By Onochie Anibeze
Open letter to The Senate President
A CALL FOR A TRUCE OR KESHI’S
I have decided to draw your attention to the issues between Stephen Keshi, the Super Eagles coach and his employers, the Nigeria Football Federation. I do so for the interest of our football especially the 2014 World Cup campaign.
Nigerians follow your tremendous interest and support for our sports.
I hope that you would intervene immediately and resolve the issues so that we can move on and pursue the World Cup qualification in high spirit.
This letter should have been to the attention of President Goodluck Jonathan but I know that you are closer to sports and you will act promptly, being a sports man yourself.
Sir, the NFF is bitter that after they toiled to assist the Super Eagles to win the Nations Cup they got no credit for the victory in South Africa. Rather, they were discredited, bashed here and there for harassing and disrespecting Keshi during the competition. A little background to the problem may help.
The Federation called a meeting after the first two matches which ended in draws in South Africa and told Keshi that earning two points out of six was a failure. Keshi flared up and told them that he was ready to quit and that they could give him his return ticket. He did so not because of their fair presentation but because he was agitated before the meeting. He was angry. He had it on good authority that discussions to sack him and engage a foreign coach were on. NFF President, Aminu Maigari was not in the meeting but he had once told Keshi that the Zambian coach appeared a good coach to him. This triggered the rumour that the NFF had actually approached the Zambian coach. Keshi was unsettled. He was said to be all nerves as he went on with his job during those early stages of the Nations Cup. Truly, there was a move to disengaging him. But that did not even start at the Nations Cup. It started in Nigeria. But NFF President, Aminu Maigari resisted that.
He said that Keshi had not failed and that it would, therefore, be wrong to engage a foreign coach.
President Goodluck Jonathan had expressed a strong desire to see the national team strong again. He even visited the team when they camped in Abuja. The sports ministry did not want to disappoint Mr. President and they told Maigari ‘’if it’s a foreign coach that we need to win the Nations Cup, let’s hire one now.’’ That was before the Nations Cup. Maigari saw no reason in that and argued that Keshi should be allowed to continue his work. But the rumour on foreign coach had spread and was affecting the concentration of Keshi even before the Nations Cup. It was so bad that on one occasion Maigari encouraged Keshi to disregard all rumours and go on with his job, reminding Keshi how he was chosen as Eagles coach. A foreign coach was on the card after Samson Siasia was sacked. But Maigari insisted on Keshi and he got the job. Few months before the Nations Cup, while the sports ministry nursed the idea of a foreign coach, Maigari asked Keshi to damn every move for a foreign coach with results.
‘’I don’t talk much. I allow results to speak for me. Keshi should adopt the same attitude. If he has good results how can anybody make a case for a foreign coach,?’’ Maigari told this reporter in a chat we published as news. Keshi got the message and that calmed some nerves then. You could, therefore, imagine how Maigari felt when he heard that Keshi was accusing him of championing the case for a foreign coach. He felt stabbed in the back. But the truth remains that some people actually bought the idea of a foreign coach after the first two matches with Burkina Faso and Zambia that ended 1-1, with the Eagles conceding late equalizers. And after the Nations Cup, Keshi opened up to a radio station in South Africa and spoke of his possible resignation. He told the media after the Nations Cup victory that he was not sure that he would remain the Super Eagles coach since Nigeria did not want him. This drew outrage against the federation and while millions of Nigerians congratulated the team, they cast aspersions on the federation. Bitterness set in. During the Presidential reception in Abuja and the other receptions held for the team in other states, the players and coaches were rewarded with plots of land and money. Members of the federation yawned to be included. It did not happen. Envy set in although this could not be said for all of them. The federation drew a line between them and Keshi. And today, the bad blood is getting thicker. They said Keshi did not attend a meeting in Abuja but had time to go to Lagos to take delivery of cars given to him by Globacom Chairman, Chief Mike Adenuga.
The federation is angry and disappointed that Keshi portrayed them in bad light. Keshi was equally disappointed in South Africa and told the world the anguish that the federation caused him before success was achieved. He had to manage not only his players but also the coaches and backroom staff some of who did not help the team by running some people down by gossiping and feeding the leadership of the federation with lies and cooked up stories. The bonuses of two of his coaches, Sylvanus Okpala and Valere Houndanou, were slashed by 50 percent on the grounds of paucity of funds at the time. This was enough to upset the technical crew but Keshi managed it well and assured the coaches that the balance would be paid when the federation got their allocation from the National Sports commission. But it never happened and the coaches kept on working diligently. Okpala complained to board members but nothing happened. He then decided to call Nigeria and inform Patrick Ekeji who was still the Director General of the NSC. He said he had to do so since there were no clues within the federation. That infuriated the leadership of the federation and he was queried for taking an internal matter to NSC. He was directed to reply within 24 hours. The query was written on February 2 but given to Okpala on February 8. Slashing match bonus of assistant coaches and querying one of them two days to the Nations Cup final on February 10? Keshi concluded that they wanted him to fail. But he strongly held his team together and commended Okpala for remaining calm and focused during those trying times. Okpala, in his reply to the query, said that he needed time to concentrate on the final match and that he had consulted his lawyer. But shortly after that he added more details, explaining that he reported the slashing of his bonus to Ekeji because the NSC was the supervising body and that Ekeji was his team mate in the Green Eagles whom he felt could help him. He also stated that since he was given the job, his bonuses were always paid accordingly until the Nations Cup in South Africa. He said that the federation was yet to explain to him or his head coach, Keshi, why they slashed his bonuses by 50 per cent. Copies of his detailed reply were given to Emeka Inyama, Chief Mike Umeh, Deji Tinubu among others who are all board members of the federation. But his explanation meant nothing to the leadership of the federation who have now formally disengaged him as one of the assistant coaches in the Eagles.
Before now, they wanted Keshi to fire Okpala by telling him that Okpala claimed that his contributions to the team’s success were immense and perhaps more than his. They expected Keshi to take offence but Keshi understood the gimmick that was meant to knock their heads. His reply disarmed everybody. “If Okpala said he was the one behind our success that’s good, that’s why I chose him to assist me.” But Keshi knew Okpala never said such a thing. It was all part of the gossip culture that he was contending with in the team.
Sir, kindly permit me to recall this briefly. Sylvanus Okpala was once the captain of the Flying Eagles who started playing for Enugu Rangers as a secondary School student. At 20, he was already in the then Green Eagles and was a member of the victorious 1980 Nations Cup team. He also once captained the Green Eagles. He left Nigeria in 1982 for professional football in Europe where he played for Unao, Maritimo and Nacional in Portugal before returning home to resettle. He played as both attacking and defensive midfielder before coach Otto Gloria of Brazil converted him to the full back position where his mesmerising and overlapping runs earned him the sobriquet, Quicksilver. He was a great player. Some board members today don’t know the track record of this man. Okpala bagged the National Honour of MON after the 1980 Nations Cup and OON after the feat in South Africa. He deserves better treatment than what the federation has meted out to him. He
was sacked without the consent of Keshi who selected him to work with him. It is wrong.
But this is not only about Okpala. It is more about Keshi, our Eagles and the leadership of the Federation. I would like you to call for a truce so that we can present a united force in our 2014 World Cup campaign. Everybody meant well but unfortunately their actions were misconstrued. The ministry wanted Eagles to win and started the campaign for a foreign coach. Maigari doesn’t talk much and his silence was misconstrued as consent for a foreign coach. Keshi said that one of the things that hurt him badly was the booking of their flight back to Nigeria before they played Ivory Coast. It gave the impression that those he worked for didn’t believe in him. He was rightly disappointed. Okpala probably did not know about the issues between Ekeji and the Maigari board before reporting his case to Ekeji. This aggravated his case before the leadership of the federation. He may be forgiven. We need a truce to move on peacefully otherwise Keshi should be advised to resign. This is because the federation is so bitter that he may not enjoy their support any more and what will suffer will be our football and not Keshi. If a coach doesn’t have the support of his federation he will likely fail. But I know that you can help Nigeria manage the success of the 2013 Nations Cup and the road to the 2014 World Cup. Sir, kindly intervene, make all to see reason to work together to qualify for the World Cup and go and do well in Brazill. I am hopeful that your action will help our football.
Thank you and May God bless you as I await your quick intervention, sir.