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Of Keshi’s love for football, Super Eagles and Nigeria

As the referee blew the whistle signaling the end of the 2013 African Cup of Nations in South Africa, Coach Stephen Keshi, stood on the sideline, sighed and raised both hands as if saying “Thank you, Lord.” Players and Nigerian officials mobbed him, jubilating over the feat that had just been recorded. On Feb. 10, 2013 in Johannesburg, when Nigeria’s Super Eagles last won the African Cup of Nations with a 1 – zero defeat of Burkina Faso, Keshi became one of two people ever to have lifted the trophy both as a player and as a coach. It was not an easy task. From the first round to the final, he was bombarded with strong criticisms from millions of Nigerian football supporters, not to mention stakes in the country’s football bureaucracy. Despite all the odds, Keshi’s love of the game, the team and the nation helped him to stay focused.
“Winning this is mainly for my nation – when I came on … my dream was to make all Nigerians happy, and to construct a great Nigerian team,” a relieved Keshi said. Knowing what football meant to the ordinary folk, he always wanted to win to make the Super Eagles the best team in the world. This was one ambition that motivated him.
I was privileged to have played youth football with Keshi at the Eledu field on Akerele Street in Surulere, Lagos where we grew up in the early 1970s. Together with Henry Nwosu, we featured for a team called the ‘Seven Reformers’. We won a few area tournaments on our Eledu “home ground”. Our fame grew and invitations to other tournaments came from nearby neighbourhoods or sometimes from further afield. Our team played at Ile Gogoro, at Shitta area, at the beginning of Akerele Street. We were also invited to games on Bank Olemoh and Olawale Dawodu Streets. Organisers often covered the venues with dozens of sleeping mats and charged gate fees to defray their expenses. It was such a joy to play and win.
My own playing career soon ended quietly. But Keshi’s and Nwosu’s blossomed. They were admitted into St. Finbarr’s College, Akoka, famous for their many successes in the Principal’s Cup competition.. After leaving secondary school, the duo joined ACB Football Club, Lagos, New Nigerian Bank FC,  Benin, travelled to Cote D’Ivoire in the mid eighties to sign for Stade D’Abidjan and later Africa Sports. Keshi later headed for Europe for the Belgian league. Before long, his qualities as a defender caught the eye of Anderlecht, the leading Belgian side. Although we rarely saw or spoke, I like most football-loving Nigerians keenly followed Keshi’s career abroad. In addition, as a sports reporter, I covered the Super Eagles extensively.
Keshi and I had a long conversation in 1992. I had just met Emmanuel Maradas, the Chadian journalist turned football administrator in the London office of the News Agency of Nigeria. He asked me to write a profile on Keshi for his African Soccer magazine. Therefore, I sought and got Keshi’s phone number and called him up.After a few banters, we discussed the thrills and challenges of an African professional footballer in Europe. Fortunately, his skills won him admirers, especially in Belgium. This robbed off positively on Nigerians visiting the country. Their Customs and Immigration officials at the airport would ask if you knew Keshi. No matter your answer, you were most likely to be waved to go and have a nice stay in their country.
Therefore, Keshi became a goodwill ambassador for Nigeria. The story was told of how Keshi’s residence in Brussels became home for a number of Nigerian players. His generosity was not limited to Nigerians alone. Players like our own Philip Osondu and Ghana’s Nii Lamptey enjoyed his hospitality. Keshi looked after them like a big brother. Moreover, knowing how desperate some of the newcomers were to sign a contract for any pittance offered, he endeavoured to see that they were not shortchanged by crooked club officials. This caring disposition earned him the respect of other players and team handlers. It was easy for them to name him team captain. His nickname, the Big Boss, was a perfect fit.
Despite his many successe, Keshi did not lose his humility. While he was courted by the high and mighty, he was equally at home among the ordinary people.
My interview with Keshi was published in the December 1992 – February 1993 edition of the colourful quarterly under the caption “Stephen Keshi – Nigerian Ambassador”. The story, spread over two pages, had three accompanying pictures. Two of them showed Keshi in action on the field. The third was a family portrait with his late wife Kate, his sister-in-law Patience, and their four children. Keshi died in Benin City on June 8, aged 54.

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