Keshi Tribute. Football's alchemist

Friday 10 June 2016

/ by Colin Udoh

Keshi has a knack for making ordinary players play above their level

It is debatable whether or not Stephen Keshi could have achieved this level of greatness if it were not for the convergence of circumstances early in his career.

Called up to the national team by Chris Udemezue, Keshi led a group of players who infuriated officialdom by refusing to turn up. And their reasons were simple. Players were expected to spend upwards of two months at the national camp at the peak of the season, and with decisive league and FA Cup games looming.

NFA Chairman Anthony Ikhazoboh slammed a 6-month ban on the players, forcing Keshi to move to Ivory Coast, where he joined Stade Abidjan and then Africa Sport, captaining both clubs before leaving for Belgium to join Lokeren.

His leadership qualities stood him out and he made the big move go giants Anderlecht and later Strasbourg in France.

Keshi was not the first African player to move to Europe. But he was the one who ensured he opened the floodgates for others. Recommending this player to that club, another to a different club.

And as his teammates would say, Keshi kept in touch with every player, sometimes even calling a player's coach to find out why he was not playing his teammate.

It was easy to see why he held such control over the national team, which he captained for 11 years. Players found Keshi easy to gravitate to, but he was as good a friend as he Was formidable an opponent.

Getting on his wrong side was never a good idea.

His force of character drove the Super Eagles to Nations Cup victory in 1994, and World Cup qualification not long after. And while his waning powers meant he was not guaranteed minutes at the World Cup, his leadership and long service guaranteed he would be on the plane. And he was.

Not many great players turn out to be good managers. Keshi was among the few who carried in their greatness from the pitch to the bench.

Drifting into coaching in error rather than design, he worked as assistant to Dutchman Jo Bonfrere, who himself was assistant to Clemens Westerhof when Keshi lifted that Nations Cup in 94.

He returned as assistant to Shuaibu Amodu and helped guide Nigeria to World Cup qualification in 2002, before war broke out between the team and the media leading to the sack of the coaching crew, and some of the senior players in the squad.

Keshi took his talents to Togo, and stunned the world by qualifying the tiny nation for the 2006 World Cup. He was not allowed to lead them there however, after a rift with star player Emmanuel Adebayor meant he was cut loose.

His next stop was Mali, but their Nations Cup adventure did not quite go as planned and Keshi was called to take up the Nigeria job when Samson Siasia was fired.

If his exploits with Togo were considered a fluke, with Nigeria he proved he was football's alchemist, turning base players into golden boys.

In talent, his 2013 Super Eagles team would rank well outside the top 10 of previous iterations, but he instilled self belief and tactical ingenuity to guide them to the title and become only the second man to win the title as player and coach.

Controversial he may have been. Political he most certainly was. But Keshi was as great a coach as he was a player. And unlike others, he proved himself with three different countries.

His constant battles with the federation would ultimately cost him his job with Nigeria. But he remained loved by the fans and the players he led, both serving and retired.

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