By ‘Jide Olusola
The world woke up on Wednesday morning to learn of the death of the most successful black African coach ever, Stephen Okechukwu Keshi. He died at the age of 54.
According to reports, therewas no inclination that death was lurking again within the Stephen Keshi family. The family is still mourning the death of his wife who succumbed to cancer in December 2015. It was reported that he only complained of leg pain and was billed to travel back to his United States base that Wednesday. Sadly, fate had another plans for him.
Big Boss as he was fondly called was a leader on and off the pitch during his playing days. He led from the back as a player and led from the front as a coach. He was one of only two people, along with Egypt’s Mahmoud El-Gohary, to have won the Africa Cup of Nations as both a player and a coach.
His critics pointed out that he liked money, and that he used football to acquire it, which is true, although he’s hardly unique in that. But he’s also the most successful black African coach of all time, one of two people to win the Cup of Nations as a player and manager, and the only black African to coach in the knockout phase of a World Cup.
Stephen Keshi was a fine central defender, winning titles in Nigeria and Ivory Coast before moving to Belgium with Anderlecht where he won two cups and a league title. In 1994, he was, in partnership with Augustine Eguavoen, the bedrock of the superb Nigeria side that won the Cup of Nations in Tunisia. He was 32 then and moved to the US, winding down his playing days while studying to be a coach. He maintained a house in California till he died.
His journey into the coaching world began in 2004 when he was appointed the Togolese head coach, a a side that had only previously reached five Cups of Nations, never getting beyond the group stage, and led them to an improbable qualification for the 2006 World Cup.
Shortly after that, he began to have issues with star player, Emmanuel Adebayor whom he left out of the starting line-up for Togo’s opening game at the Cup of Nations, a 2-0 defeat to DR Congo. His reason for not playing was that Adebayor was injured. This turned out to be false as it was gathered and seen by journalists trying to beat up Adebayor and was restrained by his players from doing so.
Keshi, it subsequently emerged, felt he was owed some sort of bonus for the centre-forward’s move from Monaco to Arsenal. Togo lost every match in the world cup and unsurprisingly, he was sacked. He had brief stints with Mali before becoming the Super Eagles coach
It’s almost an open secret that Stephen Keshi involved himself in transfers, something that was true even in his playing days. When Nii Lamptey, after impressing at the Under-20 World Cup in 1989, fled the Ghanaian football federation to make for Europe he went via Keshi’s agent in Lagos. He eventually left Nigeria for Belgium on a forged passport that claimed he was Stephen Keshi son.
Taking up the most eccentric, difficult job in the world as Super Eagles coach of course came with its own twists and dramas. Coaching Nigeria required a lot of strong will power, respect, firmness to withstand the hawks administering the sport.
Learnimg from how his defence partner, Austin Equavoen was treated by the NFF guys, he played his cards accordingly by pulling strings from the Aso Rock Villa.
Nigeria are the self-proclaimed giants of African football but have under achieved in recent years. Despite being the most populous nation on the continent and caring deeply for the sport, they had won only two Cups of Nations. They didn’t even qualify for the 2012 tournament and won’t be in the next one as well.
He dared the powers and discovered new players for the national team. With this new breed of players and against all odds, he won the 2013 edition of the African Nations Cup. He resigned after when news flitered that the NFF bosses had contacted Herve Renard as his replacement. This happened few hours to the final game. How demoralising that can be but he fought on and won.
He retained his post after the then President Goodluck Jonathan intervened and he led Nigeria to qualify for Brazil 2014, and there took them to the last 16 where they were a little unfortunate to lose to France.
His wrangles with the NFF went on and he finally left the job last year, having resigned on at least half a dozen occasions. Till Stephen Keshi death, he was decorated twelve times winning leagues and trophies where he has ever played for.