By Bisi Lawrence
It can no longer be any kind of news to you that, like a multiple thunderbolt, the death of three icons ripped through our sports world within a matter of a few days. From the United States of America, we learnt about the home call of Muhammad Ali, who was the boxing heavyweight champion of the world three times. He said with his mouth that he was the “greatest”, and made the world accept it in no uncertain manner.
We had not yet recovered from that blow which astounded us like every boxing-loving part of the world, when our own Stephen Keshi departed suddenly. It was barely three months after he lost his wife, Kate, of 33 years of blissful union.
Of course, you heard about it, and must have been not just shocked, but also smitten when, three days later, Shuaib Ahmodu was also reported dead.
Both Keshi and Shuaib were football coaches who had taken our national football team, the Super Eagles to great heights at different times and also, memorably, working together at other times.
More has to be said later about the efforts of these three super-stars, especially the Nigerian couple. What makes me alive to their demise ,however, is the quality of courage, an element which runs like a silver string right through their way of life or, I should say, living.
Courage is a component of good effort. When it is lost nothing more can be gained. It is an essential ingredient of a brave endeavour. It is not determination; rather, it is what retains determination. It is not mingled with recklessness; it is grounded in sober resolve. It gives no room to distractions; it partners total commitment. It is not always recognized, for victory or success in specific terms, does not always come to it as a reward. But it never fails to win due appreciation and recognition even when it does not win the day.
It takes courage to discard a heritage and create a new one. That was what Muhammad Ali did when he forsook his “slave name” of Cassius Clay. It was courage that put down Sonny Liston. The first fight was totally unexpected the way it went and ended in a knock-out of the man whom many people felt would make mincemeat of his young challenger. The second made believers of even the most hardened sceptic that a new pair of boots had entered the world ring.
And it was sheer courage that made him live up to his predictions of defeat for his opponents. The classic case was in London when his opponent, the British heavyweight champion, Henry Cooper, decked him with one round short of the prediction for the Englishman’s fall. Ali got up and, in the full glare of the spectators’ wonder, clinically stopped his opponent.
And as it is in the boxing ring, so it happens in other arenas to varying degrees. But even in the team sports where there is no direct individual confrontation, personal commitment still plays a prominent role in the performance of a star player. But more than that on another scale, the weight of responsibility that is placed on the shoulders of a coach demands no mean measure of courage from him.
The coach is indeed a manager; the title is in no way misapplied, he is entrusted with the achievement of the highest performance possible through his ability to impart skill and understanding of the game to his team members, in a co-ordinated effort to achieve success. He bears the responsibility of the attainment of success. He is not denied his share of the glory in victory, but he shoulders the disgrace and grief of defeat. Most of the time, he is removed from his post by those who have entrusted him with the hope of success.
This is truer in no other position than that of a football manager. The parting of the ways is always unpleasant, particularly for the manager—not so much for his employers who can show callous traits in what should be the end of a contract. And that is the plight of the manager of the Nigerian national football team along what has now almost become traditional lines.
And yet no one agonizes over the attainment of success more than these warriors. After they have given all they have to a bunch of grown-ups who sometimes behave like babies, they expose themselves to heartaches and goose pimples for the 90 minutes of a nerve-tingling match. But through it all, they push on.
You should have seen Shuaib Amodu tearing himself to pieces during practices. And then, come the next match, his team loses a game he feels they could have won. But he gears up for the next match with hope and with courage. Or you should have heard Stephen Keshi speak to his boys in the dressing room during the half-time break of a testy match. Then you would probably approach why he was called: “The Big Boss”.
At that stage, he only has time to teach little strategy and tactics. Much of what he imparts is courage. And that, he had plenty of. That was what accompanied him on his adventure outside the country to Europe where he made headlines as a player. And that was what made him to announce his resignation as the Super Eagles coach after a glorious outing in South Africa. But they made him stay, and then kicked him out. How I wish he had found his way to greener pastures at that time. Give little heed to their hollow dirges now that it no longer counts. Crocodiles do no better than that.
But Keshi and Amodu took it all. They took it all, while their salaries were being withheld. They took it all because they had the guts. They were, like Muhammad Ali, men of courage, a commodity that this nation is in dire need of at this present moment. Our politicians have so much to learn from these proponents of this quality that is sometimes designated as “heart.” Muhammad Alli knew the score. He put it down thus in his own way:
“When your hands hurt so much you can hardly punch; when your legs feel so heavy you can hardly move; when your whole body aches so much you can hardly breathe; then is the time to fight one more round”.