We've been here before. Singing the praises of a hero who just died. A familiar script, isn’t it? It just hit us in the face forcefully, that Stephen Okechukwu Keshi was a legend, a coach par excellence in Nigeria and one of the best from the African continent.
Like we do with paladins who have played white hat roles in Nigeria- in entertainments, arts and culture, sports etc. - we never realised the ingenuity of the late Stephen Keshi. Now he's dead and its dawn on us that we had a football thinker until the sad morning of Tuesday May 7.
He always told us he was the best. He always told us how he wanted to change our football, but the system frustrated him. He fought it, he won and lost at the same time. Now he's gone and the question remains, why did we not accord him this same messianic respect?
It was simple, we underrated him.
Keshi never let us down. You might think he did, but no, he didn't. He wasn't without blemish though, he was often brash and conceited but he was nonetheless a confident winner.
He started winning straight from his playing days. He won two silver and a bronze in three consecutive African Cup of Nations for Nigeria. Yet it wasn't good enough for him. Unsatisfied, he wanted gold and he got it. Some 14 years after winning that elusive AFCON title, Keshi led the Super Eagles as Captain under Clemens Westerhof to win gold. Although his playing power had wane in that victorious outing in Tunisia, he remained even more influential in the team.
He played only two games at the tourney, but his spirit and attitude radiated around the team. He was the man just like the previous years when he marshaled the Eagles defence. He was imposing in defence and also scored crucial goals for Nigeria. He gave it all. He also led Nigeria to its first ever World Cup participation.
64 caps, nine goals. What a career!
He also had a fantastic club career. Keshi was one of the first Nigerian players to move abroad. After a clash with the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), Keshi left New Nigeria Bank for Stade d'Abidjan in Côte d'Ivoire. That move inspired a new wave of Nigerian players leaving their shores to play professionally in foreign countries. Think Kanu Nwankwo, Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha, John Obi Mikel, Ahmed Musa and other Nigerian players who had successful stints in foreign clubs. Thanks to Keshi.
Coaching was where Keshi etched his name in African football history. In his first job in the continent, he achieved the unprecedented feat of taking an unfancied Togo to the 2006 World Cup. After a forgettable stint in Mali, he was named as the Super Eagles coach in 2011. The Big Boss was back.
At last, he was back to the country he loved and toiled for as a player. It was homecoming for the prophet who was not respected by his own people. Once adorning the famed Green-White-Green shirt of the Super Eagles on the pitch, it was his time to wear the highly-revered Green-White-Green Track Suit on bench.
Keshi laid claims to being the best Nigerian coach ever had but we never believed. He didn’t just talked-the-talk but walked-the-walk with undeniable results. Under him, the Super Eagles became a very effective unit. His defenders became fearless, midfielders were more combative and the attack turned swifter. The counterattacking tactics of Keshi’s Eagles reminded me of Chelsea FC under Jose Mourinho in 2005 and 2006.
Like Mourinho, Keshi led his team with the ‘we against the world mentality’. He galvanised them into a fearless and combative unit. He evolved a father-son relationship with players who wanted nothing but to die on the pitch for him.
Godfrey Oboaboana and Kenneth Omeruo were his solders at the back. They chased down any rampaging attacker from the opponents-remember Didier Drogba and co. The often laid back and ‘complacent’ Mikel played for Keshi and the team. Together with Ogenyi Onazi in midfielder, Mikel became the ‘calming force’ of the Eagles. Victor Moses was his joker while Emmanuel Emenike was the weapon.
Keshi was our special one. But he was never treated special. He was bullied and arm-twisted by the NFF. But after delivering the AFCON title as a coach in 2013, Keshi should have been treated with more respect.
I'm not here to lay blames, we are all at fault; the media, the NFF and millions of football fans turned coaches all over Nigeria. Keshi’s mistreatment was why he suddenly resigned just few hours after the AFCON triumph. For the love of country, he came back to lead Nigeria to the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Nigeria was knocked out by France in the second round making Keshi the first African coach to reach the knockout stage of a FIFA World Cup. What a man! He is also the first African coach to lead two countries to achieving World Cup qualification.
After his World Cup heroics, he clashed with the NFF more than often. He was in constant rows with the NFF over unpaid salaries and several attempts to ease him out of the job, including reports that the federation wanted to sack him during the 2013 Nations Cup finals.
He was finally sacked in 2015 for his reported interest in the vacant Ivory Coast job. Keshi like I said earlier was not without his own fault. He was often arrogant but that's the winners curse.
As in all losses, the death of Stephen Keshi will open our eyes to the true value of a great man who was less celebrated than he deserved.
Another hero we failed again.