By Simon Kolawole
Ironies don’t come in bigger packets: less than three years after he was banned from football for reporting late to national camp, he was so vital to Nigeria’s aspirations that he was twice flown down in a chartered jet to play for the country at the Africa Cup of Nations — and he could only play two matches as a result of club commitments.
Stephen Okechukwu Chinedu Keshi, who died from a suspected cardiac arrest in the early hours of Wednesday, was — is — the most influential figure in the history of Nigerian football. He was not called “Big Boss” for nothing — he was a leader on and off the pitch. He has to be duly credited with revolutionising Nigerian football by paving the way for the players to showcase their talents in Europe. It was the beginning of a whole chapter in history.
The revolution was an accident — if you believe in accidents. In 1985, when he was playing for New Nigerian Bank (NNB) of Benin, he fell foul of the law. Ahead of crucial international matches, the Nigeria Football Association (NFA), headed by Group Captain Tony Ikhazoboh, had given a deadline for invited players to report to camp — but citing club commitments, four NNB players reported late. They were Stephen Keshi, Sunday Eboigbe, Bright Omokaro and Henry Nwosu. The NFA promptly banned them from playing for club and country for six months.
But you cannot ban Keshi. He left the country — the sanction had no global effect — and joined Stade d’Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, where he was immediately appointed captain, even though he was yet to speak a word of French. Language was never going to be a barrier to the multi-linguist, who was already speaking Igbo and Yoruba with finesse, and had a good command of Hausa. He was born in Azare, Bauchi state, and spent his pre-teen and teen years in Lagos, schooling at the famous St. Finbarr’s College, Akoka, Lagos. In school with him was Nwosu, probably the most gifted Nigerian player who never fully exploited his potential.
THE ‘ACCIDENTAL REVOLUTION’
Keshi spent only an overlapping season at Stade, helping them to win Coupe Houphoet Boigny twice: 1985 and 1986. He moved to the bigger rivals Africa Sports, and won a league and cup double before heading to Lokeren of Belgium. That was the beginning of a new era for Nigerian football. Having displayed enormous talent and commitment, Keshi soon became the poster boy of Nigerian football in Europe, and scouts began to look lustfully in the direction of Nigeria.
The “Big Boss” started earning more stripes: he was helping many Nigerian players, and African players, to cross over to Europe. He would identify the talents, link them to agents, help some of them with tickets, logistics and accommodation — and the unexposed and shy talents were soon rubbing shoulders and exchanging jerseys with players they thought they would only see on TV all their lives. Keshi was not only selfless, he was an inspiration to a whole generation.
He was so good it did not take time before other clubs started coveting him. Anderlecht, then the leading light in the Belgian league, came for his services in 1987. The following year, he was so critical to the club that he was not released to play for Nigeria at the Maroc ’88 African Cup of Nations. By a special arrangement, he flew private jets to play just two matches, both against Cameroon — the 1-1 draw at the group stage and the final, which Nigeria lost narrowly after Nwosu’s spectacular header was controversially ruled offside. Keshi even hit the crossbar with a rocket of a free-kick. We all believed Nigeria did not deserve to lose that match.
Following in his footsteps to Belgium were the likes of Augustine Eguavoen, Osaro Obobaifo, Philip Osondu, Victor Ikpeba, Samson Siasia, Chidi Nwanu, Dahiru Sadi, Sunday Oliseh, Tajudeen Oyekanmi, Etim Esin, and a legion that cannot be listed here. By being a good ambassador, by being a facilitator, by being an inspiration, Keshi had changed the face of Nigerian football forever. He was an accidental missionary, one who opened the floodgate for his compatriots, one who preached the gospel of Nigerian football so well a whole country — make that the European continent — was converted.
THE LEADER, THE BENEFACTOR
Not many Nigerians knew the real Stephen Keshi. The Keshi on the pages of the newspapers was always controversial, overbearing and rebellious. He was a Prima Donna. But he was more than that to his teammates, coaches, fans and benefactors. The story of how he got Ghanaian youngster, Odartey Lamptey, to ply his skills in Europe is not fit for print: Keshi broke the law. He was so desperate to get the budding player out of Ghana that he illegally got him another passport after the Ghanaian authorities had seized Lamptey’s travel document just to prevent him from travelling. Lamptey would forever cherish Keshi as his adopted father.
When ex-international player and former U-20 midfielder Obobaifo died in a road crash in Belgium in 1992, it was Keshi who paid the fine to the local council to get his body released for onward transportation to Nigeria for burial. Obobaifo had crashed his car into a street light, apparently under the influence of alcohol, and by law the culprit would have to pay for repairs if he survived — or the family would have to pick the bill before the remains could be released. Keshi bore the brunt. He also paid for the body to be sent to Nigeria for burial.
In July 1991, the perennial shame of Nigerian football was on display yet again when the NFA forgot to transport the playing kits of the Super Eagles to the National Stadium for their crucial Afcon qualifier against Burkina Faso. With the risk of disqualification hanging on the country, a player suggested trimming the pants of their track suits to knickers-size. This was done, the match went on, the proper kits later arrived at half time, and Nigeria qualified for the tournament by winning 7-1, with the irreplaceable Rashidi Yekini scoring four goals.
But someone had actually gone missing: the “Big Boss” was not around. He was either injured or not on good terms with the authorities again. The gaping hole was all glaring.
“If Keshi was around, there was no way the kits would have been forgotten,” a player confided to reporters after the match. “He was always in charge, from the room to the training pitch to the dining hall to the bus to the stadium. He always made sure everything was in place, including our food, kits and allowances. He always personally supervised the movement of kits and balls and all that. He is a natural leader.”
Such were his organisational skills that a national team coach once said off the record that anytime Keshi arrived the Super Eagles’ camp, “he practically took over my job… he would supervise training sessions, and all I had to worry about were the tactical sessions”. Keshi was that good. Even during the time of Clemens Weterhof (1989-1994), who remains Nigeria’s most accomplished coach ever, Keshi was widely believed to be making significant input into team selection and match tactics.
My friend and popular sports analyst, Calvin Emeka Onwuka, told me during our days at the University of Lagos that if we were ever going to produce a successful coach that would handle the national team, it would be Keshi. “He has all the qualities you can think of,” Emeka told me as far back as 25 years ago. Mind you, don’t rely on Emeka if you admire flattery. He is the most stingy with praise. I reminded Emeka of this prediction after Keshi coached Nigeria to win the Nations Cup and he could not even remember saying that; he was happy Keshi proved him right all the same.
But his influence as a player was a plus on the one hand, and a minus on the other. Players such as Friday Ekpo and Chidi Nwanu believed it was Keshi that kept them out of the team, and they did not like him for it. Nwanu, in particular, was openly scathing of Keshi, with whom he was competing for the central defender position. He said he overheard Keshi “interrogating” Westerhof for daring to invite him to camp in 1991. “The trouble with Keshi is that he sees me as his rival… Later I realised he didn’t like me because Manfred Hoener took me to Seoul ’88 instead of him. That was where his hatred for me began,” Nwanu told Complete Football in 1993.
On the pitch, Keshi was the commander-in-chief who readily shouldered responsibilities. Not once or twice did he come in from behind, from his position as a central defender (he was the “libero”), to score vital, match-winning goals. He saved Nigeria at least twice in the 1990 World Cup Africa qualifying series; his goal gave the Eagles victory in the tragic match against Angola in Lagos, a game in which Sam Okwaraji collapsed and died, and 12 football fans were crushed to death on the stands. Okwaraji’s death was a shadow that loomed large as the Super Eagles went down to Cameroon thereafter and dropped out of the qualifiers.
THE REBEL, THE PRIMA DONNA
The football authorities never liked Keshi, either as a player or as a coach. As a player, he did enough to earn the cheers and the jeers. He, along with Siasia, refused to honour Westerhof’s invitation to play at the 1990 Afcon in Algeria. Ademola Adeshina and Andrew Uwe were the only Europe-based players who showed up, and when Nigeria was hammered 5-1 in the opening match, public anger was directed at Keshi for letting his country down. Keshi’s rebellion was against the authorities, whom he believed were not doing things the right way, in terms of preparations and welfare.
The fans would also turn against him in the 1992 Afcon qualifier against Ghana in Lagos. In a match completely dominated by Nigeria, Ekpo missed a first-half penalty, and as the team retreated to the dressing room at half-time, fans hurled missiles in the direction of captain Keshi — obviously a result of arrears of resentment against the same man they adoringly called “eshin” (horse) whenever he delivered the goods. The match ended goalless, and to make matters worse, Keshi’s brand new Mercedes V-Boot was snatched by armed robbers at Maryland, Lagos, hours after the match.
He promised to keep playing for Nigeria despite the setback, and things were going to get worse at Afcon proper when his mistake allowed Senegal to score in the opening match. Siasia evened things with a goal, Keshi scored the winning goal in the dying minutes, and he was back in the good books of the fans again. Although his stock was high, he was already getting old and tired, and his place in the national team was constantly under threat from younger players such as Uche Okechukwu and Uche Okafor. Injuries did not also do him any favours.
Keshi was appointed as assistant coach to Shaibu Amodu in 2001. The struggle continued. Unpaid allowances, poor welfare, poor logistics… Keshi just couldn’t stomach the rot. He was soon on collision with the authorities, hand-in-glove with team captain Oliseh, and as soon as the 2002 Nations Cup ended in Mail, Keshi and Amodu were fired and Oliseh lost his place in the national team. Even as coach of Togo, who took them to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 2006, Keshi fell out with the authorities and was sacked. He was also sacked as coach of Mali after a poor run of results.
His return to the Nigerian national team in 2011 was triumphant — he would lead the team to win the 2013 Nations Cup in South Africa, becoming the first Nigerian coach to do so. The icing that decorated the cake was that he became only the second person to win the cup as a player and a coach, following in the footsteps of Egypt’s Mahmoud El-Gohary. But Keshi had to be Keshi. The drums of victory were still sounding loud when he rained on Nigeria’s parade, announcing his resignation on a South Africa radio station. Keshi just had to be Keshi.
Persuaded to stay on through the intervention of President Goodluck Jonathan, Keshi would later take the team to the 2014 World Cup, the second Nigerian coach to be saddled with such a responsibility, and though he recorded only one victory in four matches — a controversial 1-0 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina — he still succeeded in getting Nigeria to the second round for the first time in 16 years. Trust Keshi, he was soon announcing his resignation in an interview with TheCable, although it turned out his contract had actually expired. Even the renewal of the contract ended in more acrimonies with the authorities, and he was finally sacked after several exchanges of insults, threats and brickbats.
KESHI THE MAN
As a player, Keshi made his international debut for Nigeria at a very young age in July 1981 against Upper Volta, now known as Burkina Faso, in a 1-0 win. He was 19. His last appearance for the country was in June 1994 when Nigeria beat Greece 2-0 at the World Cup in the US. He played 64 times and scored 10 goals for the Super Eagles. He continued with his playing career, but it was more of a swansong. The world had seen the best of him on the pitch in Belgium and France. There was nothing more to drool over.
On the bench, the world watched him pilot national teams from victory to victory. But it was always with a swagger, and a dig at the authorities. He won many of the burst-ups, and lost a few. His sense of black pride was punished by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) when he made a racist comment about white coaches. He wanted to make the point that many of them working in Africa were not better than Africans. He apologised after the backlash. That was in 2013.
He was forced to eat the humble pie again in April 2015 following another stand-off with the Nigerian authorities over his contract after he had failed to secure qualification for the 2015 Afcon. He was accused of calling the NFF chairman, Amaju Pinnick, a liar. “I think it is my fault for not being able to manage some information very well. I will never use such word for the president of the federation. I am too cultured to use such word, those who profit from sensationalism as a way of life, create chaos by twisting facts out of context only to suit their own purpose,” he said in a statement. He apologised all the same — the first time he would do that to Nigerian authorities. Many thought it was because there was a new Nigerian president who would not pamper him.
The elegant Keshi, born to the Ogbuenyi Fredrick Keshi family of Illah in Oshimili North LGA of Delta state, was a music freak with special taste for Caribbean zouk, but he was also a big fan of his near look-alike, Shina Peters, and Adewale Ayuba. He loved Barry White, Janet Jackson, Teddy Pendergrass and the Oriental Brothers to no end. Having lost his wife of 35 years last year, it was all sad songs for the “Big Boss” who reportedly never recovered, only to die from cardiac arrest in the wee hours of June 8. Hopefully, they are united again.
Keshi had remained out of job since the July 2015 sack by the NFF. He was believed to be gradually recovering from his wife’s death in December. Recently, rumours were all over town that Orlando Pirates of South Africa had shortlisted him for a coaching vacancy. But Keshi has kicked the bucket; he would never kick football again.