MITCHELL OBI / AIPS in JOHANNESBURG
—- The old school motto of diligence breeding prominence holds a special place in the heart of Stephen Okechukwu Keshi.
Nurtured in the best tradition of inter-school competition commanded by intense rivalry and pride he learned early that commitment and endeavour make the difference. In the hustle and bustle of Lagos where the ordinary hardly find a place it takes extreme passion and industry to become noticed.
Keshi, now 51, was not the pearl that caught the eye but one whose presence could not be denied on and away from the pitch as a schoolboy footballer.
Enamoured of the game as a teenager, he worked at his craft with a religious determination that elevated him above his peers. Tellingly, his club evolution after secondary school in Lagos came through banking outfits which helped him cultivate the virtues of discipline and industry which shaped his game.
With the now-defunct African Continental Bank football club of Lagos and later New Nigeria Bank of Benin, Keshi found havens which provided him the material cushion and institutional instigation to excel.
The short lifespan of NNB alongside other pacesetters in Leventis United changed radically the face of Nigerian football in the 1980s.
NNB stood out for a rare ensemble of the creme de la creme of celebrated schoolboy footballers and their effervescent and colourful play won many admirers in Nigeria and West Africa where they dominated the WAFU Cup.
Here Keshi flourished and, surrounded by gifted players such as Henry Nwosu (Nigeria’s youngest player at 18 at the 1980 Nations Cup), Tarila Okoronwanta, Humohrey Edobor, Bright Omakaro and others, his influence as captain expanded. Soon he was nicknamed the head of the ‘Benin Mafia.’
The presence of 13 players from the same club in the then Green Eagles in one spell saw the leadership aura of Keshi become more distinct and influential.
No coach or administrator could find the voice of the national team without the echo of Keshi who became the rallying point of the players.
Keshi was a member of the national team in 1982 when Nigeria – like Zambia this time around – failed to defend their Nations Cup title by crashing out in the group phase.
So it was in 1983 that Keshi blossomed as a leader in the pitch, commanding one of the tightest and cohesive defences the African game has known.
I still remember that cold night in Casablanca in a crucial Los Angeles Olympic qualifier when the Green Eagles – featuring mostly debutants as now in South Africa – lost on penalties to a Moroccan host side who paraded such greats as Merry Krimau, Mustapha Haddaoui and Badou Zaki.
This was a bitter pill to swallow for a young Keshi who had dreamed of using the opportunity of an Olympic ticket to explore the United States where eventually he settled in after a chequered playing career.
Winning for Keshi is a habit but he and his team-mates capitalised on the lesson of the loss to Morocco to win the 1984 African title after stunning defending champions Ghana in the opening group game in the Ivorian city of Bouake.
Two-goal hero Chibuzor Ehilegbu was then making his sebut in the Nations Cup, just like Emmanuel Emenike now.
That 1984 collection – with the newly-emerging likes of Clement Temile, Patrick Okala, James Etokebe, Paul Okoku, Yisa Shofoluwe and Rashidi Yekini – waltzed their way to the final only to lose 3-1 to Cameroun after scoring firs.
Cameroon would proved a deadly foe in the glory chase for Keshi both at Nations Cup and World Cup levels.
But national team football, Keshi proved a true ambassador of club football and he and one of his current assistant coaches today, Sylvanus Okpalla, were pioneers in seeking new frontiers to flaunt their skills and explore new pastures.
For Keshi a significant turning point was a suspension imposed by the Nigeria Football Association for failing to honour a national team selection call.
Looking back it appears to have been a blessing in disguise as Keshi reignited the glow in his football career in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, with Stella FC from where he flew to Belguim and became not only the biggest Nigerian export to Europe but an inspiring captain of Anderlecht.
Yet, for all his prominence, Keshi had little to show for it at national team level. He led Nigeria to the Nations Cup final in 1988 in Morocco but here they lost to the Cameroon Lions of Roger Milla abd Emmanuel Kunde.
Cameroun were also to deny Keshi and his band a ticket to the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy.
In 1990 Keshi led another young team to the African final in Algiers where they lost again, by 1-0, having initially been crushed 5-0 by the same Algerians in the opening match.
At least there was no sight of Cameroon in 1994 so Keshi celebrated his first Nations Cup triumph by defeating the Zambia of Kalusha Bwalya. But, now in his twilight years as a player, the wear and tear of the game meant he had to lift the trophy as non-playing captain.
He went on to captain Nigeria, that same year, at the World Cup finals in Nigeria and played briefly in Sacramento before turning to coaching and, notably, guiding Togo to the World Cup finals in 2006. Distracted, a poor showing at the Nations Cup in the spring saw him sacked beforebeing able to manage them in Germany.
Keshi thus has every qualified right to say: “I am not against white coaches coming to Africa but against 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?”
Today history beckons for Keshi as he manages Nigeria at the final of the African Nations Cup against outsiders Burkina Faso in Johannesbirg.
The boy from Ilah, a town near Asaba – the Delta State capital of Nigeria – will step out for a defining occasion as a coach and a legend of the African game.
What happens afterwards is a step too far into the unknown.
Keshi says: “It took us five years to build the 1994 squad which went to the World Cup in the US. But this team are just five weeks old. We will continue to build and if I get some other players who are even better than these then I will bring them in . . . though I don’t know if I will be allowed to continue with the building by the time we get back to Nigeria.”
His caution is understandable: coaches work under the occupational risk of either being sacked or waiting to be sacked. But, whatever appointments of sacking his future career may hold, victory on Sunday against the Stallions of Burkina Faso would put a mark on Keshi’s cv which can never be erased.
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