Missionary position

Taribo West celebrated his birthday in Milan with 400 friends last month. It was officially his 28th birthday, but he’s a Nigerian footballer, so you can probably add a few.

There are those in Lagos, including a former employee of the Nigerian Football Association, who say he is 40, though if you mention this to West he responds with a lively laugh.
He laughs a lot. He will also, invariably, say something about God’s mysterious ways, and probably add, for good measure, that his homeland “needs deliverance”.

“Ooooh, that country,” he says. You sort of understand what he means  especially if you’ve ever been to Nigeria. His birthday bash was an evangelical service that lasted five hours, followed by a meal: paper plates of chicken and rice, and nothing stronger to drink than some tepid Fanta.

The fact that West turned up led to his own deliverance  from his most recent employers. Kaiserslautern sacked him for travelling to his “party” in Milan 24 hours after pulling out of a Bundesliga game with what the player termed gastro-enteritis. “We cannot accept the way Taribo West has behaved in the last few days,” said the Kaiserslautern president, Jurgen Friedrich.

West maintains he left of his own volition. “We had an agreement that I could leave at any time in order to prepare for the World Cup,” he explains. “I wanted some time to myself. I had been considering the move for some time, but seeing what happened to [David] Beckham really brought it home. I have no problem with Kaiserslautern.”

For almost five years, football has come a distant second in West’s life. He is obsessed with his God-given mission to help the homeless of Milan, and football is what helps him along the way. Most of the money he earns from the game  and it has been plenty in a nine-year career  is ploughed into the church, named Shelter in the Storm.

To his mind, West has twice been saved: football plucked him from a life of crime and inter-gang fighting, then God led him from being “an arrogant football star who lived life through rose-tinted glasses” to a committed Christian who wants only to help those less fortunate than he.

West’s early life was far from rose-tinted. He was born in Port Harcourt and, like so many young Nigerians, moved to Lagos as a teenager. He tried to hold down a series of dead-end jobs in the Shomolu district, a dangerous, gang-ridden slum which West compares to the Bronx. “The local gang was the Area Boys,” he recalls. “You were either with them or against them, and I thought it would be better to have them as friends than as enemies. Break-ins, fighting, drugs and muggings were the order of the day. We would spontaneously mug people on the street.”

West got by on the proceeds of crime, bolstering his popularity by playing street football. And then ... One day, as he and his best friend returned through the streets with a bag of stolen money, they were approached by a member of a rival gang, who demanded the cash.

West’s friend refused, was stabbed, and bled to death on the street, with West powerless to help him. He fled Lagos, returned to his mother in Port Harcourt and devoted all his energies to football. His new life took him to Europe and a contract in the French league with Auxerre in 1993. Four years later, having earned a reputation as a powerful and committed defender, life got even better as he secured a transfer to Internazionale, the Italian club he had supported as a boy. The “rose-tinted life” awaited. It did not last long.

When West’s sister Patient, an evangelist, paid a surprise visit to his new home in Milan, it changed his life. “I opened the door, and before I had the chance to say I was glad to see her, she said: ‘You must be strong to live in a house like this.’ She told me the house had a bad aura and asked what kind of rituals I had been performing. If she hadn’t been my sister, I would have kicked her out.

“Like a lot of footballers I was very superstitious, and before every game I would light a candle and hold a magical stone that a friend had brought me back from Israel. My sister said she could feel occult energies, and she said she could see two dogs  one white and one black  fighting it out in my house.

“To be honest,” the footballer in him then adds, “I was getting a bit impatient by then because I had to be at training.”

When West returned from training, his sister had more news. While he was out, she had had a vivid dream of purity. “I realised then that I needed God’s help,” West says. He knelt down with his sister and prayed, and as they did so, he says, all the drawers in the house began to open and shut. “I thought it might be just the wind, but as that thought entered my head, all the doors began to bang as well. It was like something from a bad film, but I knew it was reality. I experienced a warm feeling inside, and then my sister said: ‘Taribo, you will be a pastor, too.’”

He is  and his nickname, to his team-mates in the Nigerian national team, is “Pastor”. His sister gave him tapes of a preacher based in London, Pastor Ayo Don-Dawodu, whose sermons confirmed West’s faith and persuaded him to establish his Shelter in the Storm ministry in Affori, a suburb of Milan. A two-hour sermon by Don-Dawodu formed the centrepiece of the celebrations which ultimately ended West’s Kaiserslautern career.

West is clearly anxious to make a good impression. Like a fretful churchwarden he checks and checks again that everybody has an order of service, and when one of his doormen leaves his post to share a joke with a friend, West wags a stern finger. He leads the early part of the service, taking his congregation through introductory prayers, and whipping them into a frenzy, demanding “some hot worship” and high-stepping in manic circles, waving his lectern in the air.

By the time Don-Dawodu comes to speak, the atmosphere is bordering on hysteria. He takes as his text the beginning of Luke, Chapter V, when Christ urges Simon, who has been fishing fruitlessly all night, to cast his nets once more. Peter is rewarded with a catch so large that his boat begins to sink, and Christ tells him that henceforth he will be a fisher of men.

The relevance to West is clear; he has made it his mission to cast his nets and draw in the needy to his shelter. Don-Dawodu calls on those who can feel the spirit in them to come forward to be blessed. As he lays his hand on the 30 or 40 who drift to the front, several collapse and thrash around on the floor as West and two other pastors, clasping New Testaments bound in white leather, expel the demons from their bodies. Nicholas, a young Nigerian who arrived in Milan a year ago, is one of those who have found shelter in the church. “They found me in the train station, and invited me,” he says. “It is difficult living in this country when you don’t know the language. All I wanted was an English-speaking church. Of course I knew about Taribo, but I did not come to the church because of him.

“Taribo is very generous. He has a lot of money and helps out those in need. It is not just about helping people with the same colour skin  only recently he helped a Romanian.”

Most of the congregation are Nigerian or Ghanaian, though West’s charity is open to all. “I will help anyone on the streets,” says West. But the neighbours are not happy about it.

Nimbyism is rife in Milan, and the locals aren’t over-keen on a string of drop-outs being ministered to on their doorstep. As the service-cum-party enters its final hour the lights go out. The electricity, it transpires, is controlled from the flats upstairs. “The neighbours complain about the noise and they shut off the power when they get angry,” Nicholas explains.

“A few weeks ago they called the police, even though we were just clapping.” Another member of the church is Emmanuel King, who, he says, once challenged for the world cruiserweight crown (though we can trace no evidence of this). He is sure that the real problem with the neighbours is that the majority of the congregation is black.

“This is not a nice area,” he says. “The people are racists, and not just if you are black, but even if you come from southern Italy. The people are Catholic, but I don’t like the Catholic services  they are too dull and quiet. Many of the priests are homosexual  not that I have anything against homosexuals. At this church we worship the Lord with music and I lcan understand the message better. But it is only through Taribo’s influence that we could set up the church in an area like this.”

As Don-Dawodu puts it: “I have always said that Taribo creates the miraculous through the ridiculous.”

Jim Smith, manager at Derby in the 2000/01 season when West’s arrival did so much to help the club survive in the premiership, also speaks highly of the player. “He was a very good footballer  he did a good job for us in the early stages  and he was a character,” says Smith. “He added a sparkle to the place. His huddle [before the game] was something else; we thought we were never going to get him out on the pitch.”

Smith says: “His ability is remarkable. He said he’d come to save Derby, which he did, but when we were safe, he missed about three important games for us, playing for Nigeria and taking his time getting back. He is a bit of a law unto himself, but he would come in and train with the lads and he would also train on his own afterwards. He looked after his body and kept himself fit. He never came in on a Sunday because we had a gentleman’s agreement that he could preach in Milan, but he was a fit guy. He made the place buzz.”

West is as as far removed from the stereotype of a partying footballer as it is possible to be. Earlier this year his wife in Lagos  West denied the marriage, then later retracted his denial  filed for divorce on the grounds that West had not had sex with her for two years. He has more important things on his mind. When he finishes football, West will devote his life entirely to the church.

“I will go to Milan and be a professional pastor,” he says. “There’s no way I could be a coach.” He laughs at the thought of it. “Everything I earn from football goes into raising funds for my project to help the homeless.”

His aim is to raise $2-million to fund a permanent centre for those on the streets. He is also rumoured to be set to join London club West Ham after the World Cup. West needs a good World Cup if he is to continue to pull in top European wages while persuading his employers to release him for frequent Sunday trips to Milan.

He thinks he will have one. He says: “Nigeria will win the World Cup. Africa’s time has come. I really feel it. We will finish first in the group  and whoever finishes first in this group will go to the final.” With God on their side.

Additional reporting by Jason Tomas and Duncan White

Client Media Releases

SA political parties talk foreign policy
Barloworld announces new group structure
Should I stay or should I grow?
Use Microsoft's eDiscovery for non-Office 365 data sources