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The year ‘King Keshi’ died…

The year ‘King Keshi’ died…
December 30
21:53 2016

It was around 1.25am when I parked my car in front of the house. I signed off the call which was with Chibuzor Ehilegbu in the US. The fulfilment of a long quest to find a guy who seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth. Ehilegbu was last seen in the national team colours at the 1984 Cote d’Ivoire based AFCON. I was very pleased at how our conversation had flowed. We promised to do it again soon.

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As soon as I ended the call my phone started ringing. A call from Nigeria. The caller was a person I refer to as “Aburo”. She was screaming hysterically “Big boss. Big Boss; Big Boss”. I tried with little initial success to calm her. When the hysteria passed, I could make out that something dreadful had happened to Stephen Keshi – I had gone into denial mode instantly.

Still in the car, I proceeded to make three more calls. Each confirmed to me that Stephen Keshi had indeed died. I got out, walked into the house and upstairs to the living room. There, flopped on the sofa, I let my anguish out. To this day I have no idea how I finally got upstairs to the bedroom. Three hours later I was woken up by the news crew of TVC for an interview.

Stephen Okechukwu Keshi for me was the most influential Nigerian sports person of his and my lifetimes. I dare anyone to bring contradictory evidence.

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He was one of my heroes. I was in awe of the man. His stature and his ability to manipulate the football from his position I thought phenomenal.

“When opportunity refuses to knock build your own door” I read recently. In 1985 then NFA Chairman Tony Ikhazoboh banned Stephen Keshi and 4 other players from football in Nigeria because they did not arrive on time to the national team. Killing a fly with a sledgehammer one would say. The young man decided to pursue the links that had been established during the AFCON of the year before and went to play in Ivory Coast.

From Ivory Coast he eventually moved to Belgium with Lokeren. That his one move to Abidjan and subsequently to Europe helped change Nigerian football and the lives of Nigerian footballers forever. Through and because of him, from the late 1980s and early 1990s Belgium was the home of the best young Nigerian talents. The gap between Nigerian national teams and the North African teams narrowed drastically and we started to stand toe to toe with them. Keshi was the catalyst.

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Any young person who wants to really know how good Keshi was on the pitch should search for matches from the Senegal based AFCON ’92. He was majestic. It is still one of the big tournament shocks that Nigeria only finished 3rd; we were the best team in the tournament. 2 years later when the Super Eagles finally won it, Keshi was a bit part player – starting one of the five matches.

The first time I ever spoke to Keshi was on New year’s Eve of 2012. I called him while he and his Super Eagles team were in Camp in Faro. I basically called to book an appointment for my intending visit to the training base in a few days. It was a regular conversation between a national team trainer and a journalist – guarded, not unfriendly but not warm.

When I arrived the base I met him for the first time and I did exceptionally well to hide the fact I was in total awe. Later in the evening we sat down for the interview. I will say it that the 30 minutes we spent changed our relationship forever. I became his friend. The next day after training we sat down and discussed football off the record and as I described his national team matches to him and issues he will laugh and look at Dan Amokachi and say “this guy don dey follow ball from far o”. 

I remember in South Africa during the AFCON I was sitting practically on the floor outside the Super Eagles restaurant at their Igewenyama Hotel, it was Keshi’s birthday he walked to where I was sitting with Emeka Enyadike, he sat on the floor alongside me with his back to me so we used our backs to support each other. He asked how I was enjoying SA and if I was missing my family. We just generally talked shop. He later got up to go join the team saying “if I am late I will have to pay $200 fine and ah nor get that kain money o”. He asked us to wait till after their dinner. We couldn’t as it was quite late.

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A few days before the quarter final with favourites Cote d’Ivoire I was at the Hunter’s Inn hotel of the Super Eagles and spent a few hours with Keshi in the lobby. We talked a lot about his issues with the NFF and football in general. As I got up to leave I muttered that it will be so great if we can win this match. “We go win” he replied me emphatically. I pointed out to him that I had watched the Ivorians a few days earlier Vs Algeria “black and black different from black and Arab. I don tell you no worry we go win”. I will never forget the confidence in his voice. He was right.

There have been few epoch moments in Nigerian football since 1981 that did not involve Stephen Keshi. That he was a great man did not make him perfect. He had flaws. Like all mortals I will hasten to add. He was arrogant many would say. He was very greedy and loved money many others will also say. Those are human failings. They can’t and won’t detract from his greatness no matter how hard some would try.

A month before his death Keshi called me from his home in California. “My oga” he said. I begged him to stop calling me that. I apologised for not checking up on him and promised to repent and  call him some more. It was the last time we spoke.

On the morning of his death on my interview on TVC I was asked what I think should be done to honour him. “We don’t celebrate our heroes when they are alive we are even worse when they die. So I do not expect anything to be done for him now”. They tried to get me to suggest something but I insisted that nothing will be done. We all are witnesses to how his burial went.

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The only African coach to qualify two different African teams for the FIFA World Cup. The only African coach to qualify an African team for the 2nd round of the FIFA world cup. The only indigenous coach to win the AFCON for Nigeria, the first Nigerian captain to an AFCON final outside Nigeria.

“Legend” does not do Stephen Keshi justice. Neither does this tribute but I owed it to him to try and write one.

2 Comments

  1. Piro
    Piro December 30, 22:57

    Wow. Wow. Wow. Well done, Calvin. We, the common Nigerians, will continue to honour and remember our heroes where the failing state does not

    Reply to this comment
  2. abidex
    abidex December 31, 22:01

    A true memorial to a great Nigerian Hero

    Reply to this comment

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