FROM my room in Accra, Ghana, I watched history repeat itself, in its full glory, in the wee hours of last Wednesday, June 8, 2016. It was a glorious dawn in which Hillary Clinton, former Senator, ex-America’s First Lady, and former Secretary of State, became the first woman to become the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party for the November 2016 presidential election. My mood mimicked what it was eight years ago, on Tuesday, June 3, 2008, when I sat alone in my office at The Sun, in Kirikiri, Lagos, and watched the then Senator Barack Obama break the banks of history to emerge the first Black standard-bearer of the Democratic Party. His victory, that night, invigorated his audacious match to greater glory: his emergence as the first Black man to rule America.
Just like it was in 2008, I sat alone, again, this cold, lonely night, in my living room, brimming with ecstasy as I watched another history unfold. My adrenalin pumped furiously as I watched, on CNN, Hillary Clinton proclaim victory through that seven-star speech. Twice, my son came out of his room to tell me to take it easy as I screamed each time that gracious woman struck the right chord during that superb delivery. And she did so several times.
At about 2.30 a.m., as my emotion continued to surge, I decided to post a tweet, telling the world how elated I was witnessing that historic moment. That was when a big glacier came crashing on my enthusiasm. The mountain of ice came in form of a melancholic tweet posted by ace sports analyst, Kayode Tijani, breaking the tragic news.
Thinking it might be a hoax, I repeatedly asked Kay (as he is fondly called) for confirmation. As I tore at him on twitter, Dele Momodu, OVATION Publisher, and Nigeria’s undisputed King of Tweets, also pressed Kay for confirmation. Before dawn, the reality stared us all in the face: God has come for Stephen Okechukwu Keshi. The Big Boss, as he was dubbed by both players and fans in his heydays, had suffered a heart attack, and within minutes, the grim reaper came. Keshi went to his Maker, leaving Nigeria and the football world in deep sorrow.
Although he lived for 54 short years, he, within those years, accomplished what many couldn’t have dreamt of even if they were to live for a century. One of the only two Africans to win the Africa Cup of Nations, AFCON, both as player and manager, the Big Boss had a distinguished career that started in 1979 with ACB (African Continental Bank) FC of Lagos, and saw him wearing 64 caps for Nigeria; the first in 1981. He made waves with top Belgian clubs like Anderlecht, Lokeren and Strasbourg.
Keshi became a torch bearer in a continent where football administrators are so Eurocentric they believe only coaches with brown or ‘white’ pigmentation can bring soccer glory. He shamed and proved to the naysayers that there is nothing the so-called White Coaches can achieve that their Black counterparts can’t surpass. But he had to go through Togo and Mali to prove that point. That was when his country looked his way for the Super Eagles top job.
Keshi coached Togo between 2004 and 2006, and earned them a surprise ticket to the 2006 World Cup in Germany. In April 2008, he won a two-year contract with Mali. And he qualified them for the 2010 AFCON. Even though he later lost the Mali job, he had achieved enough to shame the dyed-in-the-wool advocates of foreign coaches. In 2011, he was appointed Super Eagles Coach. Two years later, in South Africa, he won the Africa Cup of Nations for Nigeria; and the then President Goodluck Jonathan rewarded him with the Commander of the Order of Niger, CON, national honour.
In November 2013, Keshi qualified Nigeria for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. He took the national team to the Round of 16 before they were kicked out by France in a very tight duel. Regardless of the defeat, Keshi set another record as the first African Coach to successfully qualify two African nations-Nigeria and Togo-for the World Cup. But in a dramatic twist of fortune, the Nigerian Football Federation, NFF, in July 2015, sacked the high achieving coach for “lacking the commitment to achieve the federation’s objectives”. Ironically, most of those who threw Keshi out in 2015 have been weeping the most since the Big Boss suddenly left us last Wednesday.
About six months after that shocking treatment by the NFF, fate dealt a deadly blow on the coach. On December 10, 2015, Kate, Keshi’s wife for 30 years, and mother of his four children, succumbed to cancer. It is doubtful if the Big Boss ever recovered from that tragedy. Indeed, those close to him said the Big Boss somewhat became reclusive. A colleague who saw him at a recent football match told me on Thursday that the Keshi he saw that day was a shadow of himself. “He had lost colour. He was somewhat reserved,” he said.
Keshi’s death has once again proved that life at the top can be very lonely. It could even be lonelier when you descend the ladder. At the top, the world only sees the glamour of your office. Very few see your personal troubles and travails, unless you make them public. For instance, how many of us knew the turbulence Keshi was wading through (via Kate’s cancer) while we were all screaming our heads off, insisting he must win all our matches for us?
Ask those who have gone through the crucible, they will tell you cancer is a vampire. Apart from the excruciating pain it inflicts on its victim, it sucks the blood and drains the purse of the family. Is it not possible, therefore, that the foundation for the troubles that triggered Keshi’s heart attack was actually laid by the cancer that claimed Kate? Is it also not possible that the travails may have even galloped after her death? How many people cared to know? How many helped? How many prayed for his family? How many counselled? What was the quality of the counsel?
Well, it’s too late to cry now because the head is already off. The least we can do now, as individuals and country, is to support Keshi’s children with our prayers and substance, and whatever we can contribute to assuage their pain.
Rest in perfect peace, Keshi.