Let me start by offering my heartiest congratulations to all Nigerians. On Sunday, February 10, 2013, home-based soccer journeyman, Sunday Mba, on the sandy turf of Soccer City, Johannesburg in South Africa, fired a single shot after shaking aside a handful of struggling Burkinabe players.
That was all we needed to clinch the African Cup of Nations for the third time.
It was a stunning end to a Cinderella story for Nigeria. Nobody, not even the ever-confused Nigerian Football Federation, NFF, expected the cup.
They set a semi-final target for Coach Stephen Okechukwu Keshi. Keshi went into this assignment a beleaguered man. Nigeria is a country of 160 million football coaches and administrators. Keshi was just one out of this number. He was crucified for leaving out some prized foreign-based players.
In fact, some Nigerians, after noticing that players from their part of the country were not selected, declared Keshi’s squad as “not a Nigerian team but a Biafran team”.
Well, I hope these fellows will be nice enough to rejoice in the victory of this “Biafran” team for Nigeria! Many called Keshi a low quality tactician when his substitutions did not meet their expectation.
In fact, there were already rustlings within the Nigerian football administration circles that if Keshi failed to make it into the quarter finals he would be dumped, with Zambian expatriate coach who won the AFCON in 2012, Herve Renard, strongly touted.
Keshi’s accomplishment, for me, was not due to “luck”. I don’t know if there is such a thing as “luck”. Nobody has plotted an equation or graph to prove it exists.
It had nothing to do with Fanny Amun’s theory of “I will womble (sic) and fumble into the final, and I will womble and fumble and win the cup”. He simply applied the tricks he learned from his coach/mentor, Clemens Westerhof.
He knew the type of football he wanted to play. He swept the local scene for the players he needed, spicing the team with the foreign-based who fitted into the scheme.
The first three matches against Burkina Faso, Zambia and Ethiopia were clumsy. They gave us all soccer malaria. But once he broke through the prelims everything changed.
The Eagles started playing soccer like Barcelona Football Club of Spain, reputed as the “greatest football club in the world”. The standard of artistry that came out flabbergasted everyone. One after the other, Nigerians dropped their pessimistic predilections and it became “Up Eagles, Up Keshi, Up Nigeria!”
That is the way of life. My people say: Onu kwuru njo ga-ekwu mma. The same mouth that condemns shall commend – once you succeed. Nothing succeeds better than success. Success has brothers, sisters and a large family but failure is an orphan.
I should know, because I have personally experienced it and I allow it to drive me. Keshi stayed focused on the objective until the crown of glory became his.
Now comes the harder part. What does a person do when he succeeds where most people expected him to fail? When people called him dirty names?
How does he handle it when those who were already looking for his replacement now turn around to embrace him? Keshi chose to turn in his resignation, or so we were made to understand. Definitely it was a gambit.
Some called it a political gambit, but I choose to call it a gambit in a typical game of chess where you make moves to score advantages towards achieving the final objective.
It was all a display of orthodox Westerhofism. When Clemens was in charge with Keshi as his Captain, he had little tolerance for the over-bloated egos and selfish antics of the football administrators. As he gradually rebuilt the national team, Westerhof’s charisma appealed to those in the corridors of power. Military President Ibrahim Babangida drafted his Chief of General Staff, Augustus Aikhomu, to intervene regularly in the affairs of our football to give Clemens what he needed to do his job.
It worked like magic. Clemens went to his native Holland and brought a trainer-assistant, Bonfrere Jo, amidst loud but sterile grumbles of Nigerian Football Association, NFA, officials. The result: Nigeria won the African cup of Nations in 1994 with Clemens as the Technical Adviser in full control of the Eagles. He raised a new pack of world class stars that were instrumental, two years later, to winning the gold medal at the Atlanta Olympic Games, USA. Remember what followed?
Soon after the AFCON victory, Westerhof quit Nigeria unceremoniously. He actually threw the job in the face of the FA and the nation. After the gold medal win, Jo also simply quit. He never bothered to attend the reception for the team. This is exactly what Keshi has done, though I do not think he will boycott the reception and the goodies lined up for him and his boys. He won’t dare.
Both Westerhof and Jo suffered unpleasant consequences for their actions. Try as they did much later to return to the job the door was slammed firmly against them, even with Nigerian football wallowing in abject mediocrity.
Right now, we are all begging Keshi not to go. He had better heed our pleas. If he turns us down and another local coach, such as Sunday Oliseh, takes up the job and reaps from the seeds he has sown Keshi might become a persona non grata like Clemens and Jo. Already, Aminu Maigari, the NFF President is telling him he is free to go. He can afford to say so because he has no hand in Keshi’s success. He would gain by having an opportunity to hire another coach; Nigerian soccer goes to hell.
But I don’t think Keshi will go. The resignation is a ploy to assume the political upper hand over the FF chaps. With popular support from Nigerians, the Presidency and Corporate Nigeria, Keshi can ride the FF roughshod like Westerhof and take Nigerian soccer to the land of his dreams. That is the objective of this move.
And it is a game well played.