SOWETO, South Africa, February 10 – Nigeria’s third Africa Cup of Nations title, clinched here Sunday against Burkina Faso, was a huge personal triumph for coach Stephen Keshi — although the man himself would be loathe to admit it.
Big Boss, as the captain of the 1994 title-winning side is affectionately known, was hitting the continental jackpot as a coach at the third time of asking, after first-round knockouts with Togo in 2006 and Mali in 2010.
Part of the key to the Super Eagles’ 2013 success has been the 51-year-old’s bold yet heavily criticised gamble in calling up local-based players.
And, fittingly, it was one of this number, Sunday Mba, drawn from Nigerian league outfit Enugu Rangers, who got the decisive goal in the 1-0 victory to follow up his winner in the quarter-final over Ivory Coast.
Keshi had described his players as ‘his Hollywood Stars’ after sending Didier Drogba and company packing — but he, too, deserves an Oscar for defying the tens of millions of ultra-critical wannabe national managers back home in Lagos.
At times charismatic, belligerent, terse and witty, but never dull, the former bull of a centre-back gained entry to an exclusive club of those to be crowned kings of Africa as both player and coach.
The only other man to accomplish that feat was the late Egyptian Mahmoud El Gohary, who helped his country defeat Sudan 2-1 in the 1959 final and guided the Pharaohs to a 2-0 victory over South Africa 39 years later.
As a player, Keshi triumphed with a golden generation of Super Eagles in a 2-1 victory against a Zambia team rebuilt one year after the plane crash off Gabon that wiped out the national squad.
Reflecting on the differences between then and now, Keshi, who spent most of his playing career in Belgium, said: “The 1994 squad was unbelieveable.
“We were brothers, there was a great spirit in the team, now there is the talent, but we need a strong mentality and character.”
His band of brothers demonstrated plenty of that here on Sunday night.
This win also laid to rest the bitter memories of the 1996 Nations Cup, when Keshi and his fellow Eagles were denied a shot at defending their title on South African soil when a political spat between the South African and Nigerian goverments kept them at home.
Fast forward 17 years and the imposing figure of Keshi could be seen pacing the Soccer City touchline like a lion hunting its prey up at Kruger National Park — barking instructions, arms flailing, his shaven head glistening under the floodlights.
On 40 minutes he had his arms in the air celebrating Mba’s opener.
Mba it was who had scored the winner in the 2-1 quarter-final win over Ivory Coast — after which Keshi, showing his caring gentler side, said “I want to kiss him!”
He has shown plenty of dignity, too, in South Africa.
On Saturday, at the eve-of-final press conference when he turned up looking like a Lagos street rapper, his baseball cap back to front, he warmly backed the decision to rescind the red card meted out to Burkina’s Jonathan Pitroipa.
When the final whistle sounded on Sunday, barely audible over the deafening din of 80,000 vuvuzelas (plastic trumpets), Keshi punched the air again, this time in a victory salute — before getting lost in a sea of embraces from his players and coaching staff.