‘Goodbye’s the saddest word I’ll ever hear. Goodbye’s the last time I will hold you near’, part of the chorus to Celine Dion’s hit ‘Goodbye’s the saddest word’ kept ringing in my ears shortly after I learnt of Stephen Keshi’s death.
For a moment, I thought I was dreaming, given that I was still in bed when the news broke.
Alas, it was true and the ‘Big Boss’ was gone. It still feels impossible to believe and I’ve had to pinch myself several times to make sure I’m not in dreamland.
The ‘Big Boss’, as he was fondly referred to from his playing days down the minute he breathed his last, was a charismatic figure and arguably the most charismatic and influential captain the Nigerian Super Eagles have ever had.
Like every human, Keshi had his ups and downs, but it never took anything away from his charisma and charm.
He was always humble and friendly.
It was apparent he was destined for the top right from his days at St. Finbarr’s College in Lagos and when he signed for his professional team, ACB of Lagos.
He joined New Nigerian Ban (NNB) of Benin shortly after, where he had a more successful spell, where he played for four years and was captain before he left.
He probably would have stayed longer at NNB, but for a ban on him and several ‘Green Eagles’ players in 1985, which prompted a move to Cote d’ Ivoire, where he signed for Stade Abidjan, thus beginning the mass exodus of Nigerian players abroad. He later moved on to Africa Sports, also in Cote d’ Ivoire.
He left Africa Sports in 1986, and moved to Belgium, where he joined Lokeren. He played 28 times and scored six goals for his new club that season, before leaving to join Anderlecht, also in Belgium. He had a much longer spell at Anderlecht, lasting four years, playing 99 games and scoring 18 times.
Meanwhile, he was already the Nigeria captain before this time, as he had been given the armband by coach Adegboye Onigbinde in 1983, shortly before the 1984 Africa Cup of Nations in Cote d’ Ivoire. He led the Nigerian side to the final of the competition, before being beaten 3-1 by Cameroon.
He then left Anderlecht in 1991, joining Strasbourg in France and played there until 1993.
And it was also in 1993, that a Keshi-led Eagles team qualified for their first ever FIFA World Cup appearance under coach Clemence Westerhoff.
Before the World Cup, in ’94, Keshi also led the Eagles to their second ever Africa Cup of Nations triumph in Tunisia, and while he wasn’t a consistent playing member of the squad at that time, he was as influential as ever.
He would also lead the team to an impressive second round finish at the World Cup later that year in the US, before retiring from international football.
Keshi also went on to play for a few other clubs in Belgium, the United States and Malaysia, before hanging up his boots in 1998. He did his coaching badges and ventured into coaching afterwards.
His first real job as a coach came when he was appointed coach of Nigeria’s U20 side, the Flying Eagles. He led them to the 2001 Africa Youth Championship in Ethiopia, but fell short of expectations as they were bundled out of the group stages.
He however became assistant to Amodu Shuaibu in the Super Eagles shortly afterwards and together they qualified Nigeria to the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations and 2002 FIFA World Cup.
While they led the team to Mali for the 2002 AFCON, a less than impressive showing meant they couldn’t lead the Super Eagles to Korea and Japan for the World Cup.
The ‘Big Boss’ became a man of his own, when he was appointed the coach of Togo in 2004. He would go on to achieve the biggest feat in the history of the tiny West African nation, qualifying them to the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
He led the team to the AFCON that same year and due to their poor outing in Egypt and several other factors, he was fired before the World Cup, but his name was already etched in gold as the man who put Togo on the world map in footballing terms.
His next job was with the Mali national team, with whom he qualified and led to the 2010 AFCON in Angola but a group stage exit meant he also fired.
Then came his biggest job – the Super Eagles. He was appointed shortly after Samson Siasia was fired and he went on to lead Nigeria to her first ever AFCON triumph in 19 years, making him only the second ever person to win the competition both as a player and as a coach, after Egypt’s Mohamed El-Gohary.
Keshi may have passed on now, but his legacy lives on.