Of the 16 teams that started the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, only seven were led by Africans.
Paul Put, the Belgian in charge of Burkina Faso, inserted a spanner in the works of Afroglory by eliminating Kwesi Appiah’s Ghana in the semi-final. Sunday 10 February 2013 could have been a west African coach-fest. As it is, just Stephen Keshi of Nigeria will be defending the colours of local trainers.
Their plight has emerged as an intriguing backdrop to the tournament. The last time two teams led by Africans contested the final was in 1998 when Egypt, under the legendary Mahmoud El-Gohary, defeated Jomo Sono’s South Africa.
It would have been fitting if two African coaches were in the final five months after El-Gohary’s death at the age of 74 and in Sono’s homeland. Romantic broad strokes aside, Keshi and Appiah have painted a Munch of a picture.
“There’s no difference between a foreign coach and a local coach,” Appiah said in Nelspruit. “But the thing they tend to get is respect. The management shows respect to the coach, the media shows respect to the coach and automatically the players follow.”
“I’m never against a white coach in Africa because I have always worked with white coaches,” Keshi declared in Durban . “What I’m saying is do not bring a mediocre coach or a carpentry coach from Europe and tell me he’s better than me. That, I will not accept.
“But if you want to go round the fringes of the Dutch football federation, get a guy and hand him the national team? We [in Africa ] have quality ex-players and coaches but the administrators aren’t giving them the opportunity. I don’t like it.”
It’s that flintiness that has helped propel the former defender through the choppy waters of management. His first break arrived in 2004 when he was handed the reins of Togo. He led them to qualification for the 2006 World Cup but, after a poor 2006 Africa Cup of nations, he was dismissed. The German Otto Pfister took the team to Germany. Togo ’s disastrous showing at the tournament undoubtedly kept Keshi’s stock high.
After another stint with Togo in 2007, the Mali job was offered to him. That ended after the 2010 Cup of Nations when the Eagles failed to progress past the group stages. He was replaced by the Frenchman Alain Giresse who guided Mali to third place in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea last year.
The records of the 2013 Cup of Nations will show a slaughter but Mali went into the semi-final against Nigeria as the slight favourites, having been at the same stage in 2012. Nigeria were, by contrast, an inexperienced team. They had the benefit of dispatching pre-tournament favourites Côte d’Ivoire in the quarter-final. But they were underdogs for that encounter. With the weight shifted onto their young shoulders, the question was how would they cope?
The answer was emphatic. 4-1.
Nigeria will be the favourites for the final against Burkina Faso. And the prelude to the match will be a test of the mettle gained during 18 successful years as a player in Africa, Europe, Malaysia and the United States.
Keshi’s trophy haul includes a title in Côte d’Ivoire with Africa Sports, a Belgian championship and two Belgian Cups with Anderlecht and the 1994 Cup of Nations, which came towards the end of his 16 years in the national team.
The Super Eagles haven’t been in a final since 2000 though they did reach the semis in Angola in 2010. Midfielder Dickson Etuhu emerged from that last four loss to Ghana and urged the federation to show patience in the set-up, especially ahead of an impending World Cup in South Africa. Coach Shaiba Amodu was promptly sacked and the Swede Lars Lagerbäck was installed for what can only be described as shenanigans at the World Cup.
“In Nigeria years back we built a standard in African football, in world football, and Nigerians look back to those years when we had a glorious wonderful time and they still want to have that,” says Keshi. “I don’t blame them but for them to have that we need to develop to get there and we haven’t been developing. We just want to have it overnight which is not done anywhere. I’ve never seen where they’ve built a house in one day. It takes a while. But in Nigeria ’s case we want to start today and win tomorrow.”
That breathlessness has been the bane of Nigerian success. Keshi, like his counterpart Appiah, appears to be in the vanguard of coaches with innate authority.
“Keshi, Appiah and in Cameroon - who aren’t at the 2013 tournament - there’s Jean-Paul Akono in charge," he comments. "These are people deeply rooted in the football of those countries. People who’ve played for those countries or coached there. They do know people in the domestic leagues and lower down.”
Wilson says he’s impressed at Keshi’s stubbornness in his dealings with supposedly star players who have been tepid towards the national team.
“He’s effectively saying, ‘If you don’t really care about Nigeria, fine. Don’t turn up. We’ll have players who do.’ I think that’s quite positive because it’s the next phase African football has to go through. They have to develop their own coaches and those coaches have to be given a chance.”
Stephen Okechukwu Keshi, all 51 years and two months of him, has seized his opportunity. If Nigeria are triumphant, he’ll become only the second man after Mahmoud El-Gohary to have won the Cup of Nations as a player and a coach.
History beckons the lad from Lagos.
And his attitude?
“If I win the cup for Nigeria, the next day I might pack my load and leave for another country,” he says. “But this is where my heart is. This is the team I captained. I’ve been assistant coach. I’m here for now. After the tournament we’ll see if anyone’s out there.”
So are legends born.