I haven’t seen him in eighteen years. We haven’t talked to him in at least eight. In that time, he’d gone to re-establish himself as an authentic African hero. He’d done things no Nigerian has ever done and he’d done it in the murky waters of Africa football.
Growing up, he was one of five sports figures I longed to meet. The others were Muhammad Ali, Pele, Mike Tyson and Diego Maradona. I met him first and luckily, the others too – Maradona in America, Tyson at a couple of parties, Pele at the world cup and Ali in the tuxedo store we both shop at in town.
Stephen Okechukwu Keshi is different. He is Nigerian and always seem to triumph despite the odds. He turned a career-threatening suspension into an opportunity that opened the floodgates to Europe to Nigerian footballers. He anchored the golden era of Nigerian football by forming an effective partnership with Clemens Westerhoff.
The first time I met him, he laughed half of the interview. He thought I was a prank. I was just a teenager, too young to be a reporter. But, once he realized I’d just finished my first degree and I was naïve about the politics in the house of Nigerian football, he was as welcoming as a long lost big brother.
Over the years, I’ve always wondered how this man would have done were he born in a more forward-thinking country. He could have been an international legend – like the German, Frank Beckenbauer whom he’s closest to in mold to me. But, this is Nigeria where people dig graves for their best talents.
History repeats itself in Nigeria like a broken record. It’s why South Korea which got her independence the same year as Nigeria and was supposed to have a slower development track than Nigeria is an economic power today and co-hosted the world cup a decade ago while Nigeria is mired in poverty, under-development, political comedy and struggles to convince fellow Africans to hand her hosting rights for continental tournaments.
I sit next to him and try to find a point of interest. He sometimes limps, a badge of honor from many wars for Nigeria. And, I am limping too, a badge for over-eating. But, I’m not telling him that. I pretend it’s an old football injury. He raises an eyebrow that shoots down my tale, same way he puts down unruly players who think they can hold the country hostage
We talk a little and I realize this man must love punishment. Beckenbauer is a mini-god in Germany. Michel Platini rules European football. Yet Keshi is often underappreciated and always in one storm or the other in the native land he loves with an undying passion. He must love punishment, I tell him.
He flashes a Californian smile but his voice is heavy with a Hollywood melancholy. “I only got one country. We can’t abandon Nigeria.” We talk a little about our last talk about eight years ago. I was coming out of film school and the Big Boss being the Big Boss was proud like a big brother. “Hey, don’t forget home O! You have to use this and your experience to go and help back home,” he counseled. He shakes his head in admiration like he’s still proud. But, I get an incomplete, I think. I’m still “not home”.
What Keshi fails to realize is that not everyone is like Keshi. Nigeria beats up its best talents and romance mediocrity. A lot of people take their bruises and go back abroad to heal and thrive. Then, a lot of people are not Keshi. He sees a bruise and takes it as a badge of honor in the battle for the motherland.
Now, he’s facing what would be the biggest task of most coaches’ career – qualifying for the world cup. But, again, he’s not like most coaches. He’s already qualified a country for the world cup. This should be a piece of cake, right? No! This is still Nigeria where everyone and their mistress are football experts. Even a goat on its way to becoming a delicious pot of isi-ewu has an opinion about the Eagles’ squad
You think Nigerian politics is bad; you’ve not peeked into Nigeria’s house of sports where football is king. But while Nigerians gave up on their politicians long ago, they retain a love for football. And, they think Nigeria must qualify for everything. This has made coaching Nigeria akin to being on the death row.
Most coaches come to Nigeria to make quick money and dash off. But, not Keshi. The man is thinking ahead. After the glorious era of the mid-1990s, Nigeria went into a rut where we became a laughing stock. We went from number five in the world into the wilderness where Cape Verde and Tonga play. Keshi wants to make sure that never happens again.
Against Mexico on a humid May night, I saw the future at work. I told Keshi before the game that I don’t care about the result against Mexico. It was important the boys stretch their legs and come out unhurt. What matters is the game against Kenya and Namibia.
Keshi smiles again, a Hollywood smile struggling in Nollywood waters. It’s not the way Nigerians think. People want a “W” and hope the future takes care of itself. Yet, Keshi keeps battling on. He knows we’ll be in Brazil. And, he knows with God and luck, this team may just right the wrong of 1994 when the Eagles was two minutes away from a path to glory but lost to immaturity.
You never bet against Keshi. And, you’ll be a fool to bet against Nigerian football, despite everything. God is not that unkind. We’re already unlucky enough with our political leaders.