The immediate aftermath of Nigeria’s Afcon victory was atypical for the Super Eagles’ all-conquering ‘Big Boss’ Stephen Keshi. Normally, a coach who secures such a monumental victory would spend the subsequent weeks basking in the adulation, taking open top tours around the nation, celebrating with his victorious compatriots, and unveiling a statue of himself at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja.
The immediate aftermath of the Cup of Nations involved the coach engaging in a contract wrangle with the Nigerian Football Federation. Less than 24 hours after leading his young team to victory, Keshi reportedly told a South African radio show that he had resigned.
The details are still shrouded in mystery, but it appears that soon after the final triumph over Burkina Faso, Keshi handed in his letter of resignation. He had previously threatened to do so, citing tension between himself and the NFF earlier in the competition—suggesting that unless the Federation were unanimous and explicit in their support of him, he wouldn’t hesitate to ‘pack his bags’.
Keshi’s decision to renege on his decision to quit, and thus to stick around and continue his job with the Super Eagles, is a massive boon for the national side. Keshi’s success at Afcon 2013 should never be underestimated, but somehow, it feels like exactly that is happening.
Be under no illusion, Nigeria’s run to the final was not merely achieved under Keshi’s benign stewardship—this was not a successful team left to its own devices.
On the contrary, the former Afcon-winning skipper hand-crafted a mode-de-jeux and an approach method, before hand-picking the men he desired to see undertake his ambitions. The big decisions taken ahead of the tournament—particularly decisions to omit Obafemi Martins, Peter Odemwingie, and Bright Dike—drew criticism at the time, but the side proved to have sufficient firepower and increased unity in their absence.
Similarly, Keshi’s tinkering during the tournament was a risky approach which ultimately paid dividends for Naija. Had I gazed into a crystal ball before the Cup began, and seen Nigeria forge their path to the final, I could perhaps have believed it. But were I to gaze closer, and to see the lineup for that final contest, I would have been suspicious and confused to have seen the names Onazi, Omeruo, Oboabona, Mba as part of the title-winning XI.
I probably would have smashed the crystal ball on the floor and asked for my money back.
However, this quartet of inexperienced individuals provided the backbone of the Naija side that enjoyed such a terrific run to the final. Few managers would have trusted any of them, and their handful of caps, before the competition, but Keshi not only did that, he trusted all of them, and sat back as the spine of his youthful outfit overcame both the Ivory Coast and Mali.
Considering this, it is a major blessing for Super Eagles fans that Keshi has decided to remain in his post. Young national teams often develop together, meshed into a unit beneath one key figure, one primary personality, and grow in unison, understanding the strengths and foibles in each others’ game, enjoying the understanding and support of a coaching guru.
The great optimism that surrounded the young Welsh team that began to blossom under Gary Speed has gently faded since his suicide.
So could things have unravelled for this young, compact Naija side had Keshi pulled the plug on his involvement at the site of their inaugural triumph together. However, he remains, and appears committed to helming this young side through an immediate future that promises to be challenging and illustrious in equal measure. Keshi has spoken of his excitement of leading Nigeria to the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil, where the African Champions are drawn in a group with Spain, Uruguay, and Tahiti.
The manager has also demonstrated his desire to work with all areas of the national set-up and to oversee the development and progress of the country’s youth sides. Concerning the upcoming 2013 African Youth Championship in Algeria, Keshi has encouraged the Flying Eagles to look to the example set and the promise offered by the young players in his Afcon squad, and to retain their title. The manager also expressed regret at being unable to oversee what he anticipates as being another triumph on foreign soil, but his overall approach to the junior teams indicates that he has a vested interest in the development of the youth set-up.
His immediate concern, however, is Kenya, and the prospect of another three points on the road to the World Cup in Brazil next summer.
Standing in the opposite dug-out will be Adel Amrouche, the Harambee Stars’ new Algerian head coach. A former player in his homeland and in Belgium, the 44-year old has enjoyed an eclectic managerial career to date. Having taken jobs at club level in Belgium, Turkey, Ukraine, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, he also has experience of national team management on the African continent; he took the helm of Equatorial Guinea for a brief stint in 2004, and then spent several years developing the Burundian national side—resigning only 24 hours after Les Hirondelles had bested Zimbabwe in an Afcon qualifier.
The departure of Henri Michel after only 4 months in the job threatened to leave the Harambee Stars of Kenya in the lurch, but perennial caretaker James Nandwa held the reigns until Amrouche was confirmed as boss last month, giving him ample time to familiarise himself with the playing staff ahead of the crunch game with Nigeria.
Despite being the Super Eagles’ most obvious challenger in Group F of Caf qualification, Kenya currently sit bottom of the pool. A disappointing home stalemate with Malawi and a dismal defeat away to Namibia—both in June—have left the East African giants with only one point from a possible six. Defeat to Nigeria in Calabar would leave them 6 points off the Super Eagles—currently occupying the sole qualifying spot—with 3 games to play, surely too much to ask from a team with no World Cup qualifying pedigree to date.
For Nigeria, however, and Keshi, a win would maintain clear distance between themselves and the minnows in their group, putting them in pole position to advance from the group. Keshi will be keen to put the post-Afcon controversy and upheaval behind him with a win on the 23rd, a triumphant return to competition for the triumphant Super Eagles.