Keshi, beware, remember 1981!
I am writing about Stephen Keshi for the second time in about as many weeks for a good reason. The emerging picture in Nigeria’s preparation for the 2014 World Cup takes a shape and form that is disturbing. As the Super Eagles approach their preparations for the last lap in their qualification matches and I follow the ‘conversation’ between Stephen Keshi and his hoards of critics, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to remind him of 1981!
I hope it helps him even as the pressures are already mounting (post the Confederations Cup) that his team is not good enough without some old players! Many people have been calling on him to recall Joseph Yobo, Obafemi Martin Osaze Odemwigie and co, players that have really not been a major part of his remarkable success story so far.
My opinion would make so much sense to Keshi because, not only was he directly involved in the incident I am about to recount, he was its major victim at the time.
Permit me to go back and forth in time and events to make my points.
First, lets go back to 1980.
In that year Nigeria won the African Cup of Nations for the first time and were very convincing in doing so. The Green Eagles did not lose any game. So well did the team play in the final match that when the qualifying matches of the 1982 World Cup were to start that same year everyone took Nigeria’s qualification from Africa almost as a foregone conclusion.
In the same manner, looking at how convincing the Super Eagles won the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations (not losing any match), one could easily understand why the Eagles have absolutely no excuse not qualifying easily for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. It makes sense. The good coach would just stick to their winning teams and winning formulae.
Lets return briefly once again to 1981.
After the 1980 victory a few key but ageing players in the national team were dropped and younger players were brought to undertake the qualifying matches for the 1982 World Cup. That’s where Stephen Keshi and Franklin Howard came in to replace Christian Chukwu (ageing) and Godwin Odiye (moved to the US) who had held the centre of defense between them for years.
The partnership of Keshi and Howard as central defenders had helped established their local club (New Nigerian Bank FC) in the domestic league as the best in the country at that time. They were young, sharp, strong and very hardworking. The only thing they really lacked was enough international exposure, which, of course, they were now amassing successfully through the World Cup qualifying matches when paired with Leotis Boateng and Tunde Bamidele.
The pair was a revelation, especially Howard, a breath of fresh air, intelligent, strong and hardworking, holding fort beautifully and effectively through all the qualifying matches from 1980 to 1981 until the last hurdle against Algeria, the same team that Nigeria had defeated convincingly only a year earlier to win the African Cup of Nations.
Suddenly, in 1981 some agitations by a section of the media started for the recall of some ageing players that had been dropped from the national team (Chukwu and Okala in particular, two African legends that had served their nation very well and should have been left to continue with their clubs).
Otto Gloria was distracted by these calls, allowed his heart to rule his head and recalled some of the old ‘reliables’. To his chagrin he discovered too late that he should have kept his winning team and formula up till that point by sticking to his ‘inexperienced’ but winning pair of Keshi and Howard. He did not and he failed. Nigeria lost at the final hurdle! Keshi was sidelined for the ‘old reliable’.
Back again to 2013 and the parallels.
Keshi had started a transition to a new generation shortly before AFCON 2013. The younger players won the African Cup of Nations in South Africa. So convincing were they that most analysts believe it would take a catastrophic ‘accident’ for the team to fail to qualify from Africa for the 2014 World Cup. They have been on course.
Suddenly, as Nigeria coasts to the end of the qualification matches of the 2014 World Cup, the players are no longer good enough in the thinking of a section of the media to take the country there, hence, the start of a romantic campaign to bring back ageing players using the sentiments of nostalgia and past service. Yobo, Martins, Osaze must now come back to conclude the assignment at the final hurdle! It is simply preposterous!
I have observed Keshi’s pressured but guarded response up till now to this distractive call. I am worried by his body language.
My advise is that he goes back to his own story in 1981 and take lessons! Once a transition has started and is on course, it is very unwise to go back and dust materials from the archives.
Yobo, and Co have served Nigeria well. They have been great ambassadors of Nigeria’s national team, the Super Eagles, of the past decade and more. But change is called for and a transition has begun. All should hearken to the tolling of the bell.
I hope Stephen Keshi does!