Post by Cheta Nwanze*
In 1989, an unknown Dutch manager, Clemens Westerhof happened upon the job of managing the Nigerian National Team, known at the time, as the Green Eagles. A year later, the team was meant to compete in the African Nations Cup, hosted by Algeria. Before the tournament, all hell broke loose as the usual issues of “fights to the finish”, “match bonuses”, “player power”, came to the fore. As a result, the senior players in the team, led by a certain Stephen Okechukwu Keshi, led a boycott of sorts by making outrageous sounding demands before playing for the country in Algeria 90. Westerhof called their bluff, and led the team consisting almost entirely of home-based players (Andrew Uwe, Rashidi Yekini and Friday Elahor being the exceptions) to the silver at the tournament. Bear in mind that this second place finish came after a 5-1 loss to the hosts in the opening game. The hosts, Algeria, were the eventual winners of the competition.
When the team arrived home, they were received as heroes, and Nigeria’s then Vice President, Augustus Aikhomu, in the reception said, “You did us proud you Green Eagles, you are my Super Eagles.” Thus the team became the Super Eagles. Thereafter, and until he left power, Aikhomu, and his eventual successor, Mike Akhigbe, took a personal interest in what was happening with the team, and for the subsequent five years, the Nigerian national team had zero issues concerning player palaver, match bonuses, and the usual brouhaha that have always bedevilled the Eagles.
What Westerhof’s “victory” in Algeria did for him and for the team, was to give him direct access to the highest levels of power in Nigeria, much to the chagrin of Alex Akinyele, the Sports Minister at the time.
If the stories are to be believed, (and they come principally from Robert Marawa, a highly respected South African broadcaster) then Nigeria’s current, Nations Cup winning coach, Stephen Okechukwu Keshi, has just resigned. According to Keshi, his resignation is because of undue interference and a lack of faith in him by his employers, the Nigerian Football Federation. Speaking on a television/radio show in South Africa (the team is due back tomorrow), Keshi claimed that he was in actual fact sacked before the quarter final match against the Ivory Coast, an allegation borne out by the fact that it emerged last Tuesday that the NFF had actually booked return tickets for the squad to depart South Africa immediately after that quarter final.
Keshi’s move, then, is an astute interpretation of the current political climate in Nigeria. The fact is this, the current government is under attack from all quarters in the country, over a lot of non-football related issues. Yesterday’s Cup of Nations win, is HUGE political capital, which any Nigerian government would be foolish not to exploit. By resigning at this point in time, what Keshi would have done would be to bring the personal attention of one of the powerful state governors (who are all football fans), or the President himself, to the interference in his job. That move, would give him direct access to the corridors of power, and would enable him to do his job without looking over his shoulders. On the other hand, if his resignation is accepted, the next coach would have extremely HUGE boots to fill.
For Keshi, this move is a win-win.
Cheta was one of the few Nigerians who believed in the Super Eagles ahead of the tournament. His predictions for the team proved remarkably astute: on Keshi, on Mikel Obi, on the quality of the locally based players, on the team’s wealth of attacking options when others were lamenting the omission of Osaze Odemwingie and Obafemi Martins. The preview he wrote for Africa is a Country is well worth revisiting.