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banner Thursday, 26 April, 2001, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Jo Bonfrere: Nigeria's newsmaker
Coach Jo Bonfrere of Nigeria with Sunday Oliseh
Bonfrere says his players want him to stay
By Eniwoke Ibagere in Lagos, Nigeria

Dutch-born coach Jo Bonfrere used to be a folk hero in soccer-mad Nigeria. But no longer.

With three matches left in their 2002 World Cup qualifying tournament, Nigeria are third in their five-team group and look all but out of making a third consecutive third World Cup appearance.

Nigeria's chances have been further reduced by the shock 1-0 defeat by minnows Sierra Leone, leading to a call for the sacking of Bonfrere by the Super Eagles' ever-critical fans.

But the story was different in 1996 when Bonfrere trained the Nigerian under-23 team to win gold at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, making them the first African side to achieve the feat.

The Olympic triumph, spiced up with victories over football giants Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, triggered frenzy in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country of 120 million people.

But a row with then Sports Minister Jim Nwobodo in Atlanta over non-payment of Bonfrere's bonuses and allowances made him quit the job and return to The Netherlands.

Bonfrere and Abacha

Coach Jo Bonfrere of Nigeria
Coach Bonfrere helped Nigeria collect Africa's first football gold in Atlanta in 1996
Bonfrere was later cajoled to return to Nigeria, and in the capital Abuja, late military ruler General Sani Abacha gave him a huge financial reward and one of the country's highest honours.

The Dutchman was, however, critical of some Nigerian sports officials at the Olympics, describing them as "inept and always wanting to interfere with my team selection".

"As coach of the Nigerian team, you are also the welfare manager, the ball boy, a nurse and an administrative officer," the Dutchman said.

Before his appointment as Nigeria's coach in 1995, Bonfrere was deputy to Nigeria's former coach and compatriot Clemens Westerhof between 1989 and 1994.

The duo won silver, bronze and gold medals, respectively, at the biennial African Nations Cup tournament between 1990-1994 and took Nigeria to their first-ever World Cup finals in 1994 in the United States.

Bonfrere, who got the job when Westerhof's contract expired after the World Cup, began on a winning note, defeating Uzbekistan 4-2 on aggregate to win the Afro-Asian Cup.

Second return

Coach Jo Bonfrere of Nigeria
Bonfrere has survived many threats of dismissal
Despite the rewards from the Nigerian government for his Olympics achievement, Bonfrere left Nigeria again to take up a coaching job with Al Wahda in oil-rich Qatar between 1997 and 1998.

He was re-appointed as Nigeria's 21st foreign coach in December 1999 - despite his wage demand of $30,000 per month - in time for the 2000 Nations Cup tournament.

Notwithstanding the short period, his team reached the final, only to lose controversially to Cameroon on penalties.

Most fans expected another football gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics after he had miraculously helped the team book its ticket with the last kick of the ball in their 4-0 qualifying defeat of Zimbabwe in Lagos.

But in Sydney, Bonfrere's magic wand failed to deliver and they were beaten 4-1 by Chile in the quarter-finals.

Background

Bonfrere, 54, was born and raised in the Dutch town of Limburg and was one of the best players in the entire southern province.

He spent his whole playing career with MVV Maastricht, joining them at the age of 17, and later pursuing a coaching career with the club for 18 years - some of the time working as assistant to Westerhof.

His professional club career was cut short by a knee injury.

Bonfrere's relationship with his Nigerian employers and some of the coaches has not been rosy, and critics say he is "stubborn and unforgiving".

Great survivor

He does not watch the Nigerian league matches because "the players are not good enough and cannot match the professional level of the foreign-based players".

So, he always named a squad of players with overseas clubs whenever Nigeria has a game.

As a coach in Nigeria, Bonfrere is a proverbial cat with nine lives!

When he took the national women's team, Super Falcons, to the inaugural World Cup in China in 1991, the side returned with defeats and tales of salacious sex romps between officials and players.

While most heads rolled, Bonfrere survived and the pattern has continued since then.

He hired and fired his assistants at will and got officials he would not work with sent away.

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See also:

23 Apr 01 |  Africa
Liberia rise as Nigeria fall
18 Apr 01 |  Africa
Coach at war with Nigerian FA
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