong."

For the moment, however, West is happy to concentrate on his football. He will have his work cut out in a very competitive division. Although Plymouth's ambition has been underlined by their recruitment this summer (new arrivals include Nuno Mendes from Portugal, the Swede Bojan Djordjic, Hungary's Akos Buzsaky and the veteran English defenders Rufus Brevett and Anthony Barness), the club have always suffered from their geographical isolation. Survival in the Championship last season was an achievement in itself.

Is this not a significant drop from the level of football to which West has been accustomed? "Before the dawn there is always night," West said. "Sometimes God has to put you through a testing time. I believe that I can play at a higher level. I have to do what God is asking me to do. It will bring me peace.

"The club will go higher. The coach is excellent, the players are wonderful. They've made it very easy for me to adapt. The club may not be like Internazionale or Milan or the other big clubs I've played for, but I'm enjoying it here."

Division thing: West's life and times

* Has started only 135 League games in his career spanning eight different clubs, averaging just 17 League games a season.

* 1999

Fined £20,000 while at Internazionale for dressing-room scuffle with coach Mircea Lucescu. This led to him being shipped out on loan to a number of clubs.

* 2001

During his 18 games for Derby the side kept 10 clean sheets and Jim Smith said he played "a major part" in Derby staying in the Premiership. West himself said: "On several occasions, I have considered hanging up my boots and going into the ministry. God used Derby to prove to all that he is still fully in control of life. He said to me: 'Go and save the club,' and I obeyed and Derby escaped relegation."

* 2001

His contract at Kaiserslauten was terminated because he spent too much time in Milan working for his church foundation. His time at Kaiserslauten was also marred by his ex-wife challenging their divorce settlement, claiming that he had beaten her up.

* 2002

Axed from the national side after the World Cup after criticising Nigeria's organisation and squad selection.

* 2002

A deal to join Dumfermline fell through after questions were asked by the club regarding his character.

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