By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
Today spells death. It was a classic case of death at dawn. Stephen Okechukwu Chinedu Keshi was in his playing career arguably the most influential player ever to play football in Nigeria. The image that overwhelmed me immediately his death broke was of Keshi standing by my side while the Super Eagles of the golden era trained in the main bowl of National Stadium, Surulere. Keshi was not training with his mates. We just stood by the side of pitch. Elite athletes such as Mary Onyeali, Falilat Ogunkoya etc were training on the tartan track. Keshi told me many stories. In short, we were gossiping and generally having fun until he suddenly stopped talking and asked me this question: “Did you come with him?” He pointed at a fellow squatting behind me. It was only then that I saw the young reporter who was behind me writing copiously in his notebook all the words coming from Keshi’s mouth. Of course I made sure I tore up all the “reports” that the overzealous reporter had copied. If it had been published it would have been the greatest scandal of all, a total betrayal of trust!
Keshi is dead. He died at about 3am today. He was the lionized of players. As the head coach of Nigeria, Keshi added yet another feather to his cap by becoming one of only two people, along with Egypt‘s Mahmoud El-Gohary, to have won the Africa Cup of Nations as a player and a coach. Keshi won the cup as a player in 1994 and as a coach in 2013.
Born on January 23, 1962) in Lagos, Keshi hailed from Ilah in the Anioma area of Delta State, a town renowned for producing great football stars and administrators such as the celebrated administrator late Pa John Ojidoh, former captain of Leventis United Matthew Onyeamah, Bendel Insurance legend Sam Ikedi etc. Keshi was conferred with the high national honour of Commander of the Order of the Niger by the then President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan for leading Nigeria’s Super Eagles to win the 2013 AFCON trophy in South Africa.
Popularly acclaimed as “Big Boss”, Keshi led a team that was largely unheralded to defeat all comers. Keshi started his football career quite early in Ebenezer Primary School in the Ebute-Meta, near COSTAIN, Lagos. He then starred for St. Finbarrs College, Akoka, distinguishing himself in the Principal’s Cup competition among secondary schools. He was drafted into the Greater Tomorrow age-group league at the national level before graduating into the Under-21 National Team, the Flying Eagles.
Keshi started his football club career in 1979 with the African Continental Bank (ACB) team, Lagos. He played just ten games for ACB, scoring one goal, before transferring to the star-studded New Nigerian Bank (NNB) of Benin in 1980. Between 1980 and 1984 he played 42 times for NNB, scoring four goals and winning the WAFU Cup in 1983 and 1984.
Keshi was drafted into the then Green Eagles as a replacement for the ageing skipper of the team Christian Chukwu after the winning of the African Cup of Nations in Lagos in 1980. He led the Eagles to the final of the 1984 African Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast under coach Adegboye Onigbinde where the team lost 3-1 to Cameroun.
The Nigerian Football Association (NFA) under the chairmanship of Air Commodore Anthony Ikhazoboh, now late, banned Keshi and some of his mates for indiscipline. Keshi travelled to Cote d’Ivoire in 1985 to sign for Stade d’Abidjan where he played 13 times and scored two goals whilst winning Coupe Houphoet Boigny for two years in 1985 and 1986. In 1986 he moved over to Africa Sports of Cote d’Ivoire, playing 22 times, scoring two goals, and winning the double of Côte d’Ivoire Premier Division and the Côte d’Ivoire Coupe.
Keshi then led the charge of Nigerian players playing professionally in Europe when he was signed-on by Belgian club Lokeren in 1986, and in his one season for the club played 28 times and scored 6 goals. He then transferred to the giants of Belgium, Anderlecht, in 1987. He starred for Anderlecht from 1987 to 1991, playing 99 matches and scoring 18 goals. He won the Belgian Cup in 1988 and 1989, and the Jupiler League in 1991.
Between 1991 and 1993, he was with RC Strasbourg in the French League, scoring nine goals in 62 appearances. He then went back to Belgium, playing 40 times for Molenbeek and scoring one goal in the 1993/94 season. He played 20 games for CCV Hydra in 1995 where he scored one goal. In 1996 he took his services to Sacramento Scorpions, USA, playing 16 times whilst scoring three goals. His last club was Perlis FA in Malaysia, playing 34 games in the 1997/98 season and scoring four goals. In 2000, an unprecedented testimonial match was arranged for him in Lagos.
His national team career with the Eagles spanned from 1981 to 1995. He won 64 caps, scoring nine goals. He took over the skipper’s band in 1982, and capped his career with the appearance in the 1994 World Cup in Atlanta, USA with a match against Greece which the Super Eagles won 2-0.
Keshi then took to football coaching, becoming at various times an integral part of the coaching staff for the Nigerian national team. He was the head coach for the Flying Eagles at the 2001 African Youth Championship which also served as qualification for the 2001 FIFA World Youth Championship. The team could not qualify.
In 2004 Keshi was appointed the head coach of the Togo national team, and he shocked the world by qualifying the minnows for their first World Cup tournament, Germany 2006. Even with the epochal qualification for the World Cup the Togolese officialdom surprisingly replaced Keshi with the veteran German coach Otto Pfister. The excuse the Togo officials put to use was Togo’s dismal performance in the 2006 African Cup of Nations in Egypt where the team failed to advance to the knock-out stage.
However, Pfister did not last beyond a controversial World Cup campaign that nearly resulted in a players’ strike over pay. Togo remained without a manager until February 2007 when they re-engaged Keshi in time for a friendly against Cameroon.
Keshi worked as manager of the Mali national football team, after being appointed in April 2008 on a two-year deal. He was sacked in January 2010, after Mali’s early exit in the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations.
Keshi was eventually appointed the head coach of the Super Eagles in 2011. He of course led Nigeria to qualification for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, which the Super Eagles went on to win, defeating Burkina Faso 1–0 in the final. The following day, there was the disturbing news that Keshi had handed-in his resignation. The resignation was rescinded a day after. There of course followed the melodrama of Keshi’s sack, re-appointment and eventual sack by the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) but that is neither here nor there for now.
Married to his beloved heartthrob “Nkem” Kate Aburime for some 35 years, Keshi was Nigeria’s legendary role model, a precious gift to Africa and the world at large.