we never realised the ingenuity of the late Stephen Keshi

We’ve been here before. Singing the praises of
a hero who just died. A familiar script, isn’t it?
It just hit us in the face forcefully, that
Stephen Okechukwu Keshi was a legend, a
coach par excellence in Nigeria and one of the
best from the African continent.
Like we do with paladins who have played
white hat roles in Nigeria- in entertainments,
arts and culture, sports etc. – we never
realised the ingenuity of the late Stephen
Keshi. Now he’s dead and its dawn on us that
we had a football thinker until the sad morning
of Tuesday May 7.
He always told us he was the best. He always
told us how he wanted to change our football,
but the system frustrated him. He fought it, he
won and lost at the same time. Now he’s gone
and the question remains, why didn’t we
accord him this same messianic respect?
It was simple, we underrated him.
Keshi never let us down. You might think he
did, but no, he didn’t. He wasn’t without
blemish though, he was often brash and
conceited but he was nonetheless a confident
winner.
He started winning straight from his playing
days. He won two silver and a bronze in three
consecutive African Cup of Nations for
Nigeria. Yet it wasn’t good enough for him.
Unsatisfied, he wanted gold and he got it.
Some 14 years after winning that elusive
AFCON title, Keshi led the Super Eagles as
Captain under Clemens Westerhof to win
gold. Although his playing power had wane in
that victorious outing in Tunisia, he remained
even more influential in the team.

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He played only two games at the tourney, but
his spirit and attitude radiated around the
team. He was the man just like the previous
years when he marshaled the Eagles defence.
He was imposing in defence and also scored a
crucial goal for Nigeria. He gave it all. He also
led Nigeria to its first ever World Cup
participation.
64 caps, nine goals. What a career!
He also had a fantastic club career. Keshi was
one of the first Nigerian players to move
abroad. After a clash with the Nigerian
Football Federation (NFF), Keshi left New
Nigeria Bank for Stade d’Abidjan in Côte
d’Ivoire. That move inspired a new wave of
Nigerian players leaving their shores to play
professionally in foreign countries. Think Kanu
Nwankwo, Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha, John
Obi Mikel, Ahmed Musa and other Nigerian
players who had successful stints in foreign
clubs. Thanks to Keshi.

Coaching was where Keshi etched his name in
African football history. In his first job in the
continent, he achieved the unprecedented feat
of taking an unfancied Togo to the 2006 World
Cup. After a forgettable stint in Mali, he was
named as the Super Eagles coach in 2011. The
Big Boss was back.
At last, he was back to the country he loved
and toiled for as a player. It was homecoming
for the prophet who was not respected by his
own people. Once adorning the famed Green-
White-Green shirt of the Super Eagles on the
pitch, it was his time to wear the highly-
revered Green-White-Green Track Suit on
bench.
Keshi laid claims to being the best Nigerian
coach ever had but we never believed. He
didn’t just talked-the-talk but walked-the-walk
with undeniable results. Under him, the Super
Eagles became a very effective unit. His
defenders became fearless, midfielders were
more combative and the attack turned swifter.
The counterattacking tactics of Keshi’s Eagles
reminds me of Chelsea FC under Jose
Mourinho in 2005 and 2006.
Like Mourinho, Keshi led his team with the ‘we
against the world mentality’. He galvanised
them into a fearless and combative unit. He
evolved a father-son relationship with players
who wanted nothing but to die on the pitch for
him.
Godfrey Oboaboana and Kenneth Omeruo
were his solders at the back. They chased down
any rampaging attacker from the opponents-
remember Didier Drogba and co. The often
laid back and ‘complacent’ Mikel played for
Keshi and the team. Together with Ogenyi
Onazi in midfielder, Mikel became the
‘calming force’ of the Eagles. Victor Moses was
his joker while Emmanuel Emenike was the
weapon.
Keshi was our special one. But he was never
treated special. He was bullied and hand-
twisted by the NFF. But after delivering the
AFCON title as a coach in 2013, Keshi should
have been treated with more respect.
I’m not here to lay blames, we are all at fault;
the media, the NFF and millions of football
fans turned coaches all over Nigeria. Keshi’s
mistreatment was why he suddenly resigned
just few hours after the AFCON triumph. For
the love of country, he came back to lead
Nigeria to the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Nigeria was knocked out by France in the
second round making Keshi the first African
coach to reach the knockout stage of a FIFA
World Cup. What a man! He is also the first
African coach to lead two countries to
achieving World Cup qualification.
After his World Cup heroics, he clashed with
the NFF more than often. He was in constant
rows with the NFF over unpaid salaries and
several attempts to ease him out of the job,
including reports that the federation wanted to
sack him during the 2013 Nations Cup finals.
He was finally sacked in 2015 for his reported
interest in the vacant Ivory Coast job. Keshi
like I said earlier was not without his own
fault. He was often arrogant but that’s the
winners curse.
As in all losses, the death of Stephen Keshi will
open our eyes to the true value of a great man
who was less celebrated than he deserved.
Another hero we failed again.

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