Remembering Keshi at a time of national distress
By Steve Alabi
In this season when our football governors have again denigrated the national passion in far away Poland, I owe a duty to a man who gave his all to Nigeria to remember his great contributions to the national passion, not because of personal fondness or friendship, but because his really were imperishable contributions that may in fact not be surpassed in a very long time. People like him come once in a lifetime and leave indelible footprints on the sands of time. Such was the character and quality of our man’s symbiotic relationship with Nigeria that the country’s football fortunes were tied to his career trajectory for more than three decades. It is arguable that Nigeria’s soccer profile rose in proportion to his own ascendancy on the field.
In January 2014, I made an exception to my personal resolve not to give out individual awards on my programmes on the tube or in my column in the print. The previous year, 2013, had been such a wonderful year for Nigerian sports. The irony of it is that no one saw it coming because 2012 had been one of great disappointment. In football, Samson Siasia had led the Super Eagles to failure to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations. The Super Falcons only fared a shade better, qualifying for the African Championships but failing to defend their crown and finishing a miserable fourth. At the Olympic Games in London, Nigerian athletes got lost in the crowd and returned home empty handed.
At best, 2013 offered an opportunity to begin again but realistically, not to record stupendous triumphs. No crystal ball, not even from the most optimistic Nigerian seer, saw the victories that the nation recorded in 2013 as we entered the new year. Only one man and his band of what then passed as rag tag soldiers believed that they could do it. I myself, as much as I believed in the technical competence and special aura of Stephen Keshi, only saw his team participating to gain quality experience for the future, not winning the AFCON.
The Eagles scaled the first round, and my eyes were opened and I believed. Keshi’s team, contrary to his modest submission, was not a team of the future, it was a team of the moment. And the moment was here! But his countrymen did not yet see it. Like the Israelites of old who saw a behemoth in Goliath, what they saw was an obstacle in the shape of Elephants of Ivory Coast. How would Keshi’s young and inexperienced troops negotiate battle-hardened superstars like Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure and Gervinho? Even the NFF guys gave up before the crucial quarter-final game, booking a flight home before kick-off. But the moment was here!
Keshi’s young troops slayed the Ivorian Goliath in spectacular fashion. From the moment the Eagles defeated the Elephants, a new wave of optimism swept through the country, a new spirit enveloped the landscape. The national standard rediscovered its self-belief. The Super Eagles rediscovered not only their ability to dream and win but also to dream big and win big. They went on to win the 2013 AFCON and instantly infected the rest of the largely lethargic Nigerian sports with their can-do spirit.
The AFCON triumph gave birth to other victories that highlighted 2013 as a successful year for Nigeria. I cannot remember any one single year that gave Nigerians so much to cheer about. The Super Eagles went on to qualify for the 2014 World Cup without losing a single game. They inspired their teenage siblings, the Golden Eaglets to a sensational fourth time victory in the FIFA U-17 World Cup. They inspired their home-based brethren to break the jinx of not qualifying for the CHAN. They inspired Blessing Okagbare to end Nigeria’s 14-year medal drought in the IAAF World Athletics Championships with a silver and a bronze haul in the Moscow games. They inspired our weightlifters to win eight gold medals in the Commonwealth Championships. They inspired our handball team to emerge the third best in the World Championships in Mexico. They went on to do well in the 2014 World Cup the following year, reaching the second round for the second time in history.
Keshi famously said in 2006 that, “Some day, I will be coach of Nigeria and then they will know they have a coach.” He pioneered the exodus of African players to Europe and captained Nigeria for fourteen years, breaking the World Cup jinx and winning an AFCON at away in the process. He also captained a French Ligue 1 club, Strasbourg. As coach, he dazed the world by qualifying lowly Togo for the World Cup. Then, at South Africa 2013, against all odds, he made Nigerians to know that they had a coach at last! Of the 23 players that he used to win the AFCON, 17 of them had never featured in the competition before! He became one of only two people, Mahmoud El-Gohary of Egypt the other, to have won the Africa Cup of Nations as both a player and a coach.
On Thursday, June 7, 2019, it will be three years that Keshi died from a heart attack at only 54. The current occupiers of the Glass House shed crocodile tears at his burial, eulogising him to high heavens. But they were the ones who unjustly sacked him without the benefit of a proper inquest. They brought in Sunday Oliseh, having clothed him in oversized garbs as a high performer and technical wizard. Oliseh stumbled from one failure to another, reducing the national passion to a miserable skeleton. They have persisted in that error, the latest being Paul Aigbogun who has just crashed our football future in Poland with a suspiciously overage and practically incompetent Flying Eagles team. But time has a way of redressing things. These times, in which men of straw parade the landscape in borrowed armours, shall pass away.
In the meantime, I honour the memory of a man of incredible vision and action in this season of national distress that the NFF has plunged our football into. May the Lord continue to be merciful to the soul of Stephen Okechukwu Keshi, and his dear wife, Kate, who died a year before him, Amen.