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Renard and Keshi, night and day

They are as opposite as night and day and yet they are similar in so many ways.

One is white and the other is black. One loves to wear white and the other could care less and would wear pink if need be. After all he has felt comfortable in the yellow of Mali, the red of Togo and now basks in the green of Nigeria.

One is bald and the other has a blond mane. Both are master motivators and have broken voices from shouting instructions over and over. Most importantly though, both have the collective expectations of millions riding on their shoulders come game time in South Africa.

Yet both still walk with the swagger and confidence of men content in their own skin and with nothing to prove.

One is Zambia’s Herve Renard and the other is Nigeria’s Stephen Keshi and, as fate would have it, both are on course to collide on Friday 25 at the Mbombela Stadium and inflict as much damage as they can to each other’s team.

In my opinion “The Fox”, Renard, already won the game of his life when he lifted Afcon last year and paid an unparalleled tribute to Zambia’s fallen football stars, allowing them now to rest in peace forever. In a script seemingly straight out of Hollywood, he and his men defied all odds by brushing off the favourite West Africans. So he has nothing to prove.

Don’t tell that to the zillion rabid Chipolopolo fans who, crazed by the euphoria of winning, are now bent on solidifying themselves as Southern Africa’s true powerhouse. Who can blame them? After all the Copper Bullets, despite sputtering in their preparations, are actually a better team than they were in the last final, having now played together for an additional year.

Enter the Big Boss. Coach Stephen Keshi.

Keshi, in his tenure, has done a bunch of small things for Nigeria that collectively have resulted in a big change. There are too many to list. Gone are the big, high-maintenance stars that often seemed to bog the Eagles down. Discarded is everyone that didn’t put the team first. In are a flock of home-grown NPL players who have given the West Africans what they have lacked previously - namely bit. Add to that the unknown factor and we suddenly have a very difficult team to face.

When former Eagle’s Coach Westerhoff, who coached Keshi, told the Nigerian Press months ago, “my captain will right the train”, he was spot on. Nigeria now has a sense of purpose and there is equilibrium in camp. No “animal” is more equal. Just ask Osaze.

Granted, when Keshi said that his greenhorns could actually be better than the 1994 Dream Team, most here in Nigeria snickered in confusion. Maybe because he had been to Afcon so many times as a coach and even more as a player, people asked if he had lost the magnitude of the tournament and was now uttering nonsense.

A small minority, though, knew that the coach was only setting the bar high and motivating his team to do well by heaping praise first and hoping they would substantiate it on the field afterwards.

In a few months I will have a son and I am seriously considering naming him Sunzu, not after the Chinese master of war but after the gargantuan Stopilla, who is my favourite Zambian player.

Mesmerised by his size and refusal to give an inch with his ballet-like play, I watched in awe as Nigeria did everything to avoid him during the Eagles’ 2-0 win over Zambia in Kaduna before the last Afcon. Only when the Eagles ran away from him did they score.

Something tells me that Zambia will live and die by the way they will have to handle the speed of Ahmed Musa and the slickness of Victor Moses and not so much the poacher Ike Uche. Meanwhile Nigeria’s wobbly right-back will have to snuff out Mayuka, Katanogo and another big guy in The Hurricane Mbesuma. At six feet but playing much taller and with the bulk of a battleship he will be more than a handful.

There is no doubt that speculation is rife and the questions are many when it comes to the outcome of the game itself and we could go on and on. One thing that will be a certainty, though, is that both coaches, the Fox and the Boss, will have their teams ready to play and that the winner will automatically become a solid favourite, along with the Ivory Coast, to leave South Africa as African champions.

Get your popcorn ready – mine is.

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