STEPHEN KESHI: THE MAKING OF A NGERIAN SOCCER LEGEND OF OUR TIME
By Cyril Nwokeji, Belgium
Cyril Nwokeji of Belgium, a talented soccer analyst, wrote this article and I picked it up for a larger audience as we see it here. The article details a personal narrative of the author of how Stephen Keshi evolved as a legend we have come to know him today. You will learn about the courage of a soccer star and the hope to build, transmit and transform soccer in Nigeria. Was he called up or was it his akaraka, destiny and luck? The story tells it all.
Stephen Okechukwu Keshi, born to Igbo and Delta parents, has no doubt profiled himself to a legendary status in Nigerian football. The beautiful football story of this great son of Nigeria started at the famed St. Finbarrs College Football ‘Academy,’ the precursor of the present football academies in Nigeria. Stephen Keshi, as a young man, otherwise – a teenager – was already a regular member of the famed St. Finbarrs College Football Team of 1977 that revolutionised school soccer, not only in Lagos state but in Nigeria as a whole; needless of saying that that beautiful soccer team won the 1977 edition of the Principals’ Cup Competition in Lagos State. The team was comprised of highly talented young men – teenagers – who exhibited, a highly exhilarating, splendid, entertaining, technical and tactically organised soccer, in a 4-2-4 formation.
Kudos to the coach that raised that legendary team! Those young men were Eagles or potential Eagles materials. Those of them that eventually took to football, like Stephen Keshi, went quite far in soccer career. That legendary team comprised of the following players in the first eleven: Goalkeeper was the late Muri Sanni; right-full-back was Stephen ‘Terry’ Keshi, he was given the nickname of ‘Terry’, after the legendary England right full-back – Terry Cooper- who revolutionised the playing style of full-backs, with his overlapping runs down the right flank, that way joined the attack and also fell back to defend, when necessary. This was in sharp contrast to the norm for full-backs then, who stayed in the defence to defend at all times. Stephen Keshi’s then overlapping runs down the right flank earned him that nickname. At left-full back was Jones Nseyo; at centre-half back was Amechi Nwaogu – Livinus; at left-half back was my very good friend and football mentor JOACHINS ARONU OGUGUA, alias GORIMAPA. The two-man midfield comprised of Emeka James, as defensive mid-fielder and Nathaniel Ogedengbe, who was the team’s captain, as creative mid-fielder. The four-man attack squard comprised the following: Wakilu Oyenuga at outside right; Samuel Owoh, at inside right; Henry Nwosu at centre-forward and the late Adedeji Obe at outside-left. They were a beauty to behold! In Hockey, if it were the case, they will be described as having a dynamic hockey chemistry.
Stephen Keshi and Henry Nwosu were called up and played for the Junior Eagles, the precursor of the present Flying Eagles. And later on they were called up again to the Super Eagles. In preparation for the 1980, African Cup of Nation’s competition, the following members of that legendary school boys’ team were invited to the Super Eagles camp for screening, namely my very good friend and mentor JOACHINS ARONU OGUGUA, Wakilu Oyenuga, Samuel Owoh, Henry Nwosu and Stephen Keshi. My good friend JOACHINS ARONU, left the Eagles camp, due to injury, sustained in training, he was later to leave for the United – states of America via Enugu Rangers, in search of the Golden Fleece. Henry Nwosu, made the final 22-man list for the Nation’s Cup, while the other players fell short of the requirements. Keshi was one of them.
Notwithstanding that initial set-back, Stephen Keshi trudged on like the true Trojan Horse Person he is; playing for clubs in Lagos state like: Wema Bank and ACB Football Clubs. At the end of his college studies at St. Finbarrs, he relocated to Benin City, and was enrolled at Eghosa Grammar School, in Benin City. While there in Benin City, he played for and eventually captained the New-Nigerian Bank Football Club of Benin City, 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. He came into the match as a substitute, to replace the much rusty Christian Chukwu in the second-half, with the Eagles down 2-O. He made his impact felt, with his long throws, power packed shots and his characteristic overlapping runs. I still remember how he stopped the rampaging Mustapha Koichi, who hitherto terrorised our Nigerian defence.
Keshi made his Nation’s Cup debut, in Libya, in 1982; scoring two goals in the opening match against Ethiopia, a match in which the Eagles triumphed 3-0. As a result of our early elimination from that tournament, the then NFA, sacked the Brazilian Coach and disbanded the Eagles. Chief Festus Adegboye Onigbinde, was charged with the task of rebuilding the Eagles. He made Keshi captain of the new -look Super Eagles. The team under his tutelage, qualified for the 1984 edition of the Nation’s cup competition. After a not too impressive first round performance, reached the Semi-finals, and confronted the pharaohs of Egypt. Within the first 15 minutes, the Eagles were 2 goals down. I thought it was all over; but the Eagles under the leadership of Keshi fought back. And towards the end of the first half, they earned, a penalty when the rampaging Chibuzor Ehilegbu, was brought down in the penalty box. The resultant spot-kick was initially missed by Keshi, but he was alert enough to score from the rebound for which he was hailed.
With scores 2-1, the Eagles piled on the pressure in the second half and were rewarded in the 75th minute, when Bala Ali scored with a glancing header ,off a Stephen Keshi lob in , for the equaliser. From then onwards, the momentum, was on our side and we eventually won the penalty shoot-out, when scores remained 2-2, after 120 minutes. The young dynamic and inexperienced Nigerian side lost to the more experienced Cameroonian side in the finals 3-1.
In 1985, Stephen Keshi’s career with the Super Eagles, nose-dived, when as a consequence of reporting late to the Eagles camp, was banned for 2 years by then NFA, alongside Henry Nwosu, Bright Omokaro, Sunday Eboigbe, and Clement Temile. Keshi was eventually stripped of the captain’s band. Having failed to convince the NFA for a grant of pardon, after due apologies, Stephen Keshi left for the Ivory Coast that gave him the opportunity to play soccer without NFA’s clearance. He 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 club sides. He won many 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. It must be recalled and be put to note that Stephen Keshi was a household name in Belgium and, indeed, served as a pioneer and contact medium for Nigerian soccer pros to Europe. He stood tall and broke grounds that turned attention to Nigeria to look for his likes.
However, Keshi later on played for Strasbourg FC of France, a second division side. And he eagerly helped earn the club a 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. A final that would be remembered for the brilliant goal scored by Henry Nwosu – off of a brilliant right-wing cross by the mesmerising Ndubuisi Okosieme, the son of the legendary Rangers/Bendel Insurance goal-keeper, Cyril Okosieme. This star player single handedly tore the Cameroonian defence to shreds – which was unfairly cancelled by the referee. No wonder sometimes, they say, that soccer sucks!
In 1989, under pressure from the media, after a sterling performance in Angola, during a 1990 world-cup qualifier against Angola, in which he scored the equaliser that levelled scores 2-2, Stephen Keshi, was re-appointed Super Eagles Captain – after an interregnum of 4 years. In his absence and in goodfaith, Henry Nwosu and Peter Rufai filed in for him as Captains of the Super Eagles. The Super Eagles under the leadership of Keshi failed to qualify for the World Cup in Italy in 1990. They were treated so after having been stopped by Cameroun, in Yaounde, in 1989.
After the 1990 world cup failure, the Dutch man Clemens Westerhoff was charged with the task of rebuilding the Eagles – as a favoured foreign coach. He did this with Stephen Keshi as the captain of the Eagles. 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. The Eagles, under the captaincy of Stephen Keshi – then largely a non-playing captain – was one of three countries that represented Africa in the World Cup. The Eagles impressed all and sundry, with their scintillating brand of attacking soccer; losing narrowly to Italy in the second round 2-1. Stephen Keshi only played one game, in the 2-0 victory over Greece. He kept the spirit; nutured his guys with international relevance.
After the 1994 World Cup, Stephen Keshi left the national side, with the ovation at its loudest, and began studying for his Coaching Diploma. His first coaching assignment was as an Assistant Coach to Bonfree Jo, during preparations for the 2000 nation’s cup competition. The tournament was jointly hosted by Nigeria and Ghana. That competition was particularly noteworthy by the way we lost in the finals; through a dubious decision of the Tunisian Referee, who cancelled a penalty goal scored by Victor Ikpeba. The Cameroonians won the penalty shoot-out 4 – 3.
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 Stephen Keshi and Amodu Shaibu. 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 to the world cup proper!
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, who inherited a team in tatters. He inherited the onerous task of rebuilding the Super Eagles – then ranked 63rd in the world; 10th in Africa and rightly or wrongly called the ‘Super Chickens’ by the Elephants of Ivory Coast. In 15 months, Keshi remarkably turned around the fortunes of the Super Eagles, unexpectedly, making them the African Champions to the bargain!
Now we are back to the pinnacle of African soccer at the highest level. It is a seasoned time, I must suggest, for Keshi to keep his feet firmly on the ground. He should not be carried away by the encomiums he is getting now, including being named after a stadium in Delta State. He should concentrate on the task of rebuilding the Eagles. I am so happy he learns from experience and that he realises he does not have his dream team yet. This timely coming back to win the African Nations Cup for Nigeria is priceless, and indeed, calls for every good intention he needs to move on and do more. We want him to constantly remember that a coach is as good as his last match! For now a very, very big Kudos to this great son of Nigeria!
My friend Chukwudi Dikko has commented on this article when it was first posted on my Facebook last Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013. He said it is an amazing depth, which in his opinion is historically accurate and brilliantly analyzed as only an ”eye-witness” could have done. As a Finbarrian eye-witness, Chukwudi Dikko compliments that the write-up is a fine job to post the article in the way it appeared. However, I appreciate his inclusion of the name of the great Coach at St. Finbarrs who happened to be Mike Malagu. My friend was happy he later played with him for Shell Club in Lagos. He further mentioned that Emeka James and himself ended up as roommates at University of Lagos (UNILAG).
Another important name that was left out which my friend gracefully filled in was Father Slattery, the Great Principal at Finbarrs who created the most successful Football Academy that produced the bulk of players for the Super Eagles throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s. One of the regrets he listed in a sad note is this: “It is sad that Governor Jakande’s free education program in Lagos State and the hijacking of all private Missionary Schools unintentionally destroyed great schools and great programs like St. Finbarrs, St. Gregory, and CMS Grammar Schools among others. The collapse of these great programs ultimately and inevitably led to the collapse of Nigerian football, as the supply chain of great talents became disrupted.”
In general, one can praise Stephen Keshi for the feat he has accomplished over his soccer career which has taken him across countries with huge experiences and bigger dreams of how to transmit what he acquired to younger Nigerians in the field. Stephen Keshi, as I must recall, has always beamed himself to search-sports cameras as a star and model to Nigerian football. With discipline and strong character to focus on issues and make the connections with less arrogance, Nigerians will continue to shower him with praises due to a legend. His contemporaries such as Amokachi, Nwankwo, Okocha, Amunike, Siasia, Finidi, Nwanu, Oliseh and Taribo have rallied around him – mentally, physically and through messages like no other soccer legend in Nigeria. The goodwill and massive support at the moment which Stephen Keshi, his colleagues and fans are flying around with should carry the business of soccer to no limits for all Nigerians and Africans who are in this career field.
To put it simply, “praise” is a good word and a follower of a hero, a legend and a goal getter. It is Keshi of our time in Nigerian soccer story, the man of the moment with demonstrated ability and capacity to lead and win as a home guy. Soccer is a popular aggressive team sport where young players clash with their skills, energies, experiences and opportunities, including the manner in which calling of the shot-egos by the powers that be and administrative styles can either make or unmake championship dreams come true. In Keshi, we saw, we shouted, we supported, we transformed and we won with him.
Nigeria ran infectiously wild with jubilation in Keshi and his soccer boys. Bravo! All we are saying is get us more championships by doing what legendary figures do best! They do not quit, nor threaten to quit, rather they surprise you, despite challenges, with timely results as you caused to happen with the African Nations Cup Championship victory as a player and as a coach.