By Patrick O. Okigbo III
It is possible that without him Nigeria’s football would have still developed to its current state. Or better. Or maybe not; after all, many other aspects of our society that sprouted green shoots a few decades ago have largely atrophied. Whatever the case, the history of Nigeria’s soccer can never be complete without memorable mention of Stephen Keshi – the “Big Boss”. He would have been 56 years today.
Keshi was born to play soccer and his place was to lead, from the right full-back. It was from that position that he helped St. Finbarr’s College Football team win the prestigious “Principals Cup” in 1977. Though imposing in height at the time, he had not become the “Big Boss”. His nickname at the time was “Terry” after the legendary England full-back, Terry Cooper. The qualities that earned him the sobriquet he bore till the end was to come a few decades later; even though his leadership qualities were never in doubt.
Keshi came to national prominence in 1985 when he, and a number of other players, were suspended from the national team, for one year, for failure to arrive at the national training camp on time. In Keshi’s case, he argued that he stayed back in Benin to play in a local derby for his club side, New Nigerian Bank FC. Seeing that the suspension was not going to be reverse, Keshi sought opportunities to continue his soccer career outside Nigeria. At the time, Nigerian soccer players did not have many avenues for getting into the professional leagues in Europe. His route took him through Cote d’Ivoire where he played for Stade d’Abidjan and ASEC Mimosa. He helped the latter win a number of championships to the great acclaim of Ivoriens.
There were others, besides the Ivoriens, who took note. Soon, Keshi was on his way to Belgium where he played for FC Lokeren and RSC Anderlecht. He became a key player with the latter and helped them win many trophies. The high point was his position, with Anderlecht, in the finals of the 1990 European Cup Winner’s Cup Competition. Anderlecht lost that match to Juventus of Italy in the extra time.
It was in Belgium that he got the nickname. Keshi’s home was some sort of “embassy” for African soccer players, mostly from Nigeria and Ghana, who he helped secure positions in club sides in Europe. Most of these players speak lovingly about how he opened his heart and home to them, irrespective of tongue or creed. Legend has it that the sofa in his living room became somewhat of a bed of dreams for many budding talents. For this generosity and magnanimity, he was respectfully referred to as “Big Boss” by his colleagues.
Nigeria started stamping its presence in international soccer when many of these talents, having honed their skills in Europe, returned to play for the national team. On his part, Keshi earned 60 caps for the Nigeria national football team, the Super Eagles, making him Nigeria’s second-most capped player at the time of his retirement. Muda Lawal, with his 82 caps, was the highest at the time.
Under Keshi’s leadership as Captain of the Super Eagles, Nigeria won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1994. He was also the Captain of the team when Nigeria qualified, for the first time ever, to participate in the FIFA World Cup. The team had a good run until it was eliminated, in the knockout phase of the competition, by a goal from Roberto Baggio in the extra time.
As Assistant Coach to Coach Shuaibu Amodu, Keshi helped the Super Eagles qualify for the 2002 World Cup. He went on to a successful coaching career in Togo (2004 – 2006) bringing them to their first FIFA World Cup championship in 2006. He also coached the Mali national soccer team (2008 – 2010). He was named Head Coach of the Super Eagles in 2011 and led the team to victory at the 2013 African Cup of Nations. Nigerians remember this victory with great fondness because not a lot of people gave Keshi a chance in that competition. With that win, he became the second person to win the African Nations Cup as both player and coach. The other person is Egypt’s Mahmoud El-Gohary. Keshi was also the only black African to coach in the knock out phase of a World Cup competition.
Keshi, as Coach was sure-footed. He was confident enough to field rookies from the local league to represent Nigeria at international matches. At the time, this was seen as some form of hara-kiri. But he was self-assured in his convictions; believing that this was a way to grow the soccer talent pool in Nigeria.
Sadly, Nigeria was not always kind to Keshi; not that it is to many of its citizens. Despite his win at the Africa Nations Cup, the government kept playing politics with his coaching contract. At a point, he announced his resignation as Coach of the Super Eagles; however, he reversed his decision when Nigerians showed their dissatisfaction with the government and called on him to reconsider the position.
Death moves under many guises. In the days leading up to his death, his only complaint was of pains in his leg. He probably didn’t think much of it; nor did he realise that it was the warning sign of the cardiac arrest. He died on June 08, 2016 on his way to the hospital.
I am not sure if arriving at the hospital would have made much of a difference. Our hospitals are good at treating malaria; maybe, typhoid. Everything else is mostly between you and your God. He probably could have stood a chance of surviving the cardiac arrest if he had stayed back in Europe; a place with emergency medical services, but Keshi loved Nigeria too much. He could not stay too far away from his country.
Even in death, Nigeria was still unkind to Keshi. To be fair, on the day he passed, President Mohammadu Buhari’s Twitter handle acknowledged that “Nigerian football will not be the same without Stephen Keshi.” The tweet admitted that Keshi “gave this country his all”. The government media machine kicked in and pledged to give him a funeral befitting a national hero. But that never happened. The Federal Government of Nigeria was not even represented at the funeral.
It was still a very solemn event. Nigerians came out in their numbers to pay their respects to the “Big Boss”. Austin Eguavoen, a former member of the Super Eagles, organised a football match at the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium in Keshi’s honour. Eguavoen said the Federal Government’s abandonment of Keshi’s funeral shows that “Nigeria is not worth fighting for”. It is sad that this was the overwhelming sentiment that followed the funeral; an event the government would have used to highlight the types of values it desires for Nigeria: selflessness, dedication, patriotism, etc.
Nigeria is a nation of multiple schisms. Soccer is one of the few gums that binds the country together. When eleven lads put on their green-white-green and carry the collective aspirations of their country on to the field of play, the many little wars are suspended. Nigerians forget their ethnic and religious identities and push in one direction. No one cares the ethnicity or the religion of those on the field. All that is desired is that Nigeria wins.
One would have thought that the government would have used Keshi’s life and death as an opportunity to raise a new narrative for national unity. Yet, two years on, I am not aware that the government has placed a plaque, anywhere in Nigeria, to celebrate this man, Stephen Keshi, who gave so much for the country.
This is missed opportunity. But all is not lost. Today is still a good time to start.
However, whatever the government ends up doing, or not doing, Keshi will always remain the “Big Boss” in the hearts of all Nigerians. Forever!
Patrick O. Okigbo III
January 23, 2018