Buzz by Olumide Iyanda
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @mightyng
There must be something President Goodluck Jonathan sees in Stephen Okechukwu Keshi that the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) and angry football fans never saw or no longer see. If it were not for presidential intervention, the AFCON 2013 winner would have been out of job by now. Shaibu Amodu, used to being used and discarded by Nigerian football authorities, would have been interim coach until a foreigner was found. But Keshi was re-instated, two weeks after Amodu was drafted to replace him, thanks to Aso Rock. A temporary halt has now been put to the chaos that became manifest after France knocked Nigeria out of the World Cup in Brazil.
The turmoil in the football house since Joseph Yobo put an own goal pass a hapless Vincent Enyeama in Brazil on June 30 has seen the exit of Aminu Maigari as NFF president, the emergence of Chris Giwa and Amaju Pinnick laying claim to leadership of the association and Nigeria at the brink of not qualifying for AFCON 2015. FIFA has banned and unbanned Nigeria, and the African champion has become an embarrassment to itself. Mr. President simply had to “interfere” by calling the warring factions to a meeting in Abuja. Using cohesive diplomacy, he ordered Giwa to drop his claim to the NFF presidency and ruled that Pinnick recall Keshi.
“If the President of my country asked me to return, who am I to refuse?” Keshi, who had threatened to resign as Super Eagles coach in the past, told journalists at the Abuja National Stadium on Thursday, October 30.
Many had looked past the havoc caused by Nigerian football administrators and blamed the coach for the Super Eagles woeful AFCON 2015 qualification campaign. A barely acceptable 0-0 away draw against the Bafana Bafana of South Africa was sandwiched by a shock 2-3 home defeat by an unfancied Congo and a calamitous 0-1 away loss to Sudan in the mud of Khartoum. The 3-1 defeat of Sudan at the Abuja Stadium was not enough to appease fans who booed Keshi and his boys at the final whistle. Pinnick, whose dislike for Keshi is public knowledge, was not going to let him worm his way back into the heart of Nigerians. He sanctioned the coach’s sack in spite of that victory. Very few wept for Keshi.
What a difference 20 months make! It was a different song when Keshi resigned in February 2013 immediately after leading Nigeria to its first Nations Cup victory in 19 years with a 1-0 victory against Burkina Faso in South Africa. The Nigerian football fraternity was jolted when he handed in his letter claiming that the NFF had already decided to sack him if the Super Eagles were knocked out of the competition. He said the NFF booked a plane ticket back to Nigeria as soon as they found out that the Super Eagles will play the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire in the AFCON quarterfinal. There were even reports that the NFF had approached Herve Renard, who had just left his job as Zambia manager, to replace him.
The NFF was forced to backtrack after a public outcry in favour of the coach. But the powers that be never forgave him. He went without pay for seven months last year. While Maigari and co pleaded lack of fund, they were busy shopping for “a foreign advisor”. In June last year, after Nigeria went out of the Confederations Cup in the group stage (having hammered Tahiti 6-1 and played relatively well but lost against Spain and Uruguay), Maigari announced that Keshi would no longer have sole responsibility for selecting the squad. He was also queried for going on personal “runs” without authorisation from NFF. But the man stayed on.
He waited till after Nigeria was knocked out of the Brazil 2014 World Cup to drop hints that he might be leaving his position. By then he was no longer the beloved coach he was after AFCON. The fact that he was the first African coach to qualify for the knockout stage of a FIFA World Cup was lost on many fans who blamed his team selection and arrogance for the loss to France. But an NFF in turmoil could not decide on what to do with him. The crisis in the Glass House soon got on the pitch with Nigeria posting terrible results in matches against Congo, South Africa and Sudan.
Like a masquerade who had danced too long in the market square, Keshi became the butt of cruel jokes by his critics. Even some of his admirers soon got tired of him. Matters were not helped by the freezing out of players like Sunday Mba, Obafemi Martins and Ikechukwu Uche. He insisted Villarreal striker, Uche, had rejected a call-up but the player said he knew nothing of his supposed selection.
But whatever Keshi’s faults may be, he has earned a right to some level of arrogance. If anybody deserves the title of Captain Leader Legend in Nigeria, it is the man affectionately called Big Boss. The 52-year-old is not just the first African coach to reach the World Cup Round of 16, is also one of only two people, along with Egypt’s Mahmoud El-Gohary, to have won the Africa Cup of Nations as both a player and a coach. He was captain of the Nigerian team that won the 1994 Nations Cup. He also led the line in Nigeria’s first World Cup appearance at USA 94.
As coach, he achieved the seemingly impossible with Togo when he qualified the West African country for its first World Cup in Germany 2006. Unfortunately he was sacked and replaced by German coach Otto Pfister prior to the World Cup finals after Togo failed to advance to the knock-out stage in 2006 African Cup of Nations in Egypt. Pfister himself was sacked after a dismal World Cup campaign and Keshi re-appointed in February 2007 for a friendly against Cameroon.
He worked as manager of the Mali national football team in April 2008 on a two-year deal but got sacked in January 2010 after Mali’s early exit in the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations.
His country came calling in 2011 and he obliged, going on to win the 2013 Nations Cup and qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Others may have forgotten Keshi’s positive contributions so soon, but Mr. President hasn’t. And haven intervened in the past, especially on money matters, Jonathan knows that the NFF is a pit of thieving cobras. The manager is merely a symptom of the rot in the system.
Rescued from the sharks which the NFF had thrown him, Keshi swiftly went back to work and named his squad for the remaining AFCON qualifying matches against Congo on 15 November and South Africa in Uyo, Nigeria, four days later. Ikechukwu Uche, who last played for Nigeria in the final of the 2013 Nations Cup final, is on that list. One only hopes the Big Boss has forgiven the player of his trespasses the way Jonathan forgave him of his.
The best way Keshi can repay Jonathan is to qualify Nigeria for AFCON 2015 by all means necessary. A victory in the final on February 8 won’t be bad either. That will do more for Jonathan ahead of the February 14 presidential election than all the rallies by the Transformation Ambassadors of Nigeria (TAN).