Sports fans in Africa, especially West Africa, had barely recovered from the grief of the passing of the iconic Mohammed Ali, when they were struck with yet another tragedy.
Former coach of the Nigerian senior men’s national football team, the Super Eagles, Stephen Keshi, was reported dead. He died of cardiac arrest, aged 54. Sadder, this was only months after the passing of his wife.
Regarded as the most successful Black African coach in professional football, Stephen Keshi boasted among his impressive list of coaching accomplishments the distinguishing feat of having secured qualification to the FIFA World Cup for two African countries. He led Nigeria as coach to qualify for the tournament in Brazil in 2014, and eight years earlier, masterminded a surprising World Cup appearance for an unfancied Togolese side. At the last FIFA World Cup a couple of years ago, Keshi further burnished his coaching credentials by becoming the first and only black person so far to have coached a side in the knock out phase of the competition, having helped Nigeria to advance from the group stage.
A year before the Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup, Keshi guided Nigeria to ultimate glory in the African Cup of Nations, one year shy of the 20th anniversary of his captaining the same side to a similar continental conquest.
As a player with Belgian side Anderlecht, Keshi also won some important silverware.
These sterling accomplishments explain the high esteem in which the Big Boss, as Keshi was affectionately called, is held in African football.
He was a gritty character who accomplished remarkable feats in spite of great odds and sometimes amid adversity.
Though his critics regarded his accomplishments, especially in his coaching career, as indisputably solid, they saw his abrasiveness, loquacity and controversial (to his fans, rather principled) management style, as grievous personal flaws.
Such reservations however seem to miss the special backdrop of managing national football teams in West Africa and the probable inevitability of such a tough posture for success.
In the West African sub-region, which is an enclave of highly enthusiastic football fans, huge expectations are demanded of national football teams and immense pressure piled on players and, their officials to deliver. Failure to deliver expected results have sometimes led to arson attacks on the properties of players, and sustained verbal assaults on both players and team officials. As history even has it, once, players of a national football team that performed abysmally in one competition were publicly flogged on their return home!
Curiously, despite this huge demand for success from national football teams in West Africa, administrators of the national teams, coaches and players, not infrequently, confront some of the toughest challenges in preparing for tournaments. Administrative shenanigans over player allowances, poor training facilities and disheartening travel arrangements for teams, are just a handful of the regular problems encountered.
Consequently, in such a challenging work environment, from which fans nonetheless expect teams to put up world class displays and aim for major honours, the bemoaned traits of Keshi may have been the indispensable arsenal for frontally confronting the many administrative bottlenecks, the inexorable public and press harangues, for fighting to maintain focus on the job, and also for pushing for improved operating conditions to meet outsized national expectations.
At least, partial evidence of the utility of the style of the Big Boss comes from the fact that, ultimately, the results he produced helped to thrust him to the ranks of the illustrious coterie of national football team managers in Africa, who could gallantly overcome such remarkable occupational impediments.
For this inspiring legacy, I couldn’t agree more with Sunday Oliseh, Keshi’s former Super Eagles deputy coach and later successor, that with Keshi’s demise, indeed, ‘‘an iconic hero’’ has been lost.
This piece has also been published on Your Commonwealth – Youth Perspectives.