- His legacy as football icon
By Kunle Solaja
THE passing on of former Nigerian skipper and later former coach, Stephen Keshi, has further depleted the ranks of the 1994 set of the Super Eagles, which is often regarded as the best assemblage of Nigeria footballers.
Stephen Keshi, The Sun Awards winner in sports category in 2013, died just a day before the sixth month of the similar tragic death of his wife, Kate. According to family sources, Keshi was scheduled to travel to the United States last night to meet his children, ahead of his unveiling as the national team coach of Guinea next week.
He was to take over from former French international, Luis Fernandez, who left the post late last month. Until his death in the early hours of yesterday, Keshi remained the only African to have coached two different teams to qualify for the FIFA World Cup.
Keshi played major role in five of the seven times that Nigeria played in the final matches of the Africa Cup of Nations. The two exceptions were the 1980 final when he was yet to join the team and that of Algeria 1990 in which he did not feature owing to club commitments.
Though Keshi was relatively young in the 1984 squad, Coach Adegboye Onigbinde chose him ahead of older players, like Muda Lawal and Peter Rufai to captain Nigeria to the finals of the Africa Nations Cup. Nigeria lost the final match to Cameroon.
Keshi once again led the Nigerian side to the 1988 final in Morocco, losing by a penalty kick goal to Cameroon. But he was successful in 1994 at the twilight of his career, leading the Super Eagles to its first victory outside home soil.
He was an assistant coach to Bonfrere Johannes when Nigeria played in the 2000 final of the Africa Nations Cup, losing in the penalty shoot-out to Cameroon. When he led Nigeria to win in the 2013 edition in South Africa, he joined Egypt’s Mahmoud El Gohary as the people to have won the Africa Cup of Nations both as player and as coach.
Keshi was the first captain to coach Nigeria national team and qualified for the World Cup, a feat he performed when Nigeria played an away 1-1 draw with Algeria on October 8, 1993.
Even though he was in the technical team as an assistant to Coach Amodu Shaibu when Nigeria qualified for the 2002 World Cup, he was more famous leading Togo to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, although, like the 2002 episode in Nigeria, he was not allowed to lead the team to the championship.
With Nigeria’s qualification for the Brazil 2014 World Cup, Keshi became the first African to coach two different countries to qualify for the World Cup. His playing career was as colourful as his coaching career.
When Nigeria lost 0-2 to France in the Round of 16 at the last World Cup, it was the last time Keshi featured in a World Cup event. Paradoxically, the June 30 date of the match coincided with the last time he played for Nigeria 20 years earlier when the Super Eagles beat Greece to top the Group D.
Although it has been 22 years since Keshi last played for Nigeria, he ranked among the most capped with his 66 appearances. Even as a central defender, he still scored 10 goals for Nigeria. He, however, also netted an own goal when Nigeria lost 1-2 to Algeria at Libya 1982 Africa Cup of Nations. One of the enduring captains of the Nigerian team, his leadership spanned 1983 to 1994.
As a central defender, he was wearing jersey number 4, which he claimed was offered him by the former Green Eagles’ Yugoslav coach, Jelisavicic Tihomir-Tiko (often called Father Tiko) while handling the Flying Eagles.
It was that jersey number 4 that Keshi wore in all the teams he ever played for. As a player, he had a commanding influence on his teammates, hence he was nicknamed “the Big Boss.”
An inspirer of his team, Keshi’s profile began to rise as a school boy in St. Finbarr’s College, Akoka, Lagos when he was selected a member of the national “Greater Tomorrow” squad in 1976. The squad metamorphosed into what is today’s “Flying Eagles.”
Keshi played for the then U-21 team, which failed to qualify for the World Youth Championship in 1981. But by then, his skills had attracted interests from the defunct ACB Football Club of Lagos.
He had a commanding stature right from his days at ACB and the Benin’s New Nigerian Bank, which he later joined when Willy Bazuaye was the coach. He captained the New Nigerian Bank to WAFU Cup win in 1983 and 1984, defeating defending champions, Hasaacas of Sekondi-Takoradi Ghana and Stade Malien of Mali respectively.
When he moved to Cote d’Ivoire after dispute with Nigerian football authorities in 1985, he played for Stade Abidjan and later Africa Sports before joining Lokenren FC and later Anderlecht in Belgium, sparking off, the famous “Belgium Trek” of the 1980s as many Nigerian footballers migrated to that country.
After five years, the central defender moved to France where he played for Strasbourg, a club he assisted to gain promotion to division one.
Keshi was a captain with one of the longest span in the national team and featured in five Africa Cup of Nations – 1982, 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1994. The Super Eagles, which he led to the 1994 World Cup was for a long time regarded as the best the country ever produced. It ranked fifth in the June 1994 monthly ranking. That was the best Nigeria ever attained – far cry to the current 61st position.
At both the Tunisia ’94 and the USA ’94 World Cup, Keshi could only feature sparingly owning to injury. On retirement as a player, he took to coaching.