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Super Eagles’ failure to reach the 2015 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) finals and defend the continental title marks yet another low point for Nigeria’s football and Keshi’s coaching profile, writes Olisemeka Obeche.
Stephen Okechukwu Keshi-led coaching crew got the much needed reprieve to salvage the country’s Afcon qualification when the Presidency ordered his reinstatement after the new board of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) led by Amanju Pinnick dispensed its services in the aftermath of the loss to Sudan last October.
Keshi’s unceremonious sack from the Super Eagles top job on October 16, barely 20 months after he led an underrated team to a historic Afcon triumph in South Africa was a desperate attempt by the FA to re-launch the country’s bid to reach the Afcon 2015 finals. With South Africa and Congo Brazzaville ahead of Nigeria by three points after four matches, with a tricky away match in Pointe-Noire before a final showdown against the Bafana Bafana of South Africa in Uyo, the Pinnick-led FA decided to act fast to save the nation’s soccer from disaster.
The FA had to quickly assemble a caretaker coaching crew led by Shuaibu Amodu to oversee the two remaining qualification fixtures. But Keshi bounced back barely a fortnight, thanks to a dramatic intervention from the Presidency. He was then given the opportunity to lead the Super Eagles against Congo and South Africa.
Incidentally, when the Big Boss, as he is fondly called, subsequently led the Super Eagles to a surprise victory against the impressive Congolese in Pointe-Noire on November 15 to brighten the country’s chances of participating in the next year’s fiesta in Equatorial Guinea, many thought the presidential fiat was justified and Keshi vindicated. But the cookies crumbled when the Super Eagles battled South Africa to a 2-2 draw in Uyo in a mid-week final showdown while Congo beat Sudan by a lone goal in Ombduman to snatch the second Group A ticket, denying Nigeria an opportunity to defend its title.
Although, Keshi is yet to be officially relieved of his duties as at press time, with the FA taking full responsibility for the team’s failed Afcon qualification campaign, it did little to stop angry fans from demanding for Keshi’s scalp. Calls for his sack have been unrelenting since the ill-fated Afcon final match.
Mr. Adekunle Adeosun, a football fan, is of the view that the most honourable thing for Keshi and his technical crew to do at this point in time is to exit. “It is meaningless for Keshi and his technical partners to hang around when they have failed to lift the Super Eagles after the Afcon cup triumph. We need a new set of handlers to prepare the team for the future,” he says. Another fan, Mr. Ugonna Agujiobi, agrees: “Keshi doesn’t have the technical ability to take the Super Eagles far. He has done his bit”.
But Keshi remained defiant, insisting he was the best man to lead the Super Eagles into its glorious era. “I can’t deny it is a shame that we failed to qualify. On my part, I failed the nation but my players took South Africa for granted, a match they needed to win,” Keshi says.
His agent, Emma Addo, offeres a clincher: “No explanation will be acceptable now by Nigerians, but Super Eagles problems go beyond coaching. If some issues are not resolved, no one can succeed for long with the team.”
But ex-international, Garba Lawal disagrees. According to him, “the coach, not players should be held responsible for the failure of the team to qualify the country. The coach picked the players, if he didn’t invite them they won’t play.”
Keshi, whose contract expired after Nigeria’s second round exit from the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil last July, had personally agreed to continue coaching Super Eagles on interim basis while awaiting an improved contract from the NFF. With the Aminu Maigari-led NFF embroiled in leadership crisis that culminated in a brief spell of FIFA sanction against Nigeria, Keshi-led crew was handed the mandate to prepare the Super Eagles for the 2015 African Cup of Nations qualifiers in September.
Expectations of sports followers had been that as defending champions and one of the two African teams to reach the last 16 of the World Cup last July, the Super Eagles would easily overrun its Group A opponents consisting of South Africa, Congo Brazzaville and Sudan. And that with over two years of experimentation, Keshi has enough pool of talents to reach the Afcon finals next year and possibly retain the trophy.
“Many of us rated the Keshi-led Super Eagles so high despite its not-so-convincing performance at the World Cup, that we presumed that Afcon 2015 qualifications would be a mere stroll in the parks for Nigeria,” says Mr. Kayode Ogundeji, a football analyst.
However, those who presumed the Super Eagles to be a ‘demolition machine’ on the continent were disappointed after Nigeria’s disastrous 2-3 home loss against Congo Brazzaville on September 6 in Calabar followed by a lackluster scoreless draw against South Africa four days later in Cape Town. Expectedly, the team’s performance in both games drew unprecedented criticism.
Augustine Akhilomen, a sports writer describes the home loss against Congo and draw against South Africa as a sign that the Super Eagles under Keshi had hit its lowest ebb. “The goalless draw recorded against South Africa seems to be the icing on the cake of the fall of Eagles. For if Eagles performance against Congo could be excused for whatever reasons, the performance against South Africa was appalling,” he says.
Peterside Idah, former Super Eagles goalkeeper and football pundit believes that with the caliber of talented players in Nigeria, the draw against South Africa after the Congo debacle was a big let-down. “Nigeria has a bunch of talents that could have defeated South Africa but due to the team’s inability to fashion out a winning formula, we have made South Africa look like great team. Ordinarily, Enyimba would have defeated this Bafana-Bafana side if given the necessary motivation compared to what our foreign professional players did,” Idah says.
Keshi’s Achilles heels
Shortly after Nigeria’s shocking 1-0 loss to Sudan, Keshi had attributed the Super Eagles streak of poor results in recent times to handiwork of saboteurs. “There is sabotage by some people who I won’t mention their names but who know themselves. They don’t want this team to get to the Afcon; they want this team to lose outright. But they are not God,” he claims.
Though the FA is yet to investigate the claim of national team’s sabotage, the question that has continued to play on people’s mind is: Was Keshi the architect of his own downfall or tripped by saboteurs as he alleged? Surely, not a few soccer fans believe that Keshi orchestrated the circumstances that precipitated his fall from grace to grass.
The popular opinion among sports fans and analysts is that Keshi plotted his downfall and not saboteurs. “Stephen Keshi has nobody but himself to blame,” says Mr. Steve Eze, a football analyst.
Keen observers fingered Keshi’s idiosyncrasy and poor handling of critical issues concerning team selection and tactical approach as his greatest undoing. “His (Keshi’s) tenure was marred with ceaseless fracas and quite unnecessary public spats with his bosses (NFF officials) and some of the players”, says James Ezimoha, a sports analyst.
Besides occasional face-offs with the FA, Keshi also came under public barracking for his questionable team selection process, failure to inject tactical discipline into the team as well as disciplinary methodology. Although, the Big Boss creditably opened the door for many untested young stars to find their way into the national team, critics argue that favourtism rather than competition later marred Keshi’s squad selection system.
Specifically, Keshi was accused of neglecting some in-form players while selecting some players who were struggling for game time and form in their clubs.
“Keshi has lost it and I kept talking about the players he was ignoring. I talked about Ikechukwu Uche and I wonder if Taiye Taiwo won’t play better than Elderson Echiejile at the moment, yet these guys were continually snubbed,” Garba Lawal says.
Kayode Tijani, a soccer analyst also believes that the successes Keshi had before were because he created competition in the team, but he allowed these failures by not encouraging competition in the team.
Despite the lackluster performance of Keshi-tutored Super Eagles’ and the Afcon 2015 qualification debacle, football analysts insist he left behind a legacy for Nigerian football. To many of his admirers, the fact that Keshi led relatively young and untested players to win Nigeria’s third African crown, becoming only the second person to win the coveted trophy both as player and coach after Egypt’s Mahmoud El-Gohary is enough legacy.
Ezimora argues that Keshi took the Super Eagles far beyond people’s expectations in a short time. “Remember that when he (Keshi) took over from Samson Siasia, the plan was to build for the future, with a very modest ambition of possibly challenging for the Africa Cup of Nations in three to four years’ time. But the Big Boss had other ideas. He broke all protocols and landed Nigeria her first continental title in almost 20 years within two years in the job,” he says.
Besides ending Nigeria’s two decades wait for African Nations title, Keshi is equally credited for opening window of opportunity for uncapped home-based and foreign based players to showcase their talents. Kolade Oni believes that Keshi’s experiment which discovered the likes of Sunday Mbah, Ejike Uzoenyi, Geofery Oboabuna among others from the local league as well as other unknown foreign-based stars remains a big legacy.
Even as Keshi’s tactical inputs to the Super Eagles have often been called to question during his reign, his admirers insist Nigeria should be proud of him as he remains one of the best coaches on the African continent at the moment. Adokiye Amiesimaka, ex-international is one of the many soccer pundits who hold the belief that Keshi is one of the best coaches in the world. “According to FIFA, he is one of the best 14 international coaches in the world. He set the kind of record no other one whether white, black, green or blue has done in Africa by qualifying two different countries to two separate World Cups at first attempts, winning Afcon [with Nigeria] at first attempt,” Amiesimaka says.