Stephen Keshi did not need Paul the Octopus to tell him that it will come to this. Like a bad marriage, his coaching contract with the Nigerian Football Federation collapsed two years ago. Both parties should have been through by now.
Sadly, the rites of passage have lingered and Keshi would walk away asking if he could not have done more to save himself this needless misery.
Forget about the controversy over whether or not he was trading with players or whether he was shortlisted to manage Cote d’Ivoire. He knew he could not have his cake and eat it.
Staying on after the Super Eagles’ African Cup of Nations victory in South Africa in 2013 was Keshi’s mistake. But it was not the worst thing. Keshi’s ultimate undoing was to underestimate the fallout of the humiliation suffered by the NFF when he unilaterally called off his contract after AFCON 2013.
After being begged and, later, seduced to take back the job, he assumed that he was doing so almost entirely on his own terms. That was his biggest mistake.
There are few jobs in Nigeria as hazardous as coaching the national soccer team. The demons confront you on and off the field. Before, during and after a game, you will have to deal with over 170 million people each of whom is a potential coach – and that includes arm-chair pundits who may never have kicked a plastic ball all their lives. Yet, they know just what the coach should have done to win every match.
Off the field, it is a different story. Even before the contract is signed, there are influential officials who are not interested in whether the coach succeeds or fails. The only thing that matters is their own cut. Five years ago, former England manager, Glenn Hoddle, reportedly walked away from Nigerian football authorities after he was advised to overstate his salary by £350,000.
Then there are officials who collect money from players to pressure the coach, those who wheel in their relatives to play, and players who would bribe or blackmail for a shirt.
In all of this, there is no guarantee that the coach’s wages will be paid as agreed in the contract, that players’ allowances and match bonuses will be paid or that anyone is interested in doing what is important to create a truly competitive local league.
The real game is the bureaucracy and that was where Keshi lost. Of course, he won the first leg by defying the official wisdom that the only way to be a successful coach is to build a team around foreign-based players. He took a great risk in South Africa by building his team around players from the local league – and against all odds, it paid off.
Gratified by his success, he wanted out but later changed his mind when he was assured that he would be allowed to continue with the team on his own terms – that is, the fantasy that he could build the team around local players.
The bureaucracy had just set him up for the second leg, which he would not survive.
I’m not suggesting for a minute that Keshi is blameless. In an article in June, shortly before the World Cup, I expressed my frustrations about the results of Keshi’s warm-up matches. His victory in South Africa seemed to have gone into his head and he was behaving as if he could play with humanoids or amojis and still win.
There was essentially nothing wrong with using players from the local league, but doing so almost in total disregard of quality and in obvious spite of solid foreign-based players – who are also Nigerian, by the way – was just not it. I doff my hat to players in the local league but it would be a long time before they can rise above the poor state of the local league.
That was what Keshi did not want to hear. And no one told him this truth as bluntly as Sunday Oliseh, who takes over from him today as coach.
In a piece entitled ‘What Stephen Keshi Needs to Understand Urgently’, Oliseh said, “If you are a foreign-based pro, it not because foreign clubs want to do you a favour; it is because you are one of the best from your country, simple.
“By gradually trying to wage a war against these players who ply their trade week in, week out, at the highest level leagues in the world, we are turning our back to our best…the unbalanced flooding of home-based (players) is a strategy that can work at the AFCON level, but at the world stage, we’ll play well and lose.”
And it came to pass. In four years, Keshi turned the Super Eagles from a bunch of losers and a source of national misery to African champions. He became the African coach of the year, the first Nigerian coach to win a world cup match, the second to manage a Nigerian team to the World Cup. In that time, too, he became the first Nigeria coach to lose a game at home in 33 years, after the Super Eagles crashed out of AFCON by losing to Congo 3-2 in Calabar.
Yet, his biggest loss was that he did not know when the game changed.
Oliseh must be taking over the job of his former captain with very mixed feelings. He, too, was a former captain of the national team and, like Keshi, he also had issues with the football house as a player.
In his piece referred to earlier, he said, “Keshi’s job is the last thing I want! I can understand that Keshi feels threatened by the possibility of a sack and back-stabbing, but my comments should not be seen as coming from a possible successor unless one is desperate, which I thank God I am not. His (Keshi’s) job is the last thing I or my family needs.”
Until today. I’m not sure what advice, if any, Keshi might have for Oliseh. But as I look through Octopus Paul’s crystal ball, I can almost hear Keshi saying to Oliseh in the locker room, “You know what, with some good foreign-based players, a sprinkling of local ones and a bit of luck, you may succeed in the last job you ever wanted!”
And, most important of all, know what to do not just when the game changes, but long before it does.