Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi lifted Africa’s fallen giant to the continental title after two decades of underachievement, and lived up to his “Big Boss” nickname by retaining control even after the national federation threatened to fire him midway through the tournament.
When Keshi led Nigeria to last year’s African Cup title, he became only the second man to win it as a player and coach. For Nigeria, it ended a 19-year trophy drought and enshrined Keshi – the 1994 African Cup-winning captain – as a football savior who delivers titles whether playing or coaching.
It was quickly forgotten by Nigeria Football Federation officials that they tried to get rid of Keshi before the quarterfinals of the continental championship.
“I’m an optimistic person. I rarely think about negativity,” Keshi said after lifting the trophy.
Now, Keshi is expected to take his country to the quarterfinals of the World Cup for the first time, something he came within two minutes of as a player before Italy overturned a 1-0 deficit to knock Nigeria out of the 1994 tournament.
Keshi will return for another go at the World Cup as a coach and his Nigeria goes again as African champion – thanks largely to his influence.
The 52-year-old Keshi suits his nickname with his former central defender’s beefy frame, but also his strength of character. He stands up for what he believes and has often been at odds with his own bosses at the national federation because of it.
He’s still there as coach, perhaps a measure of the respect he has earned. Before Keshi, Nigeria failed to qualify for the 2012 African Cup of Nations. It won it after he arrived.
Keshi’s playing days took him from Nigeria to Ivory Coast, Belgium, France, the United States and Malaysia. In his first national coaching role, he qualified Togo for its World Cup debut only to be discarded and replaced by Otto Pfister for the 2006 tournament in Germany.
That experience appeared to have left a lasting impression on Keshi, who was vindicated and re-employed by Togo after Pfister’s disappointing time in charge saw the Togolese players nearly go on strike at the World Cup.
“Even when it goes bad I still think it is good,” Keshi said. “There must always be a lesson to add to my future to make it better.”