By Colin Udoh.
As a fan, one of my most abiding memories of Stephen Keshi, who passed away on Tuesday, was his mistake that allowed Senegal’s Jules Bocande to cancel Samson Siasia’s early goal in a group stage match at the 1992 African Nations’ Cup in Senegal, only to see Keshi later redeem himself by bounding up all the way forward to smash home the winner in the final minute.
It was in Keshi’s character that he never saw a hurdle he was not willing and prepared to scale, especially if it was his own mistake.
Up close, I had interviewed him as an assistant coach when he was under then-Nigeria coach Shaibu Amodu, then later as coach of Togo. On every occasion, he was boisterous, straight-talking but retained a canny wariness of the media.
It was an openness I came to understand even better while working with him as Press Officer of the Nigeria men’s national team.
On his first day as Nigeria coach in 2011, I was the last of the back room staff to arrive at the team hotel in Abuja. With no time to change into team kit, I went straight to the dining hall where Keshi was delivering his first address to the team.
There he was, perched on a single chair that he had turned around, his arms resting on the back rest. He stopped talking, took one hard, piercing look at me and asked why the media was in his dining room.
Team Secretary Enebi Achor explained that I was the media officer. Keshi let out a booming laugh and said, “So you’re on our side now. Good. So when your friends hammer us, you will enjoy it with us too.”
It was an early sign that Keshi didn’t quite completely trust the press. Rather than bunker down and alienate the press, however, Keshi felt the best way was to make friends. He bantered, joked, gave some of the most entertaining interviews, but hardly ever said anything he didn’t want to.
We would fight over requests for interviews, but in the end, he would always do it. “Just don’t let it interrupt my training program,” was always his final word. And then he would go on and on until I would have to remind him we we running late for training!
Inside the dressing room, his approach was to create a siege mentality with his players — “they don’t like us out there so we must prove them wrong” — while putting a hand on every shoulder and making each player believe he was capable of more.
“He called me aside and told me to believe in myself,” Godfrey Oboabona told me after Nigeria beat the Ivory Coast at the 2013 African Nations’ Cup. “He said [Didier] Drogba does not have two heads or four legs and if I play to my best, I could do it. That’s what I did.”
After my time as Super Eagles Press Officer, I continued to cover the team as a reporter and presenter for SuperSport. This time, I was fighting to get interviews with Keshi as an outsider, especially at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Sometimes, my cameraman and I would be the only two with the team. Despite strict tournament restrictions around media, Keshi would see to it that we got our interviews. “You’re a pest, this man. You always want interviews,” he joked after we showed up at the training ground the day after a game when nobody else had. “But you can’t travel all this way for nothing, so let’s talk.”
And talk he would. His news conferences never lacked entertainment, even after a bad game. Like Rudyard Kipling, he treated triumph and failure as equals. And his triumphs were a testament to that attitude.
He was not perfect. Keshi, like the rest of us, was a flawed man. But rarely have the flaws of one man provided the catalyst for the greatness of so many. Keshi’s genius was in the ability to mine his own flaws into gems that glittered not just for himself, but lent their lustre to others. Long before club versus country disputes became a thing, at least in Africa, it had shaped the career of Keshi, and with hindsight, that of almost every other footballer of African descent.
As one of the stars of the great New Nigeria Bank team of the early 1980’s, Keshi chose to play for his club in a Cup game before reporting for national duty. Miffed, the Nigerian Football Association slammed him with a ban. Unable to play in Nigeria, Keshi moved abroad, first to the Ivory Coast, then to Belgium.
That move triggered the exodus of African players to the hallowed pitches of Europe and sparked a new generation of players — players exposed to football at its very professional peak. Subsequently, he helped other players make the move, including the likes of Ghana’s Nii Odartey Lamptey, whom he took under his wing.
He bridged the gap between the older generation of players who achieved greatness by playing on their home continent, and the newer generation exposed to European professionalism. His move proved a success, with spells at Lokeren, Anderlecht and then Strasbourg, with club success happening in tandem with international triumphs.
As captain, he led the Super Eagles with an iron fist. So overwhelming was his influence that Clemens Westerhof, who was coach at the time, was believed to have consulted Keshi about squad selection, leading to the moniker, “The Big Boss,” both for his size and influence.
The feeling was mutual. Such was his respect and admiration for Westerhof that at a private party in Lagos to celebrate his World Cup qualification with Togo, he told the Dutchman, “I did it your way, boss.”
Fourteen years after Nigeria’s first and only Nations’ Cup title, Keshi captained the Super Eagles to a second in 1994, after previously winning bronze and silver. He then led the team to World Cup qualification in 1994 and then to the World Cup proper, where they reached the Round of 16 before losing to eventual finalists Italy.
By then, Keshi’s playing powers were on the wane, but his leadership was as compelling as ever. Despite that, he had no immediate plans to be coach — until fate intervened. His stepped in to coach his daughter’s team in the United States, where he had relocated, and did so well that he decided to continue.
He returned to Nigeria, and joined Dutchman Johannes Bonfrere in an assistant capacity as Nigeria finished second to Cameroon at the 2000 Nations’ Cup. He was also assistant to Amodu when the Super Eagles won bronze in 2002 and qualified for the 2002 World Cup before the technical team were replaced with Festus Onigbinde.
But it was at Togo that he made his bones, qualifying the little West African country for the 2006 World Cup before failure at that year’s African Nations’ Cup, as well as a much-publicised spat with star striker Emmanuel Adebayor, led to his departure.
A stint at Mali from 2008-10 did not quote go so well, but by 2011 he was the overwhelmingly popular choice to replace Samson Siasia as Nigeria coach.
Keshi’s impact was instant. Against popular grain, his overhauled team, packed with first-timers and players from the domestic league, shocked the continent by winning the Nations’ Cup in 2013.
At the moment of his greatest triumph, controversy took over when he announced his resignation from his post just hours after winning the title. By the time the dust had cleared, the act had cost Nigerian Football Federation officials their share of national awards handed out by the president to the team for their victory.
It was a slight that was neither to be forgotten, nor overlooked, and marked the beginning of the end for Keshi as Nigeria boss. He knew it, and began a high-powered game of cultivating a network of political backers to fight his cause.
Ultimately, he lost the power play and was relieved of his job in July 2015. But his record as both player and coach stands almost unassailable. At least for now.
Legend is not a word to be used lightly. Applied properly, it is an embodiment of greatness, of extraordinary accomplishment, of exemplary leadership, of groundbreaking achievement. There are few true legends in Nigeria. Stephen Keshi was one of the rare, genuine ones. And not just as a sportsman. He was a genuine patriot who embodied the greatness, open-heartedness, as well as the resilience of the Nigerian spirit.
Colin Udoh is the editor of KickOffNigeria.com and African football correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ColinUdoh.