Stephen Keshi with the AFCON trophy
The euphoria greeting Super Eagles victory at the 29th Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa has refused to wane. Rather, Nigerians (both corporate and individuals) who may have doubted the team’s capacity to make any impact at the summit of African football are now falling over one another to host the victorious Eagles. As at the weekend, the list of those who have laid out red carpets to welcome Coach Stephen Keshi and his ward kept growing.
Of course, for the coaches and players who defied all odds to go all the way to win Nigeria’s third AFCON title after 19 years wait are now busy reaping from their labour. No one needs to begrudge the team as it is elementary principle of sowing and reaping at play here!
Keshi who 24 hours after the victory over Burkina Faso to lift the trophy resigned from the Eagles job (the decision has since been rescinded) due to the disrespect he was shown by the Glass House leadership, was at the Editors’ TomTom Round Table in Cadbury on Saturday to field questions on how he made the feat possible. He was as candid as ever. It was a no holds-barred-session for Keshi who is the second the ex-international to win the cup as a coach. DURO IKHAZUAGBE was there. Excerpts.
What motivated the boys to win the cup?
When we set out for the tournament, most Nigerians did not believe in us. There was lack of faith in our ability to deliver. That was a challenge to the coaching crew and the boys. The situation was even more palpable considering the fact that we were going to the tournament with 17 players who have never been there before. This lack of faith was a personal challenge to the players who wanted to prove a point. People were asking questions like what bunch of players this Keshi is throwing around? So I am glad now everyone is happy that we won the trophy. However, I want to repeat here what I have been telling Nigerians. This team came together as a unit just 13 months ago. To get the type of team Nigerians were looking for takes more stay together. We need to have patience for the boys. I am also glad that since coming on board, Nigeria has not lost any competitive game leading to the Nations Cup, yet we were not given the chance to make impact in South Africa. Yes, even as champions of Africa, I am not saying we are not going to lose any match but no team goes into the pitch with the mindset to lose a game.
Reflections on the Nigeria versus Cote d’Ivoire match that the Super Eagles were the underdogs
The game against Cote d’Ivoire was purely a tactical play, purely positional play. It was the play of a unit if we have to go all the way to winning. Any error from any part of the unit was going to mess up the game plan. After our game against Ethiopia, it took us (coaching crew) three days of planning to arrive at the game plan to curtail the Ivoriens. It was always strategizing, minimum of three hours brainstorming with my assistants everyday on what to do.
We know from hindsight that the Elephants were very good players, individually. Very good! However, we realized that Cote d’Ivoire does not play as a team. They are not playing unit football. We plotted to mark out Gervinho, (Salomon) Kalou, Yaya Toure and (Didier) Drogba. We also realized that Drogba needs supply of ball for him to make impact in front but if you don’t allow that to happen, he becomes harmless.
So we opted to play our passing game and not allowing them room to play the type of game they are used to.
Secondly, we had the advantage of having young players who were aggressive and up and doing strength-wise. And our shield, the back-four was alive to its responsibility, that was all we needed and the victory came.
Why has it become a recurring decimal for Nigeria to keep conceding late goals like it happened against Italy at USA ’94. We saw it happen in the last AFCON qualifying match against Liberia in Calabar and during the tournament against Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire?
When you start a game, the first five to ten minutes is very crucial. You need to be on top of your game. It is also same with the last ten minutes but the difference here is that you are tired and need to be extra vigilant to survive. Yes, it happened against Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire but we strategized not to allow it in the semi final and final. That’s football for you.
But I must say it here that my most difficult game was the Ethiopian match. It was going to determine our fate in the tournament. I knew if we scale through, it was going to be a different ball. After the first two matches, I was not shaken even with the two draws. My prayer was that once we get into the quarter final, it was going to be new thinking and strategy of survival in the knock-out round.
Super Chicken tag and all the embarrassing mocking of Nigeria as underdogs
When I was in Mali I started hearing that the team I played for and captained for 14 years was been referred to as Super Chicken. That was crazy and annoying. I had to let my player know that in my time with the Eagles no country was bold enough to call Nigeria Super Chicken and that it was up to their generation to end that insult. I told them that it was in my generation that the Green Eagles was renamed Super Eagles due to our brilliance in continental and global football. The boys took the challenge and today the result is there for all to see. Those 23 boys were awesome! Despite the majority of them were playing the Nations Cup for the first time, they made me proud. Of course, it didn’t come cheap and easy. It took shouting and yelling at them at time if need be. What was important was that we got the job done.
Are older generation players like Joseph Yobo still relevant in this new era with so many brilliant young players in the team?
Yobo is still very much relevant in the team. He has a place like Osaze (Odemwingie), Obafemi Martins, etc. They are still relevant. I have a 50-man list of players in my radar. I will stop inviting them if only they say they don’t want to play for Nigeria anymore or they are not in good shape.
Why keep good a good player like Sunday Mba on the bench in preference of Nosa Igiebor and yet the Real Betis player was not delivering?
If I had started with a squad of home-based players like Sunday Mba, Godfrey Oboabona and others, it is Nigerians like you that will say that this Keshi has gone mad. When I played Catalonia with an almost home-based squad, they almost chopped off my head. They were shouting: “what is wrong with this Keshi? Doesn’t he realize that we are playing against Spain, the World and European champions?” If I had started my first game against Burkina Faso with all my six home-based players in the team, it is you journalists that would have gone to town that Keshi be sacked. Every player is important and what is of more priority is to play as a team. We need every department to be solid.
We started with Fegor. Normally, it should have been (Gabriel) Rueben but he was ill. Fegor had two yellow cards and we called on Nosa Igiebor. For those who saw his brilliance against Venezuela in that friendly in Miami, I would have been branded a mad man if I left him on the bench and pick Mba to start. But Mba eventually got his chance and proved his worth. I have been telling my players, all you need is to get just five minutes of play to show why the starting shirt should be yours. There are no sentiments in my team selection.
Can you shed lights on speculations that before the Cote d’Ivoire match, you were asked by the NFF to accept to be bossed by an expatriate coach and that tickets were already bought for you to go back home. How true were these speculations?
Well, as per the issue of an expatriate coach, can’t really say much on that but on the ticket matter, yes, we heard it. We were told about it and everybody in the team got very angry.
Here we were talking and strategizing on how to beat Cote d’Ivoire and move ahead into the semi final and those who should support us are thinking of buying ticket to send me home. We became more than ever determined to win the game to prove a point and God answered our prayers. I did hear it before the game but some of the players did. It was only after the match that I was told. I was determined not to allow anyone sack me. I told God to lead me to my Promised Land and there after I can quit if I am no longer wanted. On whether I resigned or not is not the issue now, I am here and it is all over.
What are your plans for the CHAN, the competition for players based in the continent of which Nigeria has failed to qualify for the last two editions?
The reason Nigeria has not qualified for the last two editions is because we don’t take the tournament to be a serious affair. It is all last minute rush to get the players to feature for Nigeria in the competition but other nations plan and prepare ahead for it. We need to invite the home-based players to camp and prepare well. The competition is important to help our players playing in the domestic league.
We need to give the home-based players the chance to express themselves at this stage. I was just 17 and a half years old when I got the chance to play for the senior national team in 1979. If didn’t get that opportunity only God knows what would have happened to my career. Football is played in the head and not the leg. It is a mental thing.
When I qualified Togo for the World Cup, most of the players were home-based. I was a product of the league here before going to Europe. Yes, there are players there in Europe who score 20 goals in a season but what is their overall contribution to the national team? We want players who will play for the team, fight for the team, I mean a team player and not someone who is contented with his superstar tag. People keep referring to the 1994 team because we played for one another. Rashidi (Yekini), (Daniel) Amokachi, (Samson) Siasia were all great team players.
What should Nigerians expect from the Eagles at the Confederations Cup?
That is not my priority now. Before then, I have the World Cup qualifier against Kenya in March. You can ask about the Confed Cup in June and I will give you my answers. But one thing I can assure you is that we are not going to Brazil to disgrace Africa.