The Nigeria coach, Stephen Keshi, has won the Africa Cup of Nations and overcome the country's political hurdles – so far
Back in 2006, when Stephen Keshi was still manager of Togo, he gave an interview to a handful of journalists in a hotel lobby in northern Cairo. The first time I'd spoken to him, four years earlier in Bamako, he had been lying on a sun lounger by a swimming pool and, metaphorically at least, he still was. Keshi always gives the impression of being laid back. But for a moment, the hardness beneath showed through. "Some day," he said, "I will be coach of Nigeria and then they will know they have a coach."
They do now, after Keshi's Nigeria ended a 19-year wait for Nigeria's third Cup of Nations. What Oscar Washington Tabárez did for Uruguay in 2011, what Hervé Renard did for Zambia last year, Keshi did for Nigeria this. And, frankly, given the competing political interests in Nigerian football, given the cliques and tribal divides, the vested interests and corruption, Keshi's achievement is greater than either.
Like Tabárez and Renard, he took an essentially ordinary squad with one or two gifted players, made them a unit and then made them believe. But unlike Tabárez and Renard, he did it while paddling a raft though shark-infested waters with the easy demeanour of a man on a sun lounger. There is iron beneath the chuckle.
In the press conference after Nigeria had won their quarter-final against Ivory Coast, for instance, Keshi saw Mark Gleeson, the doyen of African football journalism, take the mic. "Where have you been?" he bellowed. "I haven't seen you in years." When Gleeson replied: "Sir, I've been watching the big boys," Keshi laughed uproariously. He has a ready appreciation of the absurdity of life – and there is little more absurd in life than the governance of Nigerian football.
The week before the tournament, there were rumours of a plot within the Nigerian sports ministry to replace Keshi. Even on Sunday night, in the moment of victory, there was talk that the Nigerian football federation was lining up a bid for Renard. Keshi has seen the positives of European coaches, having captained Nigeria to victory in 1994 under the Dutchman Clemens Westerhof, but Nigeria have also had their share of European coaches who have achieved nothing, most notably Berti Vogts.
Keshi is the first Nigerian to win the Cup of Nations as coach, and he had made clear through the tournament that he recognised his achievements resonate beyond Nigeria. "The white guys are coming to Africa just for the money," he said. "They are not doing anything that we cannot do. I am not racist but that's just the way it is. I am never against a white coach in Africa, because I've always worked with white coaches. If you want to bring in a classic, an experienced coach from Europe, I am ready to learn from that coach, because he's better than me, he has more knowledge than me. Meanwhile, we have quality African players, or ex-African players, who can do the same thing, but they're not given the opportunity because they're just black dudes. I don't like it."
Last year, the veteran Cameroonian coach Jules Nyonga told me that the main reason certain parties favour European coaches is that Europeans can justify a larger salary and that means more cash that can be siphoned into the pockets of individuals in the federation or ministry (without the coaches themselves being aware of it or complicit in it). I have no idea if that's the case outside of Cameroon – and I have no proof it is true inside – but it makes a lot of sense.
After François Zahoui had gone so close with Ivory Coast last year, it's hard to see the logic of the Ivorian federation appointing the inexperienced Sabri Lamouchi. Similarly, what did Didier Six, whose only experience in coaching was a brief stint with Strasbourg 27 years ago, bring to Togo? Perhaps he will take credit for getting them to the quarter-final, but his behaviour after the opening game, storming out of the press conference after 22 seconds in protest at a refereeing decision that replays proved correct, was bizarre, all the more so as he left the forward Jonathan Ayité to speak to the media.
Keshi is clearly aware that even winning the Cup of Nations doesn't provide him with much insurance. He may have moulded a squad that Joseph Yobo, a veteran of six Cups of Nations, described as the most unified he has known, he may have made a spectacular success of his gamble of dropping the egos and promoting players from the domestic league (knowledge of the domestic league, of course, is itself an advantage of a local coach), but still the plotters plot. Keshi talks about his present side as being "close to a very good team", of how they still need time properly to develop, but what if they slip up in their World Cup qualifier against Kenya in March? Or in the away game against the same opposition in June? What if they have a poor Confederations Cup? Will Keshi still be there to oversee their development?
After all, Keshi is the 19th coach in the 19 years since Westerhof left. "It's a shame in Africa," Keshi said. "When there's an African coach nobody wants to give you time, they want you to have the job today, build a wonderful team tomorrow and next year win the World Cup. If only we could work out how these things work we could have more success. But most coaches aren't given freedom to work so they are held back."
Now, as Keshi promised, Nigeria have a coach; the problem is, some still seem not to recognise it.
(4-3-3): Vincent Enyeama (Nigeria); Mohamed Koffi (Burkina Faso), Bakary Koné (Burkina Faso), Nando (Cape Verde), Elderson Echiéjilé (Nigeria); Seydou Keita (Mali), Mikel John Obi (Nigeria), Charles Kaboré (Burkina Faso); Victor Moses (Nigeria), Emmanuel Adebayor (Togo), Jonathan Pitroipa (Burkina Faso)