Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Keshi And The NFF: Managing Success

HAVING A DIG at the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) has always been our favourite past-time in the sports media, what with the generally slip-shod manner they have run the game for decades, never mind the occasional success. And what better opportunity can we get to hit the NFF than now when they have managed, yet again, to get themselves cornered as villains in the narrative of the Super Eagles’ latest achievement as African champions, when everybody else (except the NFF?) is celebrating the coach, Stephen Keshi, as a hero.

Obviously, the easiest thing for me at this time is to get on  the bandwagon and drive the knife into the NFF hierachy for causing all sorts of distractions for Keshi in South Africa which may have scuppered our third Nations Cup triumph. But I won’t be doing that. Some individuals at the NFF might have made some mistakes with their over-bearing postures towards Keshi, but that does not distract from what has been a creditable contribution by the Glass House to the overall Super Eagles triumph.

Before anyone accuses me of holding brief for the NFF, let me quickly make my motive clear. I have taken this reconciliatory path because we need to properly MANAGE THE SUCCESS that we have just achieved so that we can achieve even more success going forward. If we mismanage this success and fail to build on it, it will be short-lived and we will all be the losers. Let us learn from history...

Just seven months after we won our first Nations Cup title in March 1980, Algeria whom we had comprehensively beaten 3-0 in the final came back to the same National Stadium in Lagos to beat us 2-0 in a World Cup qualifier, followed two weeks later by another 2-1 beating on their home ground in the return leg. Algeria eliminated us 4-1 on aggregate and went on to shine at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Meanwhile, Nigeria continued to fall so badly that we couldn’t even go beyond the first round as defending champions at the 1982 Nations Cup in Libya. Obviously, we failed miserably in managing our 1980 success so it was short-lived.

It took us 14 years before we finally won a second AFCON title at Tunisia ‘94. The Eagles led by the dreaded Rashidi Yekini in attack were so strong that they could have dominated Africa for several years thereafter.
But again, a politically-motivated withdrawal from South Africa ‘96 and our subsequent suspension from Burkina Faso ‘98 meant we missed the opportunity to win at least one more AFCON with that team. No thanks to the General Sani Abacha government that pulled Nigeria out of South Africa ‘96, we couldn’t build on the success of 1994.

It has now taken us another 19 years to win a third AFCON at South Africa 2013. How we manage this latest success will determine whether we will qualify for the 2014 World Cup (remember 1980?) and how soon we will win the AFCON again (remember 1994).

Keshi’s “Resignation Drama”

lFROM a management point of view, Keshi’s widely-reported ‘resignation’ as Super Eagles coach following our victory over Burkina Faso in the Nations Cup Final was a public relations disaster for Nigeria.
Irrespective of whom we think is right or wrong between the coach and his NFF employers, the impression that the rest of  the world would have of us is that we don’t know how to manage success. And if you can’t manage success, failure is surely lurking around the corner.

Come to think of it, if there’s so much bickering after we had WON a tournament, what would have happened had we LOST it? Maybe the heavens would have fallen. And yet, this was a tournament we never thought we could win.

A dispassionate analysis of what transpired in South Africa between Keshi and the NFF is necessary for us to quickly put the unfortunate “resignation drama” behind us and focus collectively on the fresh challenges ahead. I have been studying the matters in dispute and following are my verdicts...

1. THE RESIGNATION LETTER: Stephen Keshi’s purported “resignation letter” does not exist. Keshi did not resign his appointment as Super Eagles coach. He only tactically flew a kite on a South African radio station in order to bring attention to his grievances against his employers. Some would argue against his timing and medium of expression. But considering the result he has achieved, his timing was perfect.

Keshi is an excellent strategist, like he showed in out-smarting all his opponents at the AFCON especially the much dreaded Cote d’Ivoire. He knew how to deliver a stunning blow on the NFF without necessarily knocking them out! He landed the blow, got the attention and commitment he desired from the highest quarters of government, and then tactically pulled back by signing a press release drafted by the same NFF saying that he had “reconsidered” his decision to resign.

When Kayode Tijani told me about Keshi’s plan even before Keshi made it public, I told Kayode point-blank that Keshi was going nowhere! Keshi is a fighter, not a quitter. I know how much he loves Nigeria and, having  worked hard to take his country to such great heights, he wasn’t going to just walk away for all the money in the world. I told Kayode that Keshi just wanted to send a very strong message to the NFF and so it turned out to be.

Keshi has shown that he’s a good student of his former coach Clemens Westerhof in the politics of football management. His message of protest was meant specifically for the NFF technical committee that has been interfering with his work in the guise of observing oversight functions. Now that the coach has proved that he is capable, let’s hope the committee would get off his back and allow him to do his job. The Super Eagles are in good hands.

2. DEPARTURE TICKETS: NFF secretary Dayo Enebi has confirmed that he truly approached Super Eagles players to plan for their departure tickets BEFORE the quarter-final match against Cote d’Ivoire. But rather than being a demonstration of the NFF’s lack of confidence in the team’s ability to beat the Elephants, Enebi says it was normal practice to plan ahead for any outcome, win or lose. The lesson for the future is that secretariat staff in charge of travel arrangements should inform the head coach and carry him along when making such plans in order to avoid any misunderstanding. Case dismissed.

3. FOREIGN COACH: There were rumours that the NFF was contacting some expatriate coaches to take over Keshi’s job and Zambia’s Herve Renard was often mentioned. Not only was the rumour baseless, Renard later denied it, and Keshi also confirmed at the Tom-Tom Roundtable discussion with sports editors last weekend that he couldn’t “say for sure that the NFF wanted him (Renard).” Case dismissed.

4. LACK OF FAITH: In my opinion, the only justifiable ground for Keshi’s displeasure with the NFF was their demonstrated lack of faith in his ability especially when the Super Eagles struggled in their opening games against Burkina Faso and Zambia. The NFF must admit their error in this regard because, whereas the media and the general public have a RIGHT to be openly critical of Keshi when his team was not playing well, the NFF had a DUTY to stand by him and protect him during those difficult moments rather than joining the media and public to mount additional pressure on him.

I find the NFF guilty of this particular charge and I hope they have learned their lesson. Even if you’re going to fire a coach in the end, you have a responsibility to support him 100 percent while he’s still in charge.
Working in Harmony

AT this point, I want to remind Keshi and the NFF that they have both enjoyed a relatively harmonious relationship before now, which obviously resulted in Nigeria’s success at the Nations Cup.

In particular, I recall that NFF president Alhaji Aminu Maigari played a key role in Keshi’s appointment as Super Eagles coach, insisting that Keshi rather than an expatriate was the right candidate to succeed Samson Siasia. Since then, the NFF had supported Keshi by perpetually keeping players in camp, arranging several warm-up games which helped the coach to discover new players and gradually build his team. Gone are the days when the Eagles played all their friendly games on the pages of newspapers with no action on the field. Kudos to the NFF.

In return, Keshi had also been a very loyal servant of the NFF. He had never complained about his lack of official car and official accommodation. Even when his salary went unpaid for several months and the press wanted to make an issue of it, Keshi showed the understanding of a patriot and picked no quarrel with the NFF, whereas a foreigner would have reported to FIFA. On top of that, by blooding more home-based players in the Eagles, Keshi has helped saved the Glass House lots of resources that would have been spent inviting an army of 23 foreign-based players each time Nigeria had any qualifying game.

It is the collective effort of Maigari’s NFF plus Keshi’s tactical acumen and God’s favour that translated to Nigeria’s victory at AFCON 2013. That combination will bring us more success provided we manage it well and not allow ourselves to be distracted by the continuing post-tournament brouhaha.

I hereby call on all concerned (especially the media) to cease fire on the Keshi/NFF affair and shift focus to how the Super Eagles will qualify for the 2014 World Cup.

Keshi Can Win It Again

APART from qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, my other target for Stephen Keshi is to win the Nations Cup at least once more for Nigeria before stepping down as coach. This is a realistic objective that can be achieved with good planning, continuity and a bit more luck.

Looking at history, successful teams have always come in cycles. In the Africa Nations Cup, Cameroun reached three successive finals in 1984,1986 and 1988, winning twice in ‘84 and ‘88. Nigeria also reached three finals in four successive tournaments (1988, ‘90 and ‘94) but won  only once in 1994. Egypt meanwhile actually won three straight titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010 under the same coach.

Keshi’s winning team at South Africa 2013 are so young that; with some luck, I see them winning at least two more titles if they remain united and focused. For starters, they will be one of the favourites at Morocco 2015 when Keshi’s 17 rookies will have garnered more experience . Win or lose the title there, they will return even stronger in 2017 when Keshi’s five-year team-building project would have fully matured.

Success begets success and I know that the only way to guarantee Keshi an extended run as coach is if his team keeps winning. But even when he loses, we must  do a clear-headed analysis and decide if it would be better to allow to him complete his five-year programme.

Nigeria must not have to wait another 19 years to win the Nations Cup again. In fact, with the talent at our disposal and with luck on our side, we should be winning the Nations Cup every three tournaments (or every six years) at the most.

Luck or God’s Favour

SOME readers on my blog last week took exception to my describing Stephen Keshi as a “Lucky Boy.” I explained that I didn’t mean that his AFCON achievement was all down to luck only. Rather, my intention was to highlight that Keshi has always been favoured by God and this rubbed off on our unexpected AFCON win.

Indeed, the “Hand of God” can be seen in the manner that Keshi’s first eleven evolved at the Nations Cup.
Keshi himself confessed to sports journalists last weekend that  had his captain Joseph Yobo not got injured during the first game, the resultant perfect pairing of Godfrey Oboabona and Kenneth Omeruo in central defence would not have materialised. And, had first choice midfielder Fegor Ogude not been suspended for the Cote d’Ivoire game, the match-winning magic of Sunday Mba may not have been discovered.

Where Keshi showed personal courage as coach was in dropping so-called big-name players before the tournament, then also dropping his captain to the bench when younger players showed better abilities at the finals. Had we gone to the AFCON with our usual “big-name-must-play” mentality, we certainly would have ended up like Cote d’Ivoire.

Keshi also showed great tactical acumen with his reading of his opponents’ styles and his counter strategies which worked to perfection especially against CIV, Mali and Burkina Faso. In the end, no team dominated the Eagles in all their six matches or came close to beating them. In losing 4-1 to Nigeria in the semi-final, the Mali goalkeeper said he felt he was playing against Brazil and that it looked like the Eagles were more than 11 players on the pitch. That showed how dominant they were.

What Keshi needs to do now is unearth more impact players so that we can have very reliable subtitutes to make a complete squad. Striker Emmanuel Emenike was missed in the final because his replacement, Ike Uche, was off form. Victor Moses was the only effective winger in the team as Ahmed Musa simply couldn’t rise up to the occasion.

Keshi will not admit publicly that any of his players performed below par because he’s always trying to protect them. Rightfully so. But we expect him to do what is right for the team by dropping any ineffective players when the World Cup qualifiers resume. He has done it before and, if necesary, he must do it again.
The Pitch is Key

ONE major problem that I foresee ahead of the World Cup qualifiers is the pitches where Nigeria’s matches will be played.

It is not mere coincidence that the Eagles’ performance in South Africa improved when they played on better pitches. It just confirms that Keshi’s team needs a good surface to properly express themselves. I recall that Keshi has always complained about the lack of good grass pitches in Nigeria despite our claim to be a footballing nation.

For now, the pitch in Calabar is the best on offer but we need to improve even that for the Eagles to take full advantage when playing at home. And when we play at away, we mustn’t be disappointed if the Eagles don’t perform optimally if the pitch is bad.

My advice to Keshi is to obtain information about our opponents’ playing surfaces well ahead of time, so he could prepare for the playing conditions.

Re: Keshi’s Luck Shines

Your article on Keshi was a good piece. Only that he  was not Nigeria’s captain in Algiers ‘90. Alloy Agu captained the team as the pros were left out because they wanted money for their release from their clubsides. This was the practice but Clemens Westerhof stopped it and told the NFA men it was fraudulent to use money to secure release of players. Before then, NFA people collected money for release of players.

They usually gave players a part and pocketed the rest. So, when officials visited without money, the players probably thought the visiting officials had appropriated what was meant for them and they refused to come.

It marked the beginning of the seeming revolution that Westerhof started with local players. But for Keshi, his club did not release him. Ademola Adeshina and Andrew Uwe were the only pros in Algiers ‘90 and they were in lower divisions in Europe. – Onochie Anibeze, Vanguard newspaper.


  1. "Keshi’s winning team at South Africa 2013 are so young that; with some luck, I see them winning at least two more titles if they remain united and focused. For starters, they will be one of the favourites at Morocco 2015 when Keshi’s 17 rookies will have garnered more experience . Win or lose the title there, they will return even stronger in 2017 when Keshi’s five-year team-building project would have fully matured".

    THE POTENTIAL IS THERE for us. The important thing for me is that the team keep internalizing the concept and philosophy of the Coach, which is to always fight and show character whenever they are representing this great nation. The rest (winning), I believe will NATURALLY FOLLOW! Peradventure they lose any game, am sure majority (especially those who know the game very well) WILL NOT CRUCIFY the team. Let the players not get complacent because teams will come extra prepared to play us. The Eagles have started the year on a great note by winning the Afcon. Let them end it on another great note by qualifying for the world cup.

    Least I forget, I wish to use this medium to appeal to all to let us encourage our own Joseph Yobo to the first Nigerian to reach the 100 cap mark. I am sure Keshi is matured enough to know when to use him (provided he is fit) as himself was 'encouraged' and given the honor to lead the team to USA 94

  2. While we all have a role to play in managing our success, I think journalists have a bigger role to play in ensuring the Super Eagles keeps their feet firmly on ground. You need to keep telling them that THEY HAVE NOT YET LANDED (ARRIVED).

    On a joking note, may be we should the doubting Tho-masses should EMBRACE UNBELIEF all over again so we can keep receiving PLEASANT SURPRISES from the Super Eagles!

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  4. Thanks for another insightful piece. The historical antecedent is overwhelming.
    While I agree that Keshi got the result he wanted, I strongly disagree with the approach. Keshi not only deliver NFF a sucker punch, he also embarrassed the whole nation and the institution of governance NFF represent. How cld u go on a foreign radio station, just after the President announced a reception for the team and Nigerians were all awaiting their homecoming. Worse still, Keshi's employer was still in the same country.
    I'm a biz owner and no matter what grudge an employee has with me, its simply unprofessional of him to go before my clients and other stakeholders & announce his resignation without prior warning or due process. As a former employee too, I av bn in positions to do what Keshi did and hurt my employer publicly but I did not because it is not right, no matter d provocation or intention.
    The fact that some Nigerians applauded Keshi on this shows how much regard we have for order and professionalism.
    Oga Mumini, our media too need some work. I listened to them asked questions during AFCON & I was far from pleased. Sport headlines are often times mere gossips. I was so pissed off when the press almost made an issue of who lifts the cup between Yobo and Enyeama. Thank God those guys handled the issues professionally. But that's the new Nigerian sport press for you. I hope we can have more people like Oga Mumini, who wld offer constructive reporting and truly contribute to sport development in Nigeria. The sport media we have now needs a complete re-orientation - sorry to say.

  5. Mumuni,
    Your take on managing this unexpected triumph is interesting.
    Equally as important, is defining aspirations hereon: WHAT IS THE SIZE OF OUR AMBITION NOW?
    If we believe the summit of our football endeavour has been achieved by winning AFCON, then we may indeed wait another decade to conquer Africa again.
    Pundits at USA 94 argued that Westerhof seemed not to believe his Nigeria squad had the tools to go very far in that world cup; his tactics did nothing to build on the 1st Round annihilation of Bulgaria. Consider that Bulgaria went on to play in the semi-final of the same tournament.
    Keshi must not set a ceiling to his ambitions. It is pragramatic not to exaggerate expectations, but the old cliche is true: Reach for the stars, and you touch the moon.
    If we set our standards beyond Africa, we can shake the world.

  6. Nigerian team has proved that they are best in African continent - http://www.ngr24.com/