The old school motto of diligence breeding prominence holds a special place in his heart.
And nurtured in the best tradition of inter-school competition in which intense rivalry and pride ruled the times, he knew so early that commitment and endeavour made the difference.
In the hustle and bustle of Lagos where the ordinary hardly find a place, it takes extreme passion and industry to get noticed. Stephen Okechukwu Keshi was not the pearl that caught the eye but one could not deny his presence in and outside the pitch as a school boy footballer Keshi as a teenager was totally enamoured of the game and he worked at his craft with a religious determination that stood him out.
Tellingly, his club exposures after secondary school in Lagos came through banking outfits that helped him cultivate the culture of discipline and industry, virtues that shaped his game. With the defunct African Continental Bank(ACB) football club of Lagos and later New Nigeria Bank.(NNB) Football Club of Benin Keshi found a haven that provided him the material cushion and institutional instigation to excel .
The short lifespan of NNB FC alongside another pacesetter Leventis United FC changed radically the face of Nigerian football in the eighties. NNB FC Stood out for its rare assemblage of the creme de la creme of celebrated school boy footballers and their colourful play won them many admirers in Nigeria and West Africa where they dominated the WAFU Cup competition like knights in a tournament.
It was in NNB FC that Keshi flourished and surrounded by such gifted players as Henry Nwosu(Nigeria’s youngest player-18years- at the 1980 AFCON) , Tarila Okoronwanta, Humphrey Edobor, Bright Omakaro and more,his influence as captain expanded and it was easy to dub him the head of the ‘Benin Mafia’.
With having over 13 players from the same club in the then Green Eagles in one spell the leadership aura of Keshi became more distinct and prominent. No coach or administrator could find the voice of the national team without the echo of Keshi who deservedly became the rallying point of the players.
They cherished his command and he ventilated their positions and demands with a conviction that inevitably made him the Big Boss. Keshi had been part of the national team in 1982 when Nigeria, like Zambia this time, failed to defend her Nations Cup title by crashing out in the group phase.
But it was in 1983 that Keshi blossomed as a leader on the pitch, firmly, steering one of the tightest and cohesive defences the African game has known. For some of us just getting to grips with reporting the national team, those were perhaps our most absorbing and prolific days capturing the games and players in words.
I still remember that cold night in Casablanca in a crucial 1984 Los Angeles Olympic qualifier when the Green Eagles, featuring over eighty percent debutants like it was in SouthAfrica, lost on penalties to host Morocco parading such greats as Merry Krimau, Mustapha Haddaoui and Badou Zaki.
It was indeed a bitter pill to swallow for a young Keshi who had dreamt to use the opportunity of an Olympic ticket to explore the United States where eventually he settled in after his playing career. For stylishly taking his kick in the ensuing shoot-out which keeper Badou heroically stopped and ensured Morocco’s victory, Keshi almost made his teammate, Henry Nwosu, to pay for the blunder with severe rebuke that came close to bashing.
Winning for Keshi is a habit and it was the pain and lesson of the loss to Morocco that they took to AFCON 1984 and shocked defending champions Black Stars of Ghana in a heart-lifting opening group game in the Ivorian city of Bouake. Nigerians fervently remembered the two-goal hero of that game, Chibuzor Ehilegbu, who was then making his debut in the Nations Cup like today’s Emmanuel Emenike .
That 1984 collection which had the likes of Clement Temile,Patrick Okala of blessed memory, James Etokebe, Paul Okoku, Yisa Shofoluwe and Rashidi Yekini all of them debutants of the competition waltzed their way into the final and lost to Cameroun after scoring first ( in a 3-1 blast that had the stamp of Theophile Abega and his rampaging teammates. Cameroun proved a dreaded foe in the glory chase of Keshi either at the Nations Cup or the World Cup qualifying levels.
But beyond national team football where his charm and command set him apart Keshi was a true ambassador of club football and along with one of his assistant coaches today, Sylvanus Okpalla, they were pioneers in seeking new frontiers to flaunt their skills and clutch new pastures in Europe. For Keshi it was a circumstantial plunge to play outside having been suspended by the Nigeria Football Association under the inimitable and visionary leadership of the late Air Commodore Anthony Ikazoboh for holding the nation to ransom and failing to honour a national team invitation in time. Here again the myth of the Benin Mafia.
Thus Keshi and his clique were meant to suffer the penalty that came from suspension. Looking back it appeared to be a blessing in disguise as Keshi reignited the glow in his football career in Abidjan, Cote d’ivoire with Stella FC from where he left to Belgium and became not only the biggest Nigerian export to Europe but also an inspiring captain of Anderlecht FC. This truly was crystalisation point for Keshi and from Brussels to Lagos the game in Nigeria established a cord that held both players and officials together. Now the full dimension of the Big Boss found full expression. But with all the rise in prominence Keshi had little at national team level to flaunt for his exploits.
Leading the team to the Nations Cup final in 1988 in Morocco he lost to the Cameroun Lions of Roiger Milla and Emmanuel Kunde ,scorer of the winner through penalt. Cameroun were to deny Keshi and his band a ticket to the 1990 World Cup to Italy. So devastating was this loss having come through a difficult qualifying game against Angola in which Keshi scored the only goal and Nigeria lost a gem on the pitch Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji.
He was to chew the bitterness of defeat from the stick of Cameroun later as an assistant coach to Bonfrere Jo in the final of the 2000 AFCON which Nigeria and Ghana co-hosted. No doubt there was no sight of Cameroun in his first Nations Cup triumph as a player in the 1994 edition in which Nigeria defeated Zambia of Kalusha Bwalya. Notably Keshi was in his twilight years and the wear and tear of the game were having their toll. He still could not be ignored lifting the trophy even as non-playing captain and allowed the luxury of enjoying some moments especially in Nigeria’s first-ever World Cup participation in USA 94.
In all, some countries have been critical in Keshi’s turn around. Cote d’ivoire, Belguim’, United states, Cameroun and lately Togo where he cracked his palm kernel as coach by qualifying the Hawks to the World Cup without taking them there just as it was in 2002 when assisting coach Shuaib Amodu they could not lead the Super Eagles to the World Cup in South Korea and Japan. Add a dose of his stay in Mali as coach, the picture of an African coach who has paid his dues and deserves to earn his pay spreads out. .
And thus when Keshi tells the world that “ I am not against white coaches coming to Africa but against those mediocre white coaches who come to learn here and pretend that they deserve the job. Some of us will not be easily allowed to coach in Europe so why must we tolerate in Africa those who are not qualified. Don’t get me wrong. I am not against white coaches. Let the best be given a chance above us“.
February 10, Keshi made history as the second only African to win the Nations Cup as a player and as a coach. He led Eagles to beat Burkina Faso 1-0 in the Nations Cup final. This has made the boy from Ilah,a town some few kilometres from Asaba, the Delta State capital of Nigeria a veritable legend of the game. His selflessness and patriotism may have carried him and even at this point when immortality tickles he still thinks about the future of his team and those who have made his turnaround worth a toast. “It took us five years to build the 1994 squad. But this team is just five weeks old.(It should be about one year). We will continue to build and if I get some other players who are better than what I have I will bring them in”
The next assignment is the 2014 World Cup. With the Nations Cup on his arms, his concentration now is on the World Cup qualifiers. And if he makes it to Brazil in 2014, it will be another feather to his cap and an opportunity to stamp his authority at the global level.
•Mitchell Obi. AIPS Executive Member.