The Super Eagles trainer is not bothered about legacy as he hopes to see his country get to their fifth World Cup ahead of the Walias of Ethiopia
By Lolade Adewuyi in Addis Ababa
One sometimes gets a feeling that Stephen Keshi is not aware of his place in football history. He comes across like doesn’t give it much thought.
After leading the Nigerian national team to victory at the Africa Cup of Nations in February, he is on the verge of ensuring they qualify for their fifth World Cup, his second as a coach since helping Togo to the 2006 World Cup.
The 51-year-old former defender has certainly found a place among the legends of the game and is set to cement his position further if the Super Eagles overcome the Walia Antelopes of Ethiopia over two legs on the way to Brazil 2014.
Having won the Africa Cup as a player in 1994 and helped his country qualify for its first World Cup in the same year as part of its famous ‘Golden Generation’, he returned as coach to lead the Super Eagles to their first victory on the continent in 19 years, this year.
Only one man had ever done it before him, Egyptian great Mahmood El Gohary took the Pharaohs to victory at the 1998 Afcon after finishing as top scorer and winner in 1959.
Gohary topped his fable by leading the Egyptians to the World Cup in 1990 following an absence of 56 years.
It is in such lofty company that Keshi finds himself.
Responding to a question about the importance of his legacy from Goal after the Super Eagles’ training at the National Stadium in Addis Ababa on Saturday, Keshi came across as unassuming, a man too busy trying to catch the next big fish.
“[I think] nothing [about a legacy], let me have a very good result tomorrow and that’s it,” he said.
With many concerned about the impact of the altitude of Addis Ababa on his team’s ability to play against the Antelopes, Keshi’s thoughts are entirely different. His most important concern is the surface of the field for Sunday’s game.
“The pitch is very hard, something needs to be done,” he said. “A little bit of watering the field will be very nice to have a very good game and for the players on both sides not to be injured. We need to see nice football.”
Famous for their vociferous and highly passionate fans, the stadium would be a cauldron of sorts as the Ethiopians hope to intimidate the visitors in the game. Keshi said it is not something strange.
“I think it’s right for the fans to support their team. If you come to Nigeria it is the same thing, and all over the world teams have their fans supporting them.
“Whatever the Ethiopian fans are doing is not new, we’ll just concentrate on our game and come out and play.”
With the recent controversy that trailed his comments directed at Belgian trainer Tom Saintfiet during his tenure as Malawi’s interim manager, Keshi has only positive words for the Ethiopian team and their coach Sewnet Bishaw.
“[It’s a] very good team, I think they have a very good coach, a seasoned coach, not only that he loves the game, he’s a very good man,” Keshi said.
Bishaw, a former physical education teacher, has returned the Ethiopians to international football after 31 years absence.
“I was opportune to know him more when we were in Egypt for a course and I look forward to seeing him tomorrow. Ethiopia should be happy that they have a coach like that,” he said.
Since becoming coach of the West Africans in late 2011 after their failure to qualify for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria have played with a new found attacking fervour that saw them pose a good challenge against world champions Spain at the Confederations Cup in June.
Gone are the days when the Super Eagles travelled with the mindset to defend and get a draw, it’s all about winning for Keshi. And it will not be different against the Ethiopians as he dismissed any idea of playing conservatively.
“We will attack when it’s necessary, when it’s necessary to defend, we will defend. You just have to study the game and make the necessary decisions,” he said.
Like his opposite number Bishaw said, ‘football is a game of 90 minutes’. Every ticking minute moves each of these two tacticians towards cementing their place in football folklore.