Late Nigerian legend Stephen Keshi is one of only two people to have won the Africa Cup of Nations as a player and manager, and the only black African to coach in the knockout phase of a World Cup. ’TANA AIYEJINA looks at the top 10 greatest moments of the Big Boss
Keshi began his international career with the Flying Eagles in the late 70s but missed out on the 1980 Africa Cup of Nations on home soil by a whisker. However, he made his senior Nigeria debut the following year—July 18, 1981 — against Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso, as a fresh-faced starry-eyed youngster. He then went on to win 64 caps in total, playing in five AFCON tournaments, one World Cup and playing his final game for Nigeria against Greece at the 1994 World Cup.
Winning the double in Ivory Coast
In 1984, Keshi was expelled from the national team after reporting late to camp. But the player moved to Ivorian side Stade Abidjan a year later and inspired them to two cup wins. He joined giants Africa Sports and Keshi was influential in Les Aiglons’ league and cup double in 1986. His performances in Ivory Coast caught the eye of modest Belgian side Lokeren, from where giants Anderlecht snatched him.
Winning 1994 AFCON
Having won two silver (1984 and 1988) and one bronze (1992), and appearing in four Africa Cup of Nations, Keshi was in the twilight of his career in 1994 and it looked like he was never going to lift Africa’s top football trophy.
But the 32-year-old led a crop of talented squad, now regarded as the golden generation of Nigerian football, to a second AFCON title in Tunisia, as the Super Eagles defeated Zambia 2-1 in the final. Keshi played bit part in the victory, but he made history as the first Nigerian to lift the AFCON trophy away from home, 14 years after the Eagles won it in Lagos.
Leading Nigeria to ’94 World Cup
Nigeria had never qualified for the World Cup before, coming agonizingly close in 1978 before a dreadful Godwin Odiye own goal denied the country the chance to make a debut at that year’s event in Argentina. And it seemed the jinx would continue for a long time to come, when the Eagles, needing just a draw in Yaounde against the dreaded Indomitable Lions of Cameroon to advance to the 1990 World Cup in Italy, lost 1-0 under new coach Clemens Westerhof.
However, five years later, the Dutchman had assembled a new side mixed with experience and youth, with Keshi as the leader. The Eagles beat Ivory Coast to the ticket for the ’94 World Cup and an ageing Keshi played their final Group D game against Greece. The Eagles won 2-0 and advanced to the Round of 16, where they were stopped by a Roberto Baggio inspired Italian side.
Qualifying Togo for 2006 World Cup
As a coach, Keshi managed the Flying Eagles before he was named as assistant to Eagles coaches Bonfrere Jo and Amodu Shuaibu. Under Dutchman Bonfrere, Keshi helped the Eagles reach the final of the 2000 AFCON in Lagos but he was sacked alongside Amodu in 2002 despite the duo qualifying the team for that year’s World Cup.
He returned to coaching in 2004 with Togo and how he steered the Hawks to a first-ever World Cup qualification is still folklore in the football world. However, a spat with the Togolese authorities and influential striker Emmanuel Adebayor saw him given the boot, paving the way for German coach Otto Pfister to lead the tiny West African country to the Mundial in his home country.
Winning 2013 AFCON
After the Togo debacle, Keshi went on to manage Mali but was sacked after Les Aigles crashed out in the group stage of the 2010 AFCON. Keshi then secured the Nigeria coaching job in 2011 after the Eagles, under Samson Siasia, failed to qualify for the following year’s AFCON.
Keshi began a rebuilding process, doing away with the team’s established stars Osaze Odemwingie, Obafemi Martins, Taye Taiwo and others, and taking rookies Kenneth Omeruo, Godfrey Oboabona, Sunday Mba, Ogenyi Onazi and others to the 2013 AFCON in South Africa. It irked the authorities but like a cat with nine lives, Keshi against all odds secured a third AFCON title for his country after a long and tortuous 19-year wait.
The feat made him the second man after Egypt’s Mahmoud El Gohary, to win the AFCON as a player and coach.
Two-time African best coach
Keshi was named CAF African Coach of the Year in 2005 and 2013 after qualifying Togo for the World Cup and winning the AFCON title with Nigeria using largely inexperienced players. They were awards well deserved, which elevated him into the top class of the best coaching talents on the continent.
Qualifying Nigeria for 2014 World Cup
After earlier disappointments of not attending the World Cup despite helping Nigeria—as assistant coach—in 2002 and Togo —as head coach—in 2006 qualify for the Mundial, Keshi finally got his big chance after he qualified the Eagles for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The feat made him the first African coach to qualify two different countries for the World Cup.
Reaching Round of 16 in Brazil
At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the Eagles started on a shaky note after being held 0-0 by Iran. But they bounced back 1-0 against Bosnia and even though they lost 3-2 to Argentina in their final Group F game, the Eagles qualified for the Round of 16, where they lost 2-0 to France.
Despite the defeat, Keshi equaled Nigeria’s best performance at the World Cup and in the process emerged the only black African to coach in the knockout phase of a World Cup.
CHAN 2014 bronze
Nigeria did not qualify for the first two editions of the African Nations Championship, a competition for African footballers playing in their domestic leagues. But once again, Keshi weaved the magic, qualifying the home-based Eagles for the 2014 edition in South Africa and finishing in third place. Most importantly was eye-catching displays and results from his team, which included a 3-1 win over hosts South Africa, 4-2 defeat of Mozambique and an amazing comeback against Morocco in the quarter-final. After falling behind 3-0 before half-time in Cape Town, Keshi’s team drew level through Ejike Uzoenyi in added time, before grabbing the winner in extra time to stir up rapturous celebrations back home.