Written By: Segun Odegbami
I feel very much for Stephen Keshi. Another World Cup finals looms in the distance. Is he about to lose his very prestigious and lucrative job? Or would he break what is increasingly becoming a World Cup jinx?
Stephen Okechukwu Keshi may actually have the easiest job in the world considering that Nigeria’s senior national team only gets to get rid of its coaches around every World Cup championship. The two to three years between the end of one World Cup finals and the qualification for another are easy harvest years. Competitions and matches are relatively easy, straightforward and winnable both at home and even away from home. Any ordinary coach can handle the Eagles and survive. Qualifying for the African championship as one of 16 teams from a pool of about 52 countries has never really being a problem and should not be. Any coach that fails in this simple assignment is not worth being called one. Qualifying and collecting a Bronze medal has become such a routine that the feat should almost be taken for granted and there should be no tears shed for any coach that fail to get to the last 4 of the Cup of Nations.
But it is the World Cup that not only provides the real litmus test, but also determines the fate of coaches. ‘The World Cup’ refers to either the qualification for the championship or the championship proper itself. Both claim their victims every time. The history of Nigerian football and the World Cup is littered with the carcass of coaches. The championship has terminated the ‘life’ of more national team coaches than any other factors. With the faint outlines of Rio 2014 in the distance the jinx bell has started to ring again. What Keshi survive it?
Let me go back into some kind of history. The failure of Father Jelisavic Tiko in 1977 to qualify Nigeria for the 1978 World Cup by losing the final qualification match against Tunisia in Lagos prematurely marked the end of his romance with Nigerian football. It ensured that he was not there for the 1980 Africa Cup of Nations. The lot to take Nigeria to the 1980 African Cup of Nations fell to Professor Otto Gloria. Although he led Nigeria to win its first African Cup of Nations championship even that historic achievement was not enough to make him survive the purge that came with losing the first leg of the last qualifying match for the 1982 World Cup. He was sent packing immediately even before the last qualifying match was played.
Clemens Westerhof was luckier, perhaps the luckiest coach in Nigeria’s history. His case was the only exception to what had become a pattern and a yardstick for determining the longevity of national team coaches. He was hired on the eve of the last qualifying matches for the 1990 World Cup. Nigeria lost to the Cameroon but his time with the team was considered so small that Clemens was given the benefit of doubt and allowed an extended period to prove his mettle. He thus survived the purge and went ahead to not only qualify for the 1994 championship but also to take Nigeria through its best run at the World Cup up till now. Nigeria ‘knocked’ on the door of the quarter-finals. But even this World Cup was not going to end without a victim. Nigerians suddenly developed an extravagant expectation of their team to the extent that rather than celebrate the man and the monumental achievement Westerhof’s contract was not renewed and he was never even thanked for taking the country to its best ever football performance at that level before and since.
Bora was hired on the eve of the 1998 World Cup to succeeded another technical crew that had qualified the team. He lasted only the period of the World Cup itself. He was sacked immediately after the championship, his fate sealed by the failure of the Eagles to go past Denmark during France ’98.
Nigeria’s Chief Adegboye Onigbinde, came in on a supposedly rescue mission on the eve of the 2002 to take over from a fellow Nigerian that had qualified the country for the championship. The jinx of the World Cup would intervene as the pedestrian performance of the Super Eagles in Japan consumed him! He was shown the way out immediately after Nigeria’s poorest outing at a World Cup.
In 2010, Nigerians still recall with pain how the country went through ‘hell’ to qualify for the World Cup, and hurriedly hired a certain Swedish coach, Lagerbeck, on the eve of the South African championship to take the country there on an unclear mandate. He was also hurriedly ‘sacked’ when the team failed to impress anyone.
What all these clearly tell is that the fate of Super Eagles coaches has always been tied to either qualifying for the World Cup, or to the performance during it.
Any coach hired in the years immediately following a World Cup campaign often finds things easier with a relatively peaceful and secure reign. For as long as the challenges are limited to the African continent any coach will survive the challenges. The gap in the standard of football between Nigeria and the rest of the continent outside Egypt, Cameroon, Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire is so wide that it is considered ‘criminal’ and unforgivable for any coach to fail to trump over them both at home and away. Thats why coaching the Super Eagles during this period could be the easiest and most lucrative job in the world. It lasts about three years! The real test comes when matches move into the latter stages of the qualification for the World Cup. As history shows not many coaches survive and go unscathed with the expectation, the tension and the pressure of the period. Paul Hamilton, Amodu Shuaibu and Christian Chukwu would have a lot to say about this.
Stephen Keshi is fast approaching that period. He has had a relatively calm and peaceful reign as coach of the Super Eagles. Nigerians have been very patient with him, waiting to witness the result of his experimentation. He has experimented with many new players and styles with mixed results. In attempting to create a new philosophy for the national team he has used more new players in his spell with the national team than any of those before him since Festus Onigbinde in 2002, who injected a lot of new players into the team that metamorphosed from Clemens Westerhof’s team of 1994. He took this team to play in the 2002 World Cup and returned with results and performances that are better forgotten quickly.
Nigerians have been patiently observing Stephen Keshi and waiting to see the cystallisation of his assembly of a mix of home and foreign based players. He has been on a cruise so far, playing against relatively weak African teams. Now his own litmus test beckons.
It has been two years since Nigeria’s failure at the 2010 World Cup. Now, with less than two years to Rio 2014 the heat is finally on!
How far has Stephen Keshi’s new Super Eagles evolved?
Last week, I met with him in the city of Warri. The look on his face is that of a confident man who appears to be in firm control. He was rattled by the negative reactions following the drawn away game against the Lone Stars in Monrovia. Is this the early sign of the jinx?
So far the Super Eagles definitely look different from the Super Eagles of Kanu Nwankwo, Jay Jay Okocha, Daniel Amokachi and Traibo West. In terms of player quality Keshi’s Eagles don’t come close. No one really knows what to make of the team, so expectations have been muted. Several members of the new Super Eagles would walk through a crowd of Nigerians and may not even be recognised. That is how remote the present team is from Nigerians.
Thats why I feel for Stephen Keshi. I do not know what to make of his emerging team. Yet another World Cup race is upon us with a lot of uncertainty, apprehension and fear!
Will Keshi fall victim or will he break the jinx? The next few months will tell!