Stephen Okechukwu Keshi who passed on in the early hours of today is one of the most iconic African footballers, and one of the most successful. The former Nigerian captain, who coached the Super Eagles to their second Nations Cup victory, in 2013, had a fair dose of controversies around him, starting from his playing days.
His family, in confirming the story, said he died, possibly of cardiac arrest in Benin City. The family said he never recovered from mourning his wife, Kate, who died in December 2015 from cancer after a three-year battle with the illness. They had been married for 33 years and they had four children.
Keshi, with team mates like Slyvanus Okpalla, were products of a youth programme that the Nigeria Football Association had in the 70s. He came from the 1978 St. Finbarrs’ team that was in the final of the Lagos State Principals’ Cup. Henry Nwosu, Franklin Howard were among his Finbarrs’ team mates.
They were eventually members of the Eagles with Nwosu being into the Eagles winning 1980 Nations Cup. Keshi prospered through the ranks and captained Nigeria for 10 years, in a leadership that saw him winning the Nations Cup as a player in Tunisia. In 2013, he won the Nations Cup as coach, the second African to do so, and the only Nigerian to have coached the Super Eagles to the title. Nigeria’s two earlier successes at the Nations Cup were with foreign coaches Otto Gloria (Brazilian, who coached Portugal to the third place at the 1966 World Cup, beating Brazil in the process, 1980) and less famous Westerhof (Dutch, 1994).Egypt’s Mahmoud El-Gohary was the first African to win the Africa Cup of Nations as a player, and as a coach.
He created an African record of Nigeria being the first African country to have qualified for the World Cup as Nation Cup champions. This should not be confused with the situation in 1974 when Zaire by an agreement of the Confederation of African Football, CAF, went to the World Cup in West Germany, as Nations Cup champion – that year, and for the only time, the Nations Cup champion represented Africa at the World Cup.
Keshi had presence. He dominated his environment. He created his own space to operate. He could not have been around for as long as he did without making friends and enemies in appropriate measures. He was the successful pioneer who took Nigerian football abroad. He was always outspoken, a trait that regularly generated the controversies. His silence also went through bouts of analysis. It was not a wonder that they nicknamed him the Big Boss, a moniker he lived out to the admiration and angst of those on both divides of the Keshi spectrum which lengthened during the Keshi years.
Clemence Westerhof, Nigeria’s most successful foreign coach, found a great ally in Keshi, who was heading towards the end of his career, but remained hugely the most influential player in the team. Working with some of Nigeria’s talented players, and the investments that government made in the training of the team, through the instrumentality of late Chief SB Williams, a multi-million in real money, friend of late Admiral Augustus Aikhomu, General Ibrahim Babangida’s Chief of General Staff, Keshi and Westerhof created a winning team. Williams, a member of the Nigeria Football Association, later Chairman of the National Sports Commission board, hired Westerhof, paid the bills, including overseas trainings for the Eagles, without waiting for government. It is doubtful if Westerhof would have succeeded without Williams’ known generosity and passion for the success of the Eagles. It is more doubtful if Keshi’s career would have progressed or ended as well as it did without the support that he got in those later years.
His playing career took him through clubs in Lagos and New Nigerian Bank of Benin. A ban on him and his mate Nwosu for not turning up on time for national call up; saw them taking their career to Cote d’Ivoire. Nwosu returned to Nigeria while Keshi continued to Belgium, France, Belgium, and the United States, where he played and undertook coaching courses. He won the West African Club Championship won with New Nigerian Bank (1983, 1984) and Coupe Houphoet Boigny (1985, 1986) with Stade d’Abidjan, the Côte d’Ivoire Premier Division I and the Côte d’Ivoire Coupe (1986) with Africa Sport, and the Belgian Cup (1988, 1989) and the Jupiler League (1991) with Anderlecht.
Keshi was one of the Super Eagles’ most decorated players. He play 64 times for Nigeria, appearing in the augural 1994 World, winning medals in the Nations Cup (gold, 1994), silver (1984, 1988) bronze (1992). His first Nations Cup dates back to 1982, when Nigeria as the defending champion did not progress beyond the preliminaries. He topped these with heights in coaching that no Nigerian, dead or living has attained.
His troubled relationship with the Nigeria Football Federation continued after the 2013 Nations Cup victory. He announced his resignation in reaction to the series of criticisms of his technical abilities before the Nations Cup victory. He was persuaded to stay. The 2014 World Cup performance was all that his critics required to sack him without paying his entitlements, which were always in arrears.
CAF decorated him as a Football Legend and Coach of the Year, 2013. Messages of condolences are pouring in. The earliest was from Sani Toro, former Secretary General of NFA, who praised Keshi’s contributions to the game across the world, and extended his sympathies to the family and the football family.
|1980–1984||New Nigeria Bank||42||(4)|
Keshi’s Appearances and goals