Lolade Adewuyi profiles one of the continent’s most successful football coaches – the Big Boss, as he is widely referred to – and
considers the arguments for more faith, more respect and more investment in the abilities of home-grown trainers.
“I would like to dedicate the [Afcon] trophy to all African coaches. We’re not yet there, this team has taken just months to build. We will continue building.”
It was a surreal moment on the night of 10 February 2013 when Stephen Keshi, the coach of Nigeria’s national football team, uttered those words inside the packed press conference at Soccer City Stadium in Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Scores of journalists were waiting for a great, perhaps triumphal quote from this man who had charmed the continent over the three weeks of the Africa Cup of Nations tournament, with his team of rag-tag soldiers, three-quarters of whom were serving the national squad for the first time. Instead, Keshi said something anti-climactic: “We’re not yet there.”
After conquering the continent’s biggest teams and lifting the trophy as only the second-ever individual to win it both as a player and a coach (following in the footsteps of the Egyptian, Mahmoud El-Gohary), much more than a report on gradual progress was expected from the multilingual Nigerian who had turned press briefings into language classes. The 51-year-old Anioma native’s ability to converse in both English and French made attending his briefings during the competition a delight. At once friendly and jovial, he could also be aloof and angry; Keshi showed all the emotions that coaches go through when competing at top level. Only a small circle of people had believed that he could lead the Nigerian team to victory in the 2013 competition. Many Nigerian fans – forever optimistic about their team but always disappointed at every tournament – had long given up hope. Still they had watched.
The “Big Boss” (as he’s fondly called by admirers) knew he had a major task to achieve with the team he took to South Africa. In that squad, only six men – John Obi Mikel, Joseph Yobo, Vincent Enyeama, Austin Ejide, Elderson Echiejile and Ikechukwu Uche – had ever appeared at a previous senior team tournament. The remaining members were hungry lads who had come into the team following its failure to qualify for Afcon 2012 under former coach Samson Siasia.
Keshi built the team for 2013 by injecting new blood – young, agile lads who were not afraid to literally break a leg. He also experimented by bringing in six players from the Nigeria Premier League – something that had not been done since the Eagles last won the title under Dutchman Clemens Westerhof in 1994. It was an experiment that worked for the Zambians in the 2012 tournament, when coach Hervé Renard chose a large contingent of African-based unknowns who went on to defeat the mighty Black Stars and Elephants to win the title.
Keshi’s squad was experimental at best. Like many of his predecessors, he told the country that the team was in a rebuilding process and would need some time to become a really great squad. However, there was pressure on him from the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) to deliver the title or face the sack, like his predecessors who had won a cupboard full of sub-par medals since 1994, when the team last won gold.
Every time Nigeria participated in a tournament, the team was expected to win it. Notwithstanding the circumstances surrounding their preparation, if the team didn’t win, the coaches were deemed failures and fired. This had pushed many Nigerian coaches to explore avenues to circumvent the system, like using over-aged players in age-grade competitions.
The country has since won many youth titles, but with very few structures on the ground to transfer that victory to senior competitions. Cheating can only get you so far; it is exposed when all teams have to be at the same level. Many Nigerian youth stars failed to make the grade at senior level after excelling at underage tourneys.
Keshi himself had come through the youth teams before making the senior national team his abode for almost two decades, captaining the squad for 14 years (the longest term in Super Eagles’ history). In 1994, at the age of 32, he finally won the Africa Cup of Nations title and, in the same year, the national team qualified for its first World Cup. Like no one before him, he had tasted incredible success as a member of the widely acclaimed Golden Generation of Nigerian footballers. It was expected that he would make the transition to an equally successful coaching career.
But things don’t usually work that way. Early success with Togo – a small country that he led to qualifying for the World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations in 2006 – gave way to acrimony and despair when he got involved with player transfers, which created disharmony in the small West African country. He subsequently lost his job after failing to win any match with the squad at Afcon in Egypt in 2006, thus missing the opportunity to sit in the dugout at the world showpiece event in Germany that same year. In his place, the Togolese hired an expiring German traveller, Otto Pfister, to take the Sparrow Hawks to the Mundial, where they lost all three their matches.
At home, Keshi was regarded as a hero for his achievement with the Togolese because even the mighty Nigerians had lost their World Cup ticket to Angola that year. But he never got called up to the Nigerian job for many reasons, including being perceived by the establishment as stubborn and uncontrollable. After spells in Mali and Togo, he was eventually brought back home after the Eagles failed to qualify for the 2012 Afcon tournament, jointly hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Taking over in November of 2011, Keshi had only a few months to prepare a squad for the next qualifiers.
His problems were enormous: he had inherited a squad that was low in confidence after failing to beat Guinea to the Afcon ticket. He experimented by giving more opportunities to players who had been neglected by many of his predecessors. He reduced dependency on Europe-based players, making the few he did invite to camp fight for starting places alongside their glory-hungry, locally based team mates.
His experiment paid off when, on that evening in early February 2013, Sunday Mba from Enugu Rangers scored the lone goal that led the team to victory over Burkina Faso, and their third African title. It was the same Mba who scored the winning goal against Ivory Coast earlier in the quarter finals.
As has happened previously, the fight to win the African title became racially tainted toward the end of the tournament in South Africa. Journalists and pundits were quick to highlight the racial mix among coaches as the competition went into its final rounds.
Only a handful of African coaches had won the competition in its more than 50-year history: Egyptian Hassan Shehata with a hattrick of titles from 2006 to 2010 and, before him, Yeo Martial in 1992. Otherwise, winning teams had all been trained by Europeans. Going into the all-West African semi-finals of the 2013 competition, the ratio of African to European coaches was 2:2. Ghana and Nigeria paraded local coaches, while Mali and Burkina Faso were led by a Frenchman and a Belgian respectively. From a coaching perspective, it was interesting to see which way the pendulum would swing this time. Were the Africans capable of holding their own against their European counterparts? Were African coaches able to find the tactics to deliver victory to their teams?
This is an excerpt from Lolade Adewuyi‘s profile of “The Big Boss” published in the most recent Chronic.
In this issue of our quarterly pan African gazette, artists and writers from around the world take on the philanthropic complex to unravel the philosophies of dependency and power at play in the civil society of African states.
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