Like Keshi like Westahof: The road so far

I remember meeting Stephen Keshi in Benin sometime last year, in 2011.

That was my first time of meeting him even I had been a fan since 1983 when I watched him as captain of the New Nigeria Bank team that dominated Nigerian football for about five years.

I still remember that team even though those were the pre-internet and YouTube days.

With Wilfred Agbonavbare in goal, Lawrence Oriaro, Stephen Keshi, Sunday Ebiogbe and Bright Omokaro in defence, Austin Igbinabaro and Henry Nwosu in midfield, Austin Popo and Humphrey Edobor on the wings and Samson Ozogula in the center of attack. Peter Yeboah also at some point played in that team.

That was a great team and an exciting one to watch, but I digress.

I met him at a hotel I had checked in as I went to watch Nigeria’s Olympic football team play against Tanzania in a qualifying match.

Then Keshi was in between jobs and was in Benin either holidaying or lobbying for a job.

As I walked up to him and said, hello, I noticed he was a bit apprehensive so I tried to calm things a bit by introducing myself as a journalist and a fan of his and then I started telling him of some of the games he played in the 80s, reminding him of the West Africa Football Union, WAFU Cup semifinal of 1983 against Stade D’Malian in Bamako.

NNB won that match 3-2, Keshi, scored the second goal, a blinder of a shot from about thirty five yards, while Henry Nwosu got the winner when he nutmegged a player on the left side of midfield, went past another and volleyed the ball for the goal.

The diminutive Nwosu on scoring that goal ran to Keshi, jumped on his back, and his captain carried him for about thirty meters before the game was restarted.

When I finished my narration, I saw Keshi’s face glow and he went, “Wow, I don’t even remember all these.”

But that was me in the 80s and how I watched and consumed Nigerian football voraciously. In those days it was like a drug to me. I was hooked on it.

The second time I met with Keshi was in December 2011 after he had been named coach of the Super Eagles and had just finished his first game in charge, a friendly match against Botswana.

I spoke with him at the lobby of the hotel to ask him if he was impressed with the performance of Dickson Etuhu and Joel Obi in that game and he said he was.

I now asked him if he had now found an answer to our defensive/ central midfield problems and his shocking answer was, NO!

He pointed at the ground and said, “The solution to that problem is right here.”

I looked at the ground and asked, “Here? Where?” then he said in the Nigerian league.

His next words were, “I’m a product of the Nigerian league and I believe that there are players here that can play for the Super Eagles and very soon I will go around locating these players to form the core of the Super Eagles in future.”

Looking on, a certain Gabriel Rueben comes to mind.

These words were said to me by Stephen Keshi in December of 2011.

Starting the project

Just like Westahof in 1989, Stephen Keshi took over as head coach of the Nigerian national team at a time things were not at ease.

We had failed to qualify for the Cup of Nations; some players had a larger than life attitude towards call ups and Nigerians had basically lost hope in the national team.

Westahof also came at a time foreign based players demanded appearance fees to play for the country and held Nigeria to ransom most times they were called up.

On assumption of duty as Super Eagles coach, the Eagles needed a draw in Yaounde against Cameroon to qualify for the World Cup in 1990 but lost 1-0.

Westahof then toured the country in search of replacements for the likes of Bright Omokaro, Ademola Adeshina, Wole Odegbami, Sunday Ebiogbe, Austin Igbinabaro, Peter Rufai, Henry Nwosu, Humphrey Edobor, Mike Obiku and a couple more others whose level of discipline was either not what the country needed, had dipping forms or just for the sake of getting alternative players.

I remember watching Sharks v NEPA at the Sharks FC Stadium in 1989 and seeing Clemens Westahof walk into the stadium to watch that game.

Sharks won 3-1 and Finidi George, Fubara Owonaro and Osagie Eson were invited to the national team afterwards.

Though they were eventually dropped after a few weeks, Finidi George returned to the national team two years later.

Westahof’s experiment took him to Rangers where he found Emma Okocha (Austin’s elder brother) and Herbert Anijekwu; Iwuanyanwu Nationale provided Isaac Semitoje while Bendel United gave Clemens Westahof Okey Uche as well as Ben Iroha. Westahof also scouted Abdul Aminu from Elkanemi, Wasiu Ipaye from First Bank, Alloy Agwu and Tajudeen Oyekanmi and Daniel Amokachi, the 17 year old from Ranchers Bees.

When he decided to take just three foreign based players to the Africa Cup of Nations in 1990, people thought he had lost it because the core of the Eagles then or as most fans thought lay with the foreign based players.

When his experiment eventually led to Nigeria’s 5-1 loss to Algeria in the opening match that set the nation against the coach who probably knew what he was doing.

Nigeria went on to play in the final, losing to the host again, this time 1-0.

Later on a couple of the usual suspects like Stephen Keshi, Austin Eguavoen, Richard Owubokiri,  and Samson Siasia were back but the coach had proved something- that Nigeria could still play football without them and the country now had alternative players.

Westahof continued to tinker his team and had used thirty five different players by his 10th game in charge and 91 by the end of his tenure as coach in 1994.

Stephen Keshi was known and is still called the Big Boss and this name had existed even during the Westahof years. He was captain fantastic and was a coach of some sorts on the pitch.

Being named coach of the Eagles, he seemed to have adopted the Westahof model.

For a start he promised Nigerians a team that had alternatives and didn’t need to depend on just a few players so he set to work with players in the Nigerian league getting them in friendly matches.

By the time he had played his first competitive game against Rwanda on the road in an AFCON qualifier he named Vincent Enyeama, Taye Taiwo, Godfrey Oboabona, Joseph Yobo, Azubuike Egwuekwe, Ahmed Musa, Dickson Etuhu, Joel Obi, Ejike Uzoenyi, Osaze Odemwingie, Yakubu Ayegbeni in his starting line up with subs as Victor Moses, Sani Kaita, Uche Kalu, Gabriel Reuben, Ike uche, Papa Idris, Chigozie Agbim.

There were eight new players in the team including Victor Moses who played for Wigan Athletic then.

He had begun the same journey Clemens Westahof started in 1989.

By the time the Eagles played against Namibia at home in Calabar in a World Cup qualifying match, Nigerians saw a lineup that included players like Azubuike Egwueke, Godfrey Oboabona, Juwon Oshaniwa, Reuben Gabriel, Victor Moses, Nwankwo Obiorah, Ejike Uzoenyi, Chigozie Agbim, Gege Oluwafemi Soriola,
Papa Idris, Henry Uche, Sone Aluko, Uche Kalu and Obinna Nwachukwu, the new players promised by coach Keshi at the start of his tenure.

Nigerians get it twisted because the coach never promised a team of players in the Nigerian league; he said a team that had alternatives that won’t have to depend on a certain few to win matches that’s why we have seen new players capped like Onazi Ogeyi, Victor Moses, Sone Aluko, Nnamdi Obiora who play their football outside the country.

How far will his experiment take the Eagles? Only time will tell but like Clemens Westahof twenty three years ago, Keshi will continue to tinker his team. He will invite great players, and he will also invite pathetic players all in a bid to hit near perfection.

I still remember how Nigerians felt in the 90s when players like Nicholas Okolie, Chinedu Anazonwa, Bethel Orji, Taofeek Malik, Akin Akinsehinde, Tony Nwaigwe and Peter Obanor were capped by Westahof.

By 2014, hopefully Nigeria will be playing in the World Cup and probably be back to top 10 on the FIFA rankings but before then, they must continue to watch, sometimes in pains as the coach experiments with the national team and tries any willing players who is Nigerian even by a long shot.

That is what rebuilding is all about and Stephen Keshi seems on the right track. The football does not seem pretty the way it is, but the end as they say, sometimes justifies the means.
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  1. Wow, still remember that NNB team, alongside Leventis Utd. and Abiola Babes, Soccer fans had so much to cheer on. Can we ever return to those glorious days ?

  2. Very nostalgic,we need more historians like you to remind us where we came from. I loved NNB one of the 3 Benin teams and 4 teams from the old Bendel (Flash Flamingoes,Bendel Insurance, and NNPC Warri)
    I followed NNB passionately, Nwosu, Edorbor and Yeboah were my stars, but my support ultimately went to Abiola Babes Fc. We can still bring back the days of gold to the Nigerian League.
    More ink to your pen