By Onochie Anibeze
Die, Eagles die for Keshi was the title of Ade Ojeikere’s column on the eve of Nigeria’s match with Namibia in Calabar.
Ade is among the thousands of Nigerians who thumb up for the programme Stephen Keshi is executing. He is building a new team for Nigeria with a special attention on the domestic league. It simply had to be so after the disappointment of many of the foreign-based professionals.
And going by the level our football had fallen there was no other way out. Ade knew that and told the players to get to the field and die for Keshi who had given them much as it is said that to whom much is given much is expected. Keshi and his crew, from my close observations, are teaching the players a lot.
They are doing a good job. What the players need to add to the techniques and tactics that they are acquiring is the fighting spirit that Ade was writing about. I want to add voice to Ade’s charge. There are times determination wins a match for a team. Zambia proved to us in the last Nations Cup final that fighting spirit can win a match against a tactically superior side. Ivory Coast were more organized tactically. But the Zambians fought so hard, marking every ball and space.
The result was that Ivory Coast could not score and in the resultant penalty shoot-out they won their first Nations Cup title. They did so fighting. Who will fight for Nigeria? The ball is in the court of Keshi and his crew to continue the search for creative and hard players who must be fighters. We need fighters to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil and go there to do well. It is doable.
But we need fighters. We need players who will fight in spirit and on the field. When you fight in spirit you give your all, you play the match in spirit even before kick off. Footballers will understand my point. Before the 1989 FA Cup final between BCC Lions of Gboko and Iwuanyanwu Nationale I was with Benedict Ugwu, fondly called Surugede. In his Verander Hotel room on the eve of the match, Surugede was playing the match in spirit. He imagined how hard he would tackle and how his head would not spare anybody in the air. I was stunned by his spirit and demonstrations in the room.
What shocked me most was when he hit his forehead severally on the wall to test how hard it was and how hard he would clear the ball with his head, legs and body. Surugede was charged before and during the match. He was in another world. The spirit was high and ready to fight.
He was known for his diving headers. He had ability to dive to head out long rang crosses. Surugede was the Gede (pillar) in Rangers and BCC who beat Iwuanyanwu 1-0 with an Arthur Nwankwo goal to win that FA Cup and take the diadem to the North for the first time in over 40 years. Gede was a fighter, a great defender who had the honour of playing for Nigeria in the twilight of his career. These days we lack fighters.
Keshi must find fighters for Eagles. He was a fighter himself. I almost fell laughing the other time I was with Keshi, Daniel Amokachi, Sylvanus Okpala, Ike Shorunmu and Valere Houandinou. We were recalling interesting stories of the past. Sylvanus Okpala, fondly called quick silver told his but when Keshi and Valere took the floor our ribs cracked with laughter. They spoke of their ACB days.
Valere, just like Okpala was known for his free kicks. Okpala was superb in set-pieces. Valere did well in this area too and was called Revelino.
The ACB days of Keshi and Valere were interesting. They had Gideon Njoku as their coach. Keshi recalled how Njoku would praise you to high heavens if you played a superb game and would even buy a drink for you. But if in the next game you didn’t do well, he would embarrass you openly saying “after taking my drink you fumbled.”
Late Njoku, Keshi and Valere recalled, would tell the whole club about your private life including your romance with any girl if you were not playing well but would even encourage you if were good on the field. Njoku was both a socialite and also a disciplinarian. Keshi admitted planning to quit ACB because of his style but later confessed that he later reaped from Njoku’s hard postures.
And now the story from Valere. ACB had gone to Benin to play Insurance of Benin at the time Insurance had the likes of Peter Iyaghrebva, Felix Agbonifo, Francis Monidafe, Chris Ogu, David Adiele, Kadiri Ikhana, Boateng and Henry Ogboe. Ogboe was about the topmost striker in the country then. He averaged a goal a match and Keshi’s task was to mark him out of the match.
ACB had their own crack players and they were younger although they were the underdogs. They were known as giant killers. They were young but could destroy any big team. Keshi was very young then and the fact that he was playing against some big names in Nigerian football excited him. He shared the double bunker bed with Valere when they got to Benin.
At night while they were asleep on the eve of the match Valere was woken up by some vibration that shook the bed. Keshi who lay in the upper layer had fallen to the ground. He felt for him and asked what the problem was. Keshi retorted: “Na Henry Ogboe I dey pursue in a dream. I saw him attacking our goal and had to tackle him so hard that I fell. Na wao. We go die for this match.”
We laughed and laughed and laughed. Up till now, any time I try to picture that scene I can’t help laughing. You can imagine the kind of a tackle Keshi must have made in the dream that sent him crashing to the floor in their camp. He was certainly playing that match in spirit before the game proper.
We need players like that in the current Eagles, players with fighting spirit, with determination and who will be ready to sacrifice for our country and for themselves. Keshi must find them from our league and in Europe. It is not enough to teach skills. Character matters in football. I wish him luck in tomorrow’s game against Rwanda in Calabar. Reactions to firstname.lastname@example.org are welcome.