Stephen Okechukwu Keshi meant different things to different people. To some he was a leader, to some he was controversial, and to others he was a mafia. To the football authority, he was arrogant. However, one indisputable thing about him was his record-he remains the longest serving Super Eagles captain, led Nigeria to her first World Cup appearance, captained the national team to win the first African Cup of Nations outside the shores of Nigeria and capped it all by leading Nigeria as coach to win the 2013 AFCON (the second man to do so as a player and coach). He opened the floodgate for Nigerians to play professional football abroad. Belgium became the Mecca for Nigeria footballers while he was at Anderlecht and his house was the melting point for Nigeria footballers
Barely six months after his wife, Kate, lost the battle to cancer, Cardiac arrest Stephen Keshi’s life in Benin City in the early hours of Tuesday at the age of 54. Confirming his death, his brother and manager, Emmanuel Ado, said. “It is true, my brother has passed on. He has gone to meet his wife,” Ado said.
Keshi’s beautiful football story started at the famous St. Finbarrs College, a school noted for its football prowess and the former Super Eagles Coach, alongside Henry Nwosu, Wakilu Oyenuga, Nathaniel Ogedengbe among others were regular members of the Finbarrs’ side that revolutionised school football, not only in Lagos State but in Nigeria as a whole; it was not a surprise therefore, when the team went on to win the 1977 edition of the Principals’ Cup Competition in Lagos State.
Keshi and Nwosu were later to be called up and played for the Junior Eagles, (as the Flying Eagles was called then). And later on they were called up again to the Green Eagles in preparation for the 1980 African Cup of Nation’s competition, but it was only Nwosu that made the final 22-man list for the Nations Cup, while Keshi fell short of the requirements.
He was quick to put the disappointment of not making the 1980 AFCON team, and he went on to play for Wema Bank and ACB before relocating to Benin City to play for New-Nigerian Bank of Benin and winning the WAFU cup twice.
He finally made it to the Super Eagles team, debuting in the friendly game against Uganda in 1981 in Benin during preparations for the final World Cup qualifier against Algeria. He was later to play his first competitive match for the Super Eagles against Algeria in Lagos, coming in as a substitute for Christian Chukwu in the second-half.
The Big Boss made his Nation’s Cup debut in Libya, in 1982; scoring two goals in Eagles 3-0 triumph over Ethiopia in the opening match. But as a result of Nigeria’s early elimination from that tournament, the eggheads of the Nigeria Football Association, NFA, sacked the Brazilian Coach, Otto Gloria and appointed Adegboye Onigbinde, who was quick to appoint Keshi captain of the new -look Eagles, which he led to a silver medal in 1984.
In 1985, Keshi’s national team career nose-dived, when he was banned for two years by then NFA, alongside Henry Nwosu, Bright Omokaro, Sunday Eboigbe, and Clement Temile. Keshi for reporting late to the Eagles camp. In spite of tendering an apology to the leadership of the NFA for a pardon, and Keshi was left with little choice than to leave the shores of the country in continuation of his football career.
Keshi left for the Ivory Coast that gave him the opportunity to play soccer without NFA’s clearance and played for` ASEC Mimosas and later on Stella Football Clubs of Abidjan. His sterling performances caught the attention of Belgian scouts, where he consequently earned a professional contract in Belgium. There he vigorously played for FC Lokeren and RSC Anderlecht where he won several titles as a key player with Anderlecht.
His high-point being having played the finals of the European Cup Winner’s Cup Competition in 1990, and losing narrowly in extra time to Juventus of Italy.
Keshi later on played for Strasbourg FC of France, a second division side, which he helped earn promotion to the first division. He later on played for RWDM of Belgium before relocating to the United States for MLS soccer.
At the National team level, Keshi’s truncated career was reignited in 1987. He helped Nigeria qualify for the AFCON 1988 – MAROC ’88 – losing narrowly to Cameroun in the finals. Keshi, was re-appointed Super Eagles Captain after an interregnum of four years. The Super Eagles under his leadership failed to qualify for the World Cup in Italy in 1990.
After the 1990 World Cup failure, Dutch man Clemens Westerhoff was charged with the task of rebuilding the Eagles, which he achieved with support from Keshi. The Eagles finished runners-up in the AFCON, 1990 in Algeria; finished in third place in AFCON 1992 in Senegal and won the AFCON, 1994 in Tunisia. That same year, the Eagles qualified for the 1994 World Cup competition for the first time in the United States of America.
After the 1994 World Cup, Stephen Keshi left the national team with the ovation at its loudest. He studied for his coaching Diploma and his first coaching assignment was as an assistant coach to Bonfree Jo, during preparations for the 2000 Nations Cup competition.
As a consequence of a faltering 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign, Bonfree Jo was sacked; Keshi assisted Amodu Shaibu in tinkering the Eagles. The World Cup ticket was eventually won by Nigeria under the tutelage of Keshi and Amodu. However, after a semi-final loss to Senegal at the 2002 Nation’s Cup competition, which was blamed on a players’ revolt, Keshi and Amodu were sacked by the NFA, for what was perceived to be the coaches’ sympathy for the players. Keshi thus missed the opportunity to help in coaching the Eagles at the 2002 World Cup!
In another turn of events, Togo snapped up Keshi, to help tinker their national side. It was to be his first fully fledged assignment as coach; he did not fail, as he helped Togo, qualify for their first ever World Cup finals, in Germany. However, misfortune struck him once again, when he was sacked, as a consequence of having lost all the first round games at the 2006 Nations Cup competition, coupled with a disagreement with Emmanuel Adebayor. He thus missed another opportunity to take a national side he helped qualify for the World Cup.
The Togolese later made up for this, reappointing him, after the 2006 World Cup. He later coached Mali and qualified them for the 2010 Nations Cup competition in Angola. A not- too impressive performance in Angola saw the Malians terminate his contract. When the Nigeria job became available, in 2010, he contested with Samson Siasia, for the plum job. Siasia was selected – largely due to the overwhelming public opinion in favour of Siasia’s appointment. When Sissia failed, the job came naturally to Keshi.
In 15 months, Keshi remarkably turned around the fortunes of the Super Eagles, unexpectedly, making them the African Champions to the bargain.
After taking over as coach of Nigeria in 2011, Keshi led them to victory in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa and then guided them into the Round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil where they lost to France.
He was only the second man to win the Africa Cup of Nations as a player and coach – after Egypt’s Mahmoud El-Gohary – following his success 19 years earlier when he was a key defender for the Nigeria team.
Keshi was regarded as an iconic figure in a golden generation of Nigerian players that included Finidi George, Rashidi Yekini, Jay-Jay Okocha, Samson Siasia, Daniel Amokachi and Sunday Oliseh. He made a total of 64 appearances for Nigeria and scored nine goals.
Nigeria Football Federation president Amaju Pinnick led the tributes to Keshi, saying: “This is devastating. We have lost a superhero.”
FIFA’s new secretary-general Fatma Samoura, currently head of the UN Development Programme in Nigeria, tweeted: “The football family has lost a great member.”
Nigeria and Fenerbahce striker Emmanuel Emenike called Keshi a “true legend” and said: “You will forever stay in my heart the big boss RIP.”
Ghana Football Federation president Kwesi Nyantakyi described Keshi as “a great man and a noble spirit” and a “shining example of dedication to football and to footballers”.