By
Mitchell Obi, AIPS Executive Committee Member

JOHANNESBURG,
February 8, 2013 – 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,51, was not the pearl that caught the eye but one could not
deny his presence in and outside the pitch as a schoolboy 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 ensemble of the creme de la creme of celebrated school boy
footballers and their effervescent and 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.
Leadership aura
of Keshi
Bright
Omakaro and more, his influence as captain expanded and it was easy to dub him
the head of the ‘Benin Mafia’. With NNB 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 impactful.
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 in 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 this was 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 Los Angeles Olympic
qualifier when the Green Eagles featuring over 80% debutants like it is now in
South Africa, 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 a
chequered playing career.
Stylish kick
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 Sofoluwe 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 gang. Cameroun proved a dreaded foe in the glory chase
of Keshi either at the Nations Cup or the World Cup 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.
Suspension by
the Nigerian FA
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 as and when due.
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 Belguim and became
not only the biggest Nigerian export to Europe but an inspiring captain of
Anderlecht FC. This truly was crystallization 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 Roger Milla and Emmanuel Kunde, scorer
of the winner through penalty. 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, Belgium’, 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 wrong. I
am not against white coaches. Let the best be given a chance above us “.  
History beckons
This
Sunday history beckons for Keshi and the boy from Ilah, a town some few
kilometres from Asaba-the Delta State capital of Nigeria, will have his
defining moments as a coach and 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. We will continue to build and
if I get some other players who are better than what I have I will bring them
in. I don’t know if I be allowed to continue with the building by the time we
get to Nigeria.”
Understandably,
coaches have an occupation of either being sacked or waiting to be sacked. This
Sunday against the depleted Stallions of Burkina Faso Keshi would look to
adding a roof to his building and lifting the Nations Cup as coach will also
lift his national merit sobriquet from the Member of The Order of the Niger
(MON) to perhaps the Grand Commander of the Order of Niger. (GCON) And why not?
With the president of Nigeria ready to cheer the Super Eagles all the way can
we say good luck to Keshi..   

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