“I would like to dedicate the [2013 African Cup of Nations] trophy to all African coaches. We’re not yet there, this team has taken just months to build. We will continue building.”

It was a surreal moment on the night of 10 February 2013 when Stephen Keshi, the coach of Nigeria’s national football team, uttered those words inside the packed press conference at Soccer City Stadium in Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Scores of journalists were waiting for a great, perhaps triumphal quote from this man who had charmed the continent over the three weeks of the Africa Cup of Nations tournament, with his team of rag-tag soldiers, three-quarters of whom were serving the national squad for the first time. Instead, Keshi said something anti-climactic: “We’re not yet there.”

After conquering the continent’s biggest teams and lifting the trophy as only the second-ever individual to win it both as a player and a coach (following in the footsteps of the Egyptian, Mahmoud El-Gohary), much more than a report on gradual progress was expected from the multilingual Nigerian who had turned press briefings into language classes. The 51-year-old Anioma native’s ability to converse in both English and French made attending his briefings during the competition a delight. At once friendly and jovial, he could also be aloof and angry; Keshi showed all the emotions that coaches go through when competing at top level.

Only a small circle of people had believed that he could lead the Nigerian team to victory in the 2013 competition. Many Nigerian fans – forever optimistic about their team but always disappointed at every tournament – had long given up hope. Still they had watched.

The “Big Boss” (as he’s fondly called by admirers) knew he had a major task to achieve with the team he took to South Africa. In that squad, only six men – John Obi Mikel, Joseph Yobo, Vincent Enyeama, Austin Ejide, Elderson Echiejile and Ikechukwu Uche – had ever appeared at a previous senior team tournament. The remaining members were hungry lads who had come into the team following its failure to qualify for Afcon 2012 under former coach Samson Siasia. Keshi built the team for 2013 by injecting new blood – young, agile lads who were not afraid to literally break a leg. He also experimented by bringing in six players from the Nigeria Premier League – something that had not been done since the Eagles last won the title under Dutchman Clemens Westerhof in 1994. It was an experiment that worked for the Zambians in the 2012 tournament, when coach Hervé Renard chose a large contingent of African-based unknowns who went on to defeat the mighty Black Stars and Elephants to win the title.

Keshi’s squad was experimental at best. Like many of his predecessors, he told the country that the team was in a rebuilding process and would need some time to become a really great squad. However, there was pressure on him from the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) to deliver the title or face the sack, like his predecessors who had won a cupboard full of sub-par medals since 1994, when the team last won gold.

Every time Nigeria participated in a tournament, the team was expected to win it. Notwithstanding the circumstances surrounding their preparation, if the team didn’t win, the coaches were deemed failures and fired. This had pushed many Nigerian coaches to explore avenues to circumvent the system, like using over-aged players in age-grade competitions.

The country has since won many youth titles, but with very few structures on the ground to transfer that victory to senior competitions. Cheating can only get you so far; it is exposed when all teams have to be at the same level. Many Nigerian youth stars failed to make the grade at senior level after excelling at underage tourneys.

Keshi himself had come through the youth teams before making the senior national team his abode for almost two decades, captaining the squad for 14 years (the longest term in Super Eagles’ history). In 1994, at the age of 32, he finally won the Africa Cup of Nations title and, in the same year, the national team qualified for its first World Cup. Like no one before him, he had tasted incredible success as a member of the widely acclaimed Golden Generation of Nigerian footballers. It was expected that he would make the transition to an equally successful coaching career.

But things don’t usually work that way. Early success with Togo – a small country that he led to qualifying for the World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations in 2006 – gave way to acrimony and despair when he got involved with player transfers, which created disharmony in the small West African country. He subsequently lost his job after failing to win any match with the squad at Afcon in Egypt in 2006, thus missing the opportunity to sit in the dugout at the world showpiece event in Germany that same year. In his place, the Togolese hired an expiring German traveller, Otto Pfister, to take the Sparrow Hawks to the Mundial, where they lost all three their matches.

At home, Keshi was regarded as a hero for his achievement with the Togolese because even the mighty Nigerians had lost their World Cup ticket to Angola that year. But he never got called up to the Nigerian job for many reasons, including being perceived by the establishment as stubborn and uncontrollable. After spells in Mali and Togo, he was eventually brought back home after the Eagles failed to qualify for the 2012 Afcon tournament, jointly hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Taking over in November of 2011, Keshi had only a few months to prepare a squad for the next qualifiers.

His problems were enormous: he had inherited a squad that was low in confidence after failing to beat Guinea to the Afcon ticket. He experimented by giving more opportunities to players who had been neglected by many of his predecessors. He reduced dependency on Europe-based players, making the few he did invite to camp fight for starting places alongside their glory-hungry, locally based team mates.

His experiment paid off when, on that evening in early February 2013, Sunday Mba from Enugu Rangers scored the lone goal that led the team to victory over Burkina Faso, and their third African title. It was the same Mba who scored the winning goal against Ivory Coast earlier in the quarter finals. As has happened previously, the fight to win the African title became racially tainted toward the end of the tournament in South Africa. Journalists and pundits were quick to highlight the racial mix among coaches as the competition in its more than 50-year history: Egyptian Hassan Shehata with a hattrick of titles from 2006 to 2010 and, before him, Yeo Martial in 1992. Otherwise, winning teams had all been trained by Europeans.

Going into the all-West African semi-finals of the 2013 competition, the ratio of African to European coaches was 2:2. Ghana and Nigeria paraded local coaches, while Mali and Burkina Faso were led by a Frenchman and a Belgian respectively. From a coaching perspective, it was interesting to see which way the pendulum would swing this time.

Were the Africans capable of holding their own against their European counterparts? Were African coaches able to find the tactics to deliver victory to their teams? For Keshi, this part of the race took on a life of its own. He was battling to keep his job in the face of arguments about his ability to handle the national team. After two opening draws – against Burkina Faso and defending champions Zambia – his tactics had come into question from many quarters, not least the officers of the NFF.

He was also being criticised by the press for making late changes, as well as for his team’s disciplinary record, which in the first two matches had seen a player sent off and a penalty conceded. The NFF had reportedly begun to shop for a white coach to replace Keshi, were the Eagles to crash out. Officials had begun contacting a few of the European trainers that were at the tournament. This Keshi got wind of.

In their third game, against Ethiopia, who had returned to the competition after 31 years, Nigeria struggled and won by scoring two goals from the penalty spot. This was not good for confidence going into the quarter-final clash against Ivory Coast, who were perennially tipped as favourites for the title, even though they had not won it since 1992. With their poor form going into that game, many Nigerians had given up on going past the Ivorians, to whom they had lost by narrow margins in two previous tournaments in 2006 and 2008.

Confounding the pundits, Keshi’s team rose to the occasion and played their best match – easily the best game of the tournament –  to save their necks. It was a David and Goliath affair and the Nigerians triumphed 2–1 to send shock waves through the continent. It was an unbelievable sight inside the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg as the Eagles outpassed, outplayed and outscored their more fancied opponents.

Keshi’s confidence rose thereafter. His mission henceforth was to use every opportunity to confound his detractors and to make a statement for African coaches. Ahead of the semi-final tie against Mali (coached by Frenchman Patrice Carteron), the Nigerian stoked the fires of race that had been smouldering throughout the tournament. Asked at a press briefing ahead of the game about a pre-tournament statement he had made about white coaches coming to Africa only to make money, Keshi restated his belief that many African countries are too quick to offer big contracts to European coaches who may not be as qualified as Africans. But because of their skin colour, they get preferential treatment.

“I’m not against a white coach in Africa because I have worked with white coaches. What I’m against is, do not bring a mediocre coach, a carpenter coach from Europe and tell me he is better than me. I will not accept [that],” Keshi said.

To underline this, Keshi’s team pummelled Mali 4–1 in a one-sided encounter the next evening at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban. It was a victory emphatic enough for everyone to feel that the Super Eagles were going to win the tournament, as long as they didn’t implode as they had in times past. Keshi’s game plan was working and he rode the waves of the team’s newfound confidence. At the post-match press conference, he didn’t need to say anything; his face expressed the great satisfaction in having defeated another European coach. As the Nigerians awaited their final opponents – Ghana and Burkina Faso were yet to play – one African coach had already been assured of a place in the final. Former Black Stars player Kwesi Appiah led the Ghanaians against the Stallions, who were trained by Belgian Paul Put. The Burkinabe proved too tough for the Black Stars, winning on penalties after the game ended 1–1. The final stage was set: Keshi vs Put.

Football itself can transcend race. It’s an emotional sport that can take on any tint. And football has been used to rally people. In Nigeria, the national team is one of the few points of convergence for the country’s more than 250 ethnic identities. When the Super Eagles play, everyone, regardless of tongue or religion, gets behind the team. I was only 14 when the last title was lifted by Keshi. On 10 February, I watched from the press box as Nigeria returned to the pinnacle of African football, 19 years after their last victory. Seeing the national team triumph at a continental competition was overwhelming; nineteen years of failing was banished by that lone Sunday Mba strike.

Keshi’s choice of players and his decision to be his own man had paid off handsomely. In the press conference later that night, with sweaty brows and a strained voice after lots of joyous shouting with his team, Keshi spoke about what his victory meant for Africa and African coaches. This, he said, was proof that African coaches are able to create winning teams if they are given the resources to excel by their federations. Despite the victory, however, Keshi would unceremoniously announce his resignation on South Africa’s Metro FM during an interview with Robert Marawa the following day. His decision to quit in the middle of celebrations was due to much wrangling in the course of the tournament. The federation had interfered so much in his activities and worked so to undermine his confidence that he thought the best thing to do was to quit while the ovation was at its loudest.

But such outrage emanated afterwards that the coach was forced to rescind his decision after long meetings with Minister of Sport Bolaji Abdullahi, as well as with officials of the NFF.

The battle was not for Keshi alone; it was a fight for the souls of Nigerian and African coaches who are treated like dirt at the local level. In Cameroon, for example, months after Keshi’s drama, the local coach of the Indomitable Lions – the once feared national team of that country – was sacked in the press, when his job was advertised to European coaches. Although Nigeria has made progress in recent years by employing locals as coaches of the national team, no Cameroonian coach has taken the Lions to any major tournament and, in fact, the team’s fortunes have dwindled seriously over the last three years. Keshi’s actions, however, brought attention to the plight of African trainers and he used the opportunity to secure the support of Nigerian politicians, who overrode any plans the NFF may have had to dump him or bring in a European technical adviser as his boss.

While Cameroon has brought in another European to perhaps help them return to the pinnacle of African football, Ghana’s Kwesi Appiah continues to be in charge, despite failing to get the team past the semifinal in South Africa. It is a statement that the West African side want to grow their football with local talent after accusing former Serbian coach Goran Stevanović of, among other things, never taking the time to watch players from the Ghanaian league during his reign.

Although Egypt have opted to hold on to Bob Bradley from the US, who failed to lead them to the 2013 Afcon, South Africa have chosen to go with local coach Gordon Igesund, who has made Bafana Bafana play with belief once again. Tiny Cape Verde were led to their first-ever Afcon appearance, and to the quarter-final, by local trainer Lúcio Antunes. Kenya’s Algerian coach, Adel Amrouche, praised Keshi during a recent World Cup qualification match: “Keshi’s achievement is a statement. There are many ghost coaches coming to Africa but I think Keshi has sent out the right message by winning the Africa Cup of Nations.”

Keshi’s success and determination will perhaps encourage more African countries to look closer to home for coaching salvation. The Big Boss has shown that it can be done.

* This article first appeared in the print issue of Chimurenga’s Chronic. It is reposted here with the kind permission of the editors.