Whether or not the Super Eagles win the finals of Afcon 2013, there is a point that followers of Nigerian football everywhere should note—that Stephen Keshi’s ideas represent the best, indeed the future, of the sport that unifies the country even as it inevitably divides it. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the process that led to Keshi’s emergence as the Super Eagles’ coach should be studied carefully. It is Nigeria’s impossible rebirth writ small.
So, any attempt to “play politics” with Keshi’s tenure should be strongly resisted. Petition the Sports Minister. Crash Goodluck Jonathan’s Facebook page. Rally the out-of-job Okada “drivers” of Lagos for an angry protest. Re-Occupy Nigeria for something far more consequential than the Ostrich’s Dance of fuel subsidy removal.
It is near-impossible to get it right with the Eagles, largely because when it comes to football everyone, and I mean everyone in Nigeria, has got an opinion. (And here I am, otherwise in dread of blogging, venting mine.) Incidentally, in a BBC interview broadcast in the first week of the tournament, Keshi himself says something to the effect that every Nigerian is a football coach!
The last time the Super Eagles came close to the vibrancy of the current outing was when Christian Chukwu was the coach, like ages ago. Chukwu didn’t last because of the so-called “Nigerian Factor.” But Keshi is a more complete coach, equally gifted with the skills of a tactician and of a strategist, and his best quality is what has virtually disappeared from public life in Nigeria: a passion for professionalism. (I suspect he’s also boardroom-savvy.)
Keshi is a natural leader. If you are lucky to find any footage from the Eagles’ matches in the late-1980s when he was the team’s captain, you will have noticed that quality in him.
For me, his passion for professionalism was captured in an obscure statement he made in an interview with a sports reporter some time in 2000, in the lead-up to the 2002 World Cup. He said that, left to him, the guy who should be skippering the Eagles was the defender Rabiu Afolabi (who at the time was playing for the Italian team, SSC Napoli.) He spoke of Afolabi as a complete player, and an unusually level-headed one. With a bright future.
The crucial phrase in Keshi’s statement was “left to him,” and it spoke to one of the most touchy issues in Nigeria—ethnic preference, alias tribalism. This was important. After the country’s best recent year (1994, when the Eagles won the AfCON and nearly crashed into the quarter-finals of the World Cup), everything started unraveling. In a sport running on teamwork, players started conspiring not to pass the ball to certain of their team-mates because they were from the wrong ethnic groups!
At the time, Keshi was a sort of John the Baptist. For a stint, he went to coach the Togolese national team.
In the event, Afolabi (who wore Keshi’s Number 5 jersey) made the team, but did not rise to lead it. And Nigeria’s outing in China was worse than atrocious. Afolabi’s career also hasn’t fared well, for reasons too complicated to put in this post, but which could be sought somewhere between the pages of Frankling Foer’s book on football, the boardroom of the Nigerian Football Federation, and the player’s own choices. He played for Monaco until August last year, and he’s currently without a team.
Perhaps the “reversed extraversion” of global soccer, whereby the caps for the national team now counts for a player’s standing with the scouts, has something to do with Keshi’s ability to manage celebrity players like John Obi Mikel and Peter Odemwingie. But we have seen such players in action before, during the time of the Okochas, the Babayaros, the Kanus.
I would like to think that Keshi’s astute understanding of Nigeria and its football politics is the matchstick to the fire of the Eagles as it now burns. Long may it burn. No, scratch that—fat chance indeed. Long may Keshi hold his job.