The exit of Stephen Keshi!

At a time like this one can only draw strength from the depths of philosophy. Any other way is laced with the anguish of the permanency of a loss that no one prepared for.

Since Wednesday this week, I have been asking myself the questions: ‘Why Stephen Keshi? Why now?

Of course, there are no answers, just a numbing, humbling resignation to the force from which no one can escape.

Even this realization fails to diminish the pain of grief, sorrow and sadness that comes with the unexpected and shocking demise of a person we look on as a superhuman, after all Stephen Keshi was an authentic hero, an athletic specimen that has, with his skills and physicality, achieved an unprecedented great deal within the short period of his 54 year-sojourn here on earth. No one saw Stephen Keshi and death operating within the same realm. So, death’s visit was totally from the blues!

Stephen Keshi was not old nor was he reported to be sick. Either would have prepared us. He had also only just lost his wife to cancer a few months ago, so death could not be so cruel as to come for him even before he had finished mourning her. So we thought.

But death had no qualms about such sentimental considerations that are nothing but empty vessels of wishful thinking lodged in the human sub-consciousness, never acknowledging the lurking ‘thief’ until he strikes in the dark of night leaving tears, bewilderment and helplessness in its wake! Oh, death how cruel thou art for you will come when you will come.

At the risk of repeating the good accounts, I have already heard and read about my friend and football compatriot pouring in torrents from all corners of the world in tribute to him I must add my own little voice.

It is before dawn on Wednesday morning. I am woken up by the deafening sound of my phone ringing and piercing through the silence of pre-dawn.

It must be a call either from heaven or from hell. Calls are not made at that time unless there is good news that can’t wait or bad news that must be delivered no matter how ungodly the hour.
It is from an unknown number. The caller declares he is a journalist. I sense straightaway it must be bad news.

I am right.
He asks if I have heard the news.
‘What news?’, I ask him, my hearting now pounding in anxiety and dread. God, do not let it be news I cannot handle, I pray silently.

His response is a bombshell, worse than any bad news I could have imagined.
The world suddenly stops on its axis.

‘Stephen Keshi is dead?’

It is the coldest and cruelest statement I have ever heard. Nothing could have prepared me for the shock it brought.

Who? Stephen what? No, no, no. It cannot be. What are you talking about? Is this a joke? The questions are coming in rapid succession.

He confirms my worst fears. I do not even bother asking for his name. I cut the line and then my phone goes crazy.

There is a ceaseless line up of new calls jamming my line, as with the same message and same request – to say something about my friend and colleague.

It takes me several minutes to take it all in. I start to think the implications of Keshi’s totally unexpected passage – his children, his dreams, his extended family, his close friends that I know.

The past two weeks have been weeks of death.

Coach Yara who discovered me in Ibadan and took me to Housing Corporation where my football career at club level really started in 1972 passed on in Abeokuta.

General Tanko Ayuba, ex-governor, ex-Minister, Senator, and husband to my cousin, Ronke, also died.

Muhammed Ali, my greatest sports hero, also died a few days ago.

Now, this.

It is Keshi’s that really brings home the fragility of our mortality.

A friend and colleague in the Green Eagles of the early 1980s when I was captain of the national team and he was part of a new generation whose emergence on the scene marked the beginning of our own era.

I played with Keshi and his group of exceptionally gifted footballers (Bright Omokaro, Franklyn Howard, Rashidi Yekini, Henry Nwosu, Wole Odegbami, and so many others) for 3 years before I retired. He rose to become captain of the national team soon after captaining Nigeria’s junior national team and New Nigerian Bank FC of Benin.

He was an outstanding centre back, a libero sweeping behind, or sometimes in front, of a back-four of defenders. He joined the Green Eagles in 1981 and for the next 12 years or so became the anchor of the team and its leader, on and off the field.

The Big Boss was a very apt sobriquet for the man. He led the national team to win the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations and to that year’s World Cup, feats he repeated 20 years later as coach, the only Nigerian in history to achieve both feats.

The young, handsome ambitious football player left Nigeria in 1985 to start an eventful and illustrious professional football career in West Africa and later in Europe that lasted well over 10 years. In that period he amassed successes that embellish a career that may be unequalled in our country’s history.

That’s the immortal Stephen Keshi in the hearts of all Africans, not the one that I am told woke up last Tuesday night with some niggling pain in his legs and stopped breathing a few hours later on the way to a hospital for treatment!

Is life that cheap and death that easy?

I reach out to the deep.
No one can question the giver and taker of life on his methods, timing and motives.

So, we must accept whatever fate throws at us including the reality now that Stefano (as I called him since we went together to Brazil in 1981 and I adopted the Portuguese interpretation of Stephen in calling him, and he called me Segundo Tempo in retaliation) has left us with all the foibles and troubles of this world for the peace and tranquility of his Creator’s bosom.

Oh, that thought is consoling.

It has been over 24 hours since the news of his death as I am writing this. In those hours I have seen hundreds of messages of beautiful tributes paid to Stephen Keshi in the media and on many social platforms. My Facebook page is inundated with exchanges by friends pasted from all corners of the world. My phone has been ringing every few minutes from people calling to add their condolences to the children and other members of his immediate family.

My heart is full of conflicting thoughts, from frustration, to pain, to anger and finally to gratitude.

As I look back at his life, I choose finally to express sincere gratitude to the Lord for Stephen Keshi’s life of triumph against all odds and challenges, a life full of achievements that make him a model for young aspiring football players with big dreams.

His life is an incredible 54-year journey acknowledged by the world as a legacy to future generations.

Stephen Keshi without question stands out as one of the greatest Nigerian football heroes of all times. Nigeria must immortalize him in ways that will make him truly Rest in Perfect Peace. Adieus The Big Boss!

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