A Tribute to the Big Boss, Stephen Okechukwu Keshi
I will always remember the 1994 Nations Cup with fondness because it was my proudest football moment as a Nigerian. Heck, I wasn’t born when the nation won it’s first Nations Cup on home soil in 1980 but you can understand. Tunisia hosted 12 of Africa’s finest nations with my Nigeria paired in the same group with Egypt and Gabon. Nigeria and Egypt took turns to destroy Gabon then shared the spoils with each other. Yekini was on fire as Nigeria defeated Zaire in the quarterfinals but the nation had to rely on the lottery of penalties to go past Cote d’Ivoire in the semis. Zambia provided stiff opposition in the finals but two goals from Emmanuel Amuneke were enough to grant the Super Eagles their first Nations Cup in 14 years.
That Nations Cup triumph saw Nigeria reached their highest ever position in the FIFA rankings, as the Eagles were in fifth place. The squad qualified for their maiden World Cup in United States and managed to scale through a group that Bulgaria, Argentina and Greece before losing to a Roberto Baggio-inspired Italy. A year later, after notching up 64 caps in 14 years of service to his country, Stephen Keshi retired from international football.
He continued his club career for two American clubs, Central California Valley Hydra and Sacramento Scorpions, before hanging his boots in 1998 after a brief stint with Malaysian outfit, Perlis FA.
Keshi’s first shot at management level was at the 2001 African Youth Championships but he failed to qualify the junior Eagles from a group that featured alongside Ghana, Angola and Mali. He waited for another three years before signing a contract to manage the Togolese National Team. 2006 was a historic year for the Togolese as Keshi qualified the nation for the Nations Cup in Egypt and the World Cup in Germany. Togo crashed out of the group stages in both tournaments, losing all three games, but it was a worthwhile experience nonetheless.
Following Togo’s dismal performance in the World Cup, some internal problems saw the German lose his job in 2007 and Keshi was re-hired as the Togolese gaffer. Keshi couldn’t repeat his 2006 heroics as Togo failed to qualify for the 2008 Nations Cup, so he switched to Mali, leading them to the 2010 Nations Cup in Angola but he was sacked after their poor showing in the tournament.
Then Keshi came home…
After leading Nigeria to the 2013 Nations Cup in South Africa, he led a team that had the perfect blend of home-based and foreign-based players that fought for each other and became stronger with each passing game. The Group Stages were rather shaky – two draws against Burkina Faso and Zambia put the team in a precarious position but a win against Ethiopia was enough to claim second place. The quarterfinals against Ivory Coast was an epic match but goals from Emmanuel Emenike and Sunday Mba sent Nigeria to the semis. The semis against Mali was a massacre so it was down to another game with Burkina Faso, a team Nigeria couldn’t beat in the early phase of the tournament. Mba did his thing again and Nigeria were champions.
Keshi, along with Egypt’s Mahmoud El-Gohary, became a legend that had won the Nations Cup as a player and a manager.
The Nation Cup triumph paved the way for Nigeria’s second appearance in the Confederations Cup in Brazil. Nigeria’s first appearance was in the 1995 King Fahd’s Cup in Saudi Arabia and they finished in fourth place. However, Nigeria crashed out from the group stages and preparations for the 2014 World Cup kicked off.
Keshi qualified for the World Cup and reached the Round of 16 before losing to France. Then things turned sour between the big boss and NFF. He failed to qualify the team to the 2015 Nations Cup in Equatorial Guinea which was rather embarrassing, because I haven’t heard where a defending champion could not even qualify for the subsequent tournament to defend their crown.
On a personal note, he lost his wife, Kate, in a battle with cancer and that hit him pretty hard. They had been married for 33 years and they had four children. It was also reported that Keshi was hypertensive and according to the reports from close sources, he showed no signs of illness before he gave up the ghost in the early hours of this morning, which can be attributed to a cardiac arrest.
Keshi will also be remembered for his exploits on the field of play and his legacy will live on for generations to come as the man that brought a ray of light back to Nigerian football. Between the Nations Cup he won as a player in 1994 and the Nations Cup he won as a manager in 2013, Nigeria withdrew once (1996), was banned once (1998), won the Bronze medal four times (2002, 04, 06, 10), won a silver medal (2000), crashed out in the quarterfinals (2008) and didn’t even qualify in 2012.
Adieu Big Boss.
We know you’re resting in a better place.
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