“My dream is to build a strong team for Nigerians and give these players a reason to be footballers. And to show the many players that are coming up behind that they can become somebody in football. That’s my dream,”
Those words came from Nigeria legend Stephen Keshi two years ago, as he prepared the Super Eagles to take flight in Brazil. Throughout his stellar playing and managerial career, ‘Big Boss’ certainly allowed fans, team-mates and his own players themselves to dream. Tributes from around the footballing world have poured in for Keshi, after his tragic and sudden passing at the age of 54.
Keshi was a born leader. An imposing central defender, he took games by the scruff of the neck and dictated matches from his position of influence as captain throughout much of his Super Eagles career. He marshalled a miserly Nigeria defence to the 1994 CAF Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title, conceding just three goals on the path to victory. He then coached his nation to the same title almost two decades later – the side conceding four goals this time – becoming only the second man to win the AFCON as player and coach.
His influence on the pitch cannot be underestimated. He enjoyed a successful club career in his home continent before exporting his talents to Europe, starring in cup and league-winning Anderlecht sides and endearing himself to Strasbourg fans in France with a stunning long range goal against Rennes that helped promote Le Racing to Ligue 1.
It is Keshi’s international career that will perhaps evoke the strongest memories though. As well as playing his part in that memorable AFCON title in 1994, he helped guide the Super Eagles to their first FIFA World Cup™, playing five games on the road to the USA before featuring just once at the finals (as captain) due to injury.
With many African countries looking for coaching experience from outside the continent to lead their countries at major tournaments, Keshi was a beacon of hope for coaches from the mother continent. Not only was he the first Nigerian to lead his country to the AFCON title, he was the first African coach to lead a team to the Round of 16 at a World Cup, achieving that feat at Brazil 2014.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino wrote a letter of condolence to the President of the Nigeria Football Federation Amaju Pinnick upon hearing the tragic news.
“I would like to express my deepest sympathy on hearing the news of the loss of the Nigeria great Stephen Keshi,” FIFA President Infantino wrote. “On behalf of the international football community, please allow me to extend my deepest condolences to the football community of Nigeria and, most importantly, to Stephen’s family, friends and love ones. We hope that, in some way, our words of support may help bring a little bit of peace and solace in this time of sadness.”
Messages of sympathy have also flooded social media after news of Keshi’s death stunned the global footballing community.
“Horrible news and a sad day. We lost an iconic hero today,” Sunday Oliseh, a former Nigeria coach who played alongside Keshi reflected. while former Zambia international Kalusha Bwalya noted: “I can’t believe it. I am in shock. Football legend.”
“Keshi was a superhero,” Nigeria Football Federation President Pinnick said. “His death is a big loss to Nigeria as a nation, not only to Nigeria football.”