If there is any individual that single-handedly turned around the fortunes of Nigerian football, then that man has to be Stephen Keshi, former Nigeria captain and coach.
The 54-year-old Keshi’s death early on Wednesday morning came as a rude shock to Nigerians but the former player and coach had left indelible footprints on the sands of time before his demise.
Right from his emergence in Nigerian football in the early 1980s, Keshi reshaped the country’s game both as a player and coach, but it sure came with a price. Resistant and usually bias officials saw him as a rebel who was out to alter the status quo. As a starry-eyed youngster, Keshi’s impact on the national team from the Flying Eagles to Super Eagles was colossal and when his teammates were afraid to fight for their rights and bonuses from the authorities, Keshi did for them.
He was the complete modern day central defender who had a huge influence on his team’s play. He had the long and dangerous throws; he also packed a shot, had an aerial impact, was dangerous from set-pieces and had an eye for crucial and important goals.
He was a leader on the pitch; off it, he also led by example, prompting the nickname Big Boss. One major game – of course there were so many of them – that highlighted Keshi’s influence and ability to turn situations around was a 1992 Africa Cup of Nations game against hosts Senegal in Dakar. The Eagles were 1-0 up but Keshi’s blunder gifted the dangerous Senegalese striker Jules Bocande an equaliser in the 36th minute. However, Keshi, as captain, urged his teammates on and he grabbed the desired winner with a ferocious shot outside the box with a minute to full time.
And from his playing days through his 44 months in charge of the national team between 2011 and 2014 as coach, he was always involved in one spat or the other with his employers, the Nigeria Football Federation.
His first major issue with the authorities was in 1984, when he and several other of his New Nigeria Bank FC teammates were expelled from the national team, after reporting late to camp. But it helped to chart a new course in his illustrious career, and by extension, that of many other African players.
Keshi left for Ivory Coast, first playing for Stade Abidjan, then Africa Sports. But it was when he joined Belgian side Lokeren that he, once again, charted a new course for Nigerian footballers. His sojourn in Belgium opened the door for a lot of his national teammates like Ademola Adeshina, Yisa Shofoluwe, Ndubuisi Okosieme, Austin Eguavoen and a sizeable number of other players to ply their trade in the European country. Of course, the national team, where he was expelled from, was the benefactor, as the better-exposed players brought in their European experience to bear on the team.
Keshi went on to play for Anderlecht –where he won two cups and a league title, Strasbourg, Molenbeek, Hydra, Sacramento Scorpions and Perlis FA, where he quit club football in 1998.
Fittingly, Keshi captained Nigeria to a second AFCON title – the team’s first on an away soil – in 1994 and also led the team to qualify for a first ever World Cup same year. He ended his international career in 1994, his last game being the Eagles final group game against Greece at the World Cup. He ended his national team career on a high, as the Eagles beat Greece to advance to the Round of 16. At 32, he moved to the US, in his final playing days while studying as a coach.
He was given the Eagles assistant coach job between 2000 and 2002 serving under Dutchman Joe Bonfrere and Amodu Shuiabu. After helping the team to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, Keshi was dropped alongside Shuaibu and several other players, from the trip to Korea and Japan.
Keshi looked abroad again, this time, to coach Togo. In a baffling fashion, the Delta-born coach, against all odds, qualified the minnows for the 2006 World Cup, a competition Nigeria couldn’t qualify for. He went on to coach Mali, before he was engaged as the Eagles coach in 2011.
Once again, Keshi would turn Nigeria’s messiah. After a 19-year wait for a third African title, Keshi, with a crop of new and largely inexperienced players, did the unimaginable, when he won the AFCON in 2013 – the first and only Nigerian to achieve the feat – in South Africa.
His success didn’t seem to go down well with NFF officials, who reportedly wanted him out; and a smart Keshi resigned from his post before ex-President Goodluck Jonathan waded in.
Reports said officials were not happy that Keshi enjoyed the limelight and of course the financial benefits that came with the AFCON success alone but there was no denying the fact that the feat made the Big Boss one of the most successful black African coaches of all time. He entered the record books as one of only two people to have won the Cup of Nations as a player and manager, and the only black African to coach in the knockout phase of a World Cup.
Keshi failed to qualify to defend the AFCON title in 2015 and officials capitalised on the failure and a reported ‘application’ for the Ivory Coast coaching job led to his firing as Eagles coach in July last year. Five months later, he lost his wife of 33 years, Kate, and his close friends said he never got over it before his death in Benin City on Wednesday.
Interestingly, each time Keshi’s career seemed to be dwindling, he bounced back in amazing fashion, which fascinated his countrymen. Nigerians were waiting for the next move from the man after his Eagles exit. There were earlier reports linking the strong-willed coach to South African side Orlando Pirates, but it never came to pass. Perhaps it was the hand of providence, but Keshi was destined to become one of the best of his generation, and he did.