The passing of former national football team captain and coach, Stephen Keshi, at age 54, was indeed a big blow to the game in Nigeria. However, the family and the country should be consoled by his legacy of achievements within the short span of his life, successes that have been acknowledged locally and globally by fans and football administrators alike. With the deluge of tributes trailing his demise, Keshi’s life could not have been better lived.
Fate had played a cruel one on him with the loss to cancer of his adored wife, Kate, less than two years before he also died. Indeed, he never overcame the shock of that loss. He will be missed by the country which he served so well.
Stephen Keshi came into limelight as a dependable player in the famous academicals’ tournament known as the Lagos State Principal Cup. His commanding stature in the St. Finbarr’s College, Akoka team of the 1980s was easily noticeable. His outstanding performance then was his short-cut to the national team and his club career began at the New Nigerian Bank of Benin (NNB) where he was able to first exhibit his great leadership qualities.
He was principled and independent-minded. Not one to shy away from confrontation, as captain of the national team, he was always ready to speak for his colleagues and defend what he believed was just. Critics rightly observed that his forthrightness and boldness were strange back then in a culture where words of those in authority were final. That trait often brought him in conflict with established football managers.
He went to Cote d’Ivoire where Stade d’Abidjan offered him a first stint at professionalism, moving on later to Africa Sports where he led the team to the league and FA Cup titles in 1986.
Keshi’s next move was to Europe, first playing for Lokeren. There, in the Belgian League (by extension in Europe), he established himself as a household name before Anderlecht Club later appealed more to him. To his credit, he blazed the trail and opened the floodgate for other African players to get into professional football in Europe. In time, he became a mentor to both his mates and emerging footballers.
He blossomed and worked smoothly with other rising talents and together with his team-mates in the Super Eagles, hit the continental zenith with the lifting of the Africa Nations Cup in Tunisia in 1994. That same year, he was part of the history-making squad that reached the second round in the World Cup tournament. Keshi’s managerial career was no less successful, having had to direct affairs in Nigeria, Togo (qualified the country for the World Cup), Mali and again with the Super Eagles with whom he lifted Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa – the only Nigeria with that proud record as player and coach. Keshi went on to lead Nigeria to the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 and got the team to the second round again. Keshi then, was obviously an authentic sports hero, he will be sorely missed.
Shaibu Amodu (1958-2016)
Nigeria had barely come to terms with the news of Stephen Keshi’s demise when the Technical Director in the Nigerian Football Federation and a four-time coach of the Super Eagles, Amodu Shaibu, also passed on. A hardworking, unassuming gentleman equally imbued with a generous spirit, Amodu’s death is one loss too many for the country.
The most decorated coach in the country’s history, Amodu had an impressive run, including his stints at the national level. Twice, he took the country, in 2002 (with Keshi) and 2010, to the World Cup although he was denied leading the team to the global stage on both occasions. In Beach Soccer, he performed a similar feat in 2006. Until his exit, he had a bold impact on the technical department of the NFF, and internationally, once handling Orlando Pirates FC, one of the leading clubs in South Africa.
His death certainly leaves a void in Nigerian football. Fans, players, coaches and all Nigerians will miss Amodu’s decency, technical acumen and invaluable vast experience. Pundits variously credit him with taking domestic coaching to a new height, and that his style became a reference point for some junior colleagues. For a man who did so much, gave so much to his country, it is an irony that poverty and poor health characterised his post-service days. These traits have come to define most local coaches and old generation sportsmen in retirement, as many of them have died miserably in penury. This is unacceptable.
Amodu can no longer enjoy any reward for his job, but his death should reopen discussions on the pitiable welfare package of the country’s sportsmen and coaches. Both Keshi and Shaibu were great patriots. The greatest monument to their years of service should be a better reward system for Nigeria’s sports heroes.