Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Keshi On The Threshold…

THE REVELATION over the weekend by Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) president Alhaji Aminu Maigari that Super Eagles coach Stephen Keshi has not received any salary for seven months now is not only shocking but surprising if we consider Keshi’s legendary reputation as a “rebel leader.”

During his playing days as captain of the national team, Keshi was feared (even loathed) by successive leaders of the Football Association (now Federation) because of his mercantile tendencies and penchant for confrontation over team allowances and bonuses. Quite often, Keshi practically held the FA to ransom by insisting that the team would not play until certain demands were met. He often had his way.

While that uncompromising stance made Keshi unpopular with FA officials, it naturally made him popular with his colleagues in the Super Eagles. Recently, I stumbled on an interview with one of his former teammates in an old edition of Complete Football. I will paraphrase what he said: “Stephen Keshi is a true leader. We always wanted him around in camp even if he was injured and unable to play because then, we knew we would get our allowances from the FA. Whatever Keshi promised, he always delivered. That is why we called him the Big Boss.”

I am aware that it was Keshi’s reputation that denied him the chance to become the national team coach much earlier. “So, you want us to employ someone who will be leading the players to revolt against us? Na die be dat,” a former FA top shot confessed to me when I suggested Keshi’s name during a conversation several years ago.

That official (name withheld) and lots of Keshi critics must have felt vindicated when Keshi was indicted over the Eagles sit-in over bonuses on the eve of the Confederations Cup in Brazil last June. The popular refrain during that ugly episode was that a leopard cannot change its spots and that Keshi only behaved true to type. But the latest revelation by Maigari that Keshi has not been paid for seven months now must begin to cast the Big Boss in a different light.

At a time when primary school teachers, university lecturers and medical personnel in government hospitals are going on strike all around the country over welfare and infrastructural demands, it is noteworthy that our national team coach maintained a dignified calm over the non-payment of his contractual emoluments. Some might say Keshi is comfortable anyway since the NFF already underwrites his feeding, accommodation and transport costs while he also collects his match bonuses without fail. But the fact remains that his salary is his entitlement and it has not been paid for several months. I am not sure that former Eagles coaches Jo Bonfrere and Berti Vogts were owed as much before dragging Nigeria to FIFA.

In my opinion, Keshi, his assistants and all other FA staff whom Maigari says have not received their pay for several months are true patriots and should be commended. Particularly in Keshi’s case, it would appear that the leopard is beginning to change its spots after all. He is on the threshold of achieving another great milestone for Nigeria and is probably determined not to allow his unpaid salaries get in the way. That is very wise of him.

Having said that, I challenge Maigari to follow up his revelation with remedial action. In recent past, the salary of the Super Eagles coach was underwritten by one of its sponsors, Globacom. Now that the Eagles are on the threshold of the 2014 World Cup finals and have become  even more popular again with Nigerians, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find new sponsors that want to associate with the national team and inject new funds.

While we commend Keshi and others for their patriotism, it’s not flattering at all that a big football-loving country like Nigeria cannot pay its national team staff. The NFF must correct this anomaly fast before the leopard changes its mind!

Ethiopia 1, Nigeria 2
lI DID NOT watch live the first leg of our 2014 World Cup play-off against Ethiopia on Sunday, October 13, 2013.

I was en route to my home town, Saki in Oyo State, for the Muslim Sallah festival when the Super Eagles took to the pitch against the Walya Ibex in Addis Ababa. As a result, I had to rely on the Twitter posts by Complete Sports and several other “tweeters” to keep abreast of events.

Each time we got to places on my trip where my GSM network had “no service,” I would be cut off from the match proceedings. When service returned, tweets would flood into my mobile device on the latest happenings. You could therefore imagine how I felt each time I ran into “no service” areas, especially during the first half when the tweets clearly suggested that Ethiopia had the upper hand. I remember Charles Anazodo posting in exasperation: “Are we sure it’s the team in white that are the African champions?”

“Wahala,” I thought then. But I shouldn’t have worried.

I have since watched a play-back of the Battle of Addis Ababa as several of my media colleagues have dubbed the match. Watching a play-back naturally does not elicit any tension because the match result is already known. But even with the benefit of hindsight, I would simply say Ethiopia’s performance was quite predictable. They were quick and very cohesive, but that was no surprise at all, considering the fact that most of their players were home-based and coach Sewnet Bishaw opened camp for the match while our own Stephen Keshi was still holidaying in America!

In the end, Nigeria still won the match 2-1. That was no surprise either because the gulf in class between our players and the Ethiopians was so wide. As a collective unit, Ethiopia were a better TEAM. But as INDIVIDUALS, they lacked the strength and quality of the Nigerians which Emmanuel Emenike exhibited to turn the match in our favour. One-on-one, it was quite obvious that our boys were simply too strong for the Ethiopians to handle. That, in the end, was the decisive factor.

In my pre-match analysis in this column, I requested the Eagles to get a 2-0 win in Addis Ababa in order to deflate any expectation the Ethiopians might have when coming for the second leg in Calabar. What we have now is a 2-1 head start, thanks to the controversial “goal” given to the Ethiopians following Vincent Enyeama’s goalkeeping howler.

On account of that, I have decided to place my champagne on ice until the second leg is concluded. But the odds remain as heavily as ever in Nigeria’s favour.

I say to Stephen Keshi and the Super Eagles, thank you for a thoroughly professional “smash and grab” performance in the face of all the odds in Addis Ababa. Please remain focused and let’s finish the job with aplomb in the second leg in Calabar. Nigerians expect.

My Octopus on Course...

l AM on course to score five out of five predictions for Africa’s flag-bearers at the 2014 World Cup finals. My five picks – Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Algeria and Cameroun – all recorded good first leg results in the play–offs and are expected to seal their tickets in the second legs, unless something dramatic happens.

Ironically, it is Ghana who appeared to have drawn the most difficult opponents who now look the surest bet to advance, following their comprehensive 6-1 thrashing of Egypt. Even I never thought they could put six past the Pharaohs in Kumasi, but that was Ghana’s soccer strength on full display. I know them well; when the going gets tough, the Black Stars get going.

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