My name is Ronald Reagan, I’m the President of the United States of America. But you don’t need to introduce yourself, because everyone knows who Pele is.”
The above dictum as per Ronald Reagan, the hollywood actor turned POTUS, similarly my childhood hero needs no introduction as he’s simply the revolutionary Stephen Okechukwu Keshi, the longest serving captain of the Super Eagles who transmitted into being the most successful African Coach (if world cup qualification is the yardstick – ask Pierre WoméWome who missed a 95th minute penalty against the Egyptians to handover the World Cup ticket to francophone debutants – Cote d’ Ivoire or the fabled Godwin Odiye whose 1977 own goal against the Tunisian Carthage Eagles overshadowed his 1980 Nations Cup triumph in the Nigerian soccer folks fore). A vital part of my childhood and adolescent years exited the globe in the early hours of 8th June, 2017 with the sudden death of the ‘Big Boss’Stephen Okechukwu Keshi.
I was just a 5 year old boy when President Reagan became the 40th American President in 1981, the same year
Keshi earned his first cap to become an Eagle and a future leader in the mould of the very distinguished Christian Chukwu, Segun Odegbami and Mudal Lawal (Chukwu andMuda being my late dad’s favorites) SK, a household name in the sub region afte rthe successful back to back WAFU Cup campaign with the Benin based New Nigerian Bank (NNB), a true revolutionary in every sense of the word was the trail blazer for Nigerian players as the skill exportation commenced in commercial quantity with his ban induced move to Cote d’ Ivoire which made the neighbouring country the destination of other gifted Nigerian players who made the Ivorien league the envy of the African scene back in the glorious 80’s & 90’s, the ‘forced’ bold step was after the Group Captain Tony Ikhazoboh’s led NFA imposed ban for issues that touches on indiscipline as the player and his team mates were caught in the mesh of club/country row. His next daring step outside the shores of the continent in 1986 to K.S.C. Lokeren was a GDP booster for the economy as Nigeria players simply followed in his footstep and Belgium became the ‘Mecca’of Nigerian players of that era from where the football revolution started and even the legendary AC Milan scout did not evaluate left fullback Taiye Taiwo asin the words of Paolo Maldini, “It says a lot when a player is a Nigerian, they are very talented and technical”
He graced the defunct European Cup Winners Cup final with side Anderlecht in 1990 losing in extra time to two quick GianlucaVialli’s goals (who later became a winning coach with Chelsea in 1998), his 18 goals in 99 appearances for Anderlecht as a defender was a prolific bargain for both parties with the Jupiler title in 1991 and the back to back Belgian Cup in 1988 and 1989, he was privileged to do the captaincy band in Belgium before achieving the feat with RC Strasbourgthe side he led to gain promotion to the French Ligue 1 as skipper.
He gracefully competed in 4 continents for club sides – Africa, Europe, North America and Asia. Capped 64 times with 9 goals (scored for every side he played for with 51 goals in 386 appearances at club level) and missed a penalty in the 0-3 victory over the Togolese Hawks (his future side as a manager) en-route Senegal 92. Keshi as a player was there to lead the revolution of the national team from the Green Eagles to the Super Eagles via the Papa Eagles routes of the mid-80’s. As a player, he gloriously led Nigeria to be the 5th top footballing nation, a feat yet to be achieved by any other African nation and as a manager he made Nigeria the African champions for the 3rd time and a record equaling 2nd round outing at the mundial.
Exit the player and enter the Coach, this writer joined other faithfuls in agitating for his appointment as the National Team manager aftermath of the France 98 World Cup, and as the rave of the moment in the coaching business, the Algeria born French legend – ZinedineZidane predicted in 2002 after his stunning strike in Glasgow delivered the 9th topmost club side European title to SantiagoBernabéu, that he wanted to win the 10th, 11th and 12th for Real Madrid, a forecast that was fulfilled in 2014 as assistant to Carlo Ancelotti in Lisbon and in his own element as Manager in Milan (2016) and Cardiff (2017).
Likewise I anticipated the successful reign of Keshi as a National Team Manager in 1998 with the evergreen article “Give us Keshi’ that received wide publicity amongst the mainstream sporting media of that era, Keshi became the first coach of African descent to deliver mundial tickets to two African countries an achievement that sandwiched qualifying Togo, Mali and Nigeria for the AFCON he also participated in 5 editions as a player with 4 goals in 14 matches from 1982 till 1994.
Stephen Okechukwu Keshi is the other part of the pair to have won the African Cup of Nations as a player and a coach, the other being the legendary Egyptian Mahmoud El Gohary. The miracle of Togo’s mundial qualification can only be appreciated in the context of LiecesterCity’s fairly-tale English premier league triumph that fetched Claudio Ranierithe FIFA Coach of the year. The fortuitous coach only wanted to oblige the daughter as the make shift school coach and got the spark back when he stepped in to coach his daughter’s team in the United States from where he worked as assistant to Bonfrere Jo and the equally gifted Amodu Shuaibu before his full reign as a Manager started with the Flying Eagles the same team he was opportuned to lead in his baptism of national duty, and twice he was CAF coach of the year in 2005 and 2013 beating the array of indigenous and expatriate personnel both journey men and real professionals.
Keshi, a revolutionary is comparable to the late sage Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s exceptional leadership, himself a distinguished pioneer and a man of many firsts, before his appointment the Home-based Eagles never qualified for the Africa Nations Championship (CHAN), but Keshi marshaled the team to a podium 3rd place finish which remain sour best outing till date! The revolution went a step further as hitherto unsung players from the domestic scene were called up to the AFCON squad not just to make up the numbers but actually emerged victorious to become household names, a bold move that delighted his army of Pull Him Down (PHD) critics, but as rightly christened by the late MudaLawal as Olubodun Ti oteri aka Koteri (the one never disgraced), he was vindicated.
His well documented issues with the football authority is obviously not a template for success as the nations’s footballing body the Nigeria Football Federation erred in vision and stumbled in judgement in the Keshi saga that got him booted out, the Federation’s inability to manage success is well renowned and hence Keshi naturally became a victim of the No Football Focus (pardon my pun) body. For his several successful services, he was serially owed till death and yet the availability of funds to secure the much loved US Dollar draining expatriates was never in doubt, my eternal credit to the former President – Dr. Goodluck Jonathan who ensured the national icon was not made to fail as designed by his employers who were more interested in the last indigenous card has failed mantra in order to have the expatriate juice.
It has been touted that the field of psychoneuroimmunology has researched into the possibility of writing about pains and secret feelings helping to boost the body’s immune system, if so am relieved, once more thank you Big Boss for the pleasant moments your unparalleled service, leadership,personality and those wonderful moments in my formative years and thereafter, little wonder at my zeal and eagerness in rising to your defense at the slightest opportunity .Can I ever forget the wonderful posters of yours that jealously guarded my rooms?. Thank you ‘Bobby Moore’ (as he was called during his early days) for everything, you are indeed a truly distinguished Nigerian, who literally and figuratively defended our sovereignty as a nation. The nationalism in Keshi made him served without complaint or bitterness even in the face of revealed the domestic issues when the wife’s health challenges was made public as she finally passed on in December, 2015. The whole nation had to salute the courage of Skippo, as lesser mortals would have caved in to the domestic and national pressure.
In the words of the legendary Hungarian forward, Ferenc Puskas in describing Pele, “The greatest player in history was Di Stefano. I refuse to classify Pele as a player” that is why like all mortal sand much more heroes, Keshi even though not without blemish remains my childhood hero and not a player who I never met at close range lest that Reality destroys Fantasies about my childhood hero. And finally in his memorable words, people don’t have to believe in you for you to succeed. Just work hard.
When you succeed, they will believe.” Yes we believe! May the good Lord comfort the family and the nation in Jesus’s name, Amen. Regards to Kate your lifelong pillar, and lest I forget we still await the national
monument to be named after you (and also Emmanuel Ifeajuna), but you remain in our hearts.
Opeyemi Ajala FCA
Former Presenter – EagleSports Hour on Eagle Cable Television
(Article was written last year to commemorate his first year remembrance)