Since he led Nigeria to win its third African Nations Cup title in the just concluded South Africa 2013 edition of the competition, Stephen Okechukwu Keshi has been the toast of all Nigerians, including those critics, who never gave his team any chance of success at the continental fiesta.
Now a Commander Order of the Niger (CON), a honour bestowed on him by the Federal Government, Keshi has already started looking ahead to the challenges ahead, including the FIFA Confederation Cup, which holds in June in Brazil, the World Cup qualifier against Kenya and the African Nations Championship qualifier against perennial foes, Cote d’Ivoire, which also comes up in June, among other competitions.
Fielding questions from journalists during the TomTom Editor’s Round Table held over the weekend in Lagos, Keshi talked about the just concluded Nations Cup and his plans for the future of the Super Eagles. CHRISTIAN OKPARA reports.
AT every given opportunity Super Eagles coach will readily tell anyone who cares to listen that Nigeria is a great country that should be at the forefront of every event, especially sports. The coach, who as a player was the captain of the senior national team for 14 years, is of the opinion that given the right environment and opportunity, Nigerians would rule every competition they go into no matter the rating of the opposition.
Keshi has every right to flaunt Nigeria’s potential and the inherent greatness because he just led a group of young Nigerians to win the African Nations Cup in South Africa, a feat his compatriots thought was impossible even before the first ball was kicked.
Now, savouring the euphoria of his achievement, Keshi says that the battle is just half won.
According to the former Togo and Mali national teams’ coach, Nigeria’s victory in South Africa is just the beginning of the country’s march to the summit of world football.
Keshi said: “We are still building the team and by God’s grace we will get the team of our dream very soon.”
He added: “After the last game in South Africa, I sat down with my coaches to list some other players we need to give the chance to come into the squad.
“I have a list of 50 players I can call upon at any time, but we need patience and support from everybody. Martins, Osaze, Anichebe and others are still relevant in the team; they will get their chance to play unless they choose to stay away.”
The coach went to South Africa with 17 debutants in a team of 23 players, a decision, which, according to him, has been justified by the team’s achievement at the Nations Cup.
Going forward, Keshi said he would look for more young players, no matter where they are based, to fortify his team.
“I made my debut for the Eagles in 1979 in Rabat against Morocco. I was then 17 years and some months old. It was a friendly when we were preparing for the 1980 Nations Cup. I had some young colleagues like Sylvanus Okpalla, Henry Nwosu, among others. We were just fresh from school.
“So, it doesn’t matter how old you are. It depends on your intelligence. If you are good enough to play for me, I will pick you; it is as simple as that.
“I wasn’t afraid to go to the competition with 17 debutants, because I looked at what they could bring to the team.
“When I was in Togo, I used young players, some didn’t even have clubs, but I gave them that self belief. I didn’t look at the players’ pedigree; rather I took players that could fight for the team and work for the collective good. That is what I am doing with the Eagles.”
The coach believes Nigeria has the potential to become truly great again in football if the right elements get together to work for the collective good. To him, the Super Eagles would only succeed when the football federation, the government and the fans come together to support the team.
He also says the players must be ready to work hard to maintain the momentum “because hard work is the basic ingredient for success.”
According to Keshi, “The players must realise that there is no sentiment in football. You either work hard to succeed or stay by the side and watch others take the glory.
“I am lucky I had an awesome bunch of players to choose from in South Africa. That was why when Fegor Ogude was suspended, we gave Onazi the chance and he impressed so much that we could no longer drop him.
“The same thing happened when Yobo was injured and we gave Omeruo the chance. We have such a good squad such that when we decided to play Mba, instead of Igiebor, the boy played so well that we could not drop him. That was the same thing with Emenike and Ikechukwu Uche. It is good for us that we have players that can step in and prove their worth.”
Reminiscing on the team’s campaign at the 2013 Nations Cup, Keshi describes the Super Eagles’ last group game against Ethiopia as the team’s most difficult game in South Africa.
“The game against Cote d’Ivoire was purely tactical, with a lot of discipline required to subdue them. But we were faced with the choice of either beating Ethiopia or leaving the competition.
“We were cautious in the game and only relaxed when we got the first goal late in the game.
“After the group games, we went back to the drawing board to correct the lapses we noticed in the matches. That was why we moved forward and got better as the competition progressed.”
Keshi says the technical crew spent three days to plan the strategy for the Cote d’Ivoire game, adding: “We analysed their players and their team and found out that even though they had good players, they did not play like a team.
“So, we fashioned a plan that ensured that Kalou, Yaya Toure and Gervinho had no time on the ball. That was why they could not get the ball to Drogba, and as such the great Drogba became useless in the game.”
Keshi also disclosed that the ‘Super Chicken’ moniker given to the team also gingered the players to prove they were better than what people thought.
He said: “I couldn’t understand how a team I captained for 14 years has suddenly become so weak that people will start calling the players super chicken. But I must tell you the boys were awesome. They rose to the challenge because they were hurt; they were angry and they wanted to prove the doubters wrong.
“Another factor was the attitude of some of our officials before the Cote d’Ivoire game. Nobody believed in us even to the extent that the team secretary approached the players to find out their destination after the Cote d’Ivoire game, because he wanted to book flights for them.
“He thought the Cote d’Ivoire game would be our last and he wanted to book flights for the team out of South Africa. That angered the players and they told him to leave them alone, because they were sure of beating Cote d’Ivoire.”
After beating Cote d’Ivoire, Keshi became confident that no other team could stop the Super Eagles from winning the championship. But he admitted that he was a bit apprehensive when first round foes, Burkina Faso, defeated Ghana to qualify for the final against Nigeria.
“We played the same team and conceded a last minute equaliser, so we were cautious, but still confident.
“When it was a few minutes to the end of the game and we were leading by 1-0, I was tensed, but I told the boys that it was almost over and they should try to kill the game.
“After the game, we were overwhelmed with emotions when it dawned on us that we have achieved what our people have been clamouring for.
“But I must say that we celebrated the victory over Cote d’Ivoire as if it was the final. In the last game we celebrated too, but it was not as emotional as the time we beat Cote d’Ivoire. We went into the game against Burkina Faso confident that we would beat them.”
The Super Eagles has the penchant of conceding late goals during important matches, a habit that nearly cost it dearly during the Nations Cup in South Africa. This is one of the issues Keshi has promised to tackle when the team reconvenes.
According to the coach: “When you start a game, the first five minutes is crucial. You have to be fully concentrated or your opponent will damage you in that period.
“Five minutes to the end of the first half is also very crucial because it is close to the break period and there is the tendency to relax, so also is the first five minutes in the second half. We conceded a goal against Cote d’Ivoire in the first five minutes of the second half because we lost concentration.
“It is something we are working on. It has to do with mental discipline; if you are disciplined, you will not concede goals in these periods because you are alert.”
Speaking on the African Nations Championship (CHAN), for which Nigeria has not qualified since its inception, Keshi says the problem is with the official attitude to the competition.
The competition is for home-based players and Keshi believes Nigeria has the players to dominate the championship.
He added: “I think we have not qualified for CHAN since its inception because we have not taken it seriously. We need to identify the home-based players and train them to get ready for the challenges. We will ensure we prepare well for our qualifier against Cote d’Ivoire before we go to Brazil for the Confederations Cup.”
Keshi expects every Nigerian to support his team at all times because that is the only way to build confidence in the team.
“I cannot assure Nigerians that we will not lose any game, but I want to assure them that we will be prepared for every game. We will win some and lose some, but we are prepared to learn from every game,” he surmised.