Super Eagles' Head Coach, Stephen Okechukwu Keshi, 'The Boss', needs little introduction, being a father figure in Nigerian football having captained the team. Meanwhile, exposure and experience over the years have made him a media delight. When Saturday Sunsports took him on, recently, he spoke on wide range of issues concerning football in Nigeria, the Super Eagles, his career, both as a player and coach, in addition to his personal life. Enjoy Keshi at his best!
Journey with Super Eagles so far
The journey has not started because I was only opportune to play two major friendly games against Botswana and Zambia before I was shipped down to Morocco to observe the Under-23 team for the Olympic Games' qualifying Championship.
Let me use this opportunity to correct the impression that I applied for Super Eagles job. I never for one day applied to coach the Super Eagles. I was only asked to come in and see how it would go. Even when I came to assist Bonfere Jo during the 1999/2000 Nations Cup, I just finished my coaching course and they called to inform me that Bonfere wanted me to assist him. Since then, it has been the same invitation.
Style of play expected of Eagles
I want to build a very strong team that Nigerians would be proud of, but I need time to achieve that. I need to assemble a good team with quality players. We played wing football in the days of the like of Adokie Amasiemaka, Humphrey Edobor, Tarila Okorowata, Segun Odegbami, Babaotu Mohammed and others, but football is becoming more scientific now. It is changing every second and there are many patterns to adopt for the game to flow better.
However, for a coach to play a particular patter, he must have the players to executive it. So, right now, I cannot tell Nigerians the pattern I would want to play because I don't even know the players very well. Nigerians have to wait until I assemble the players and begin to work with them. I wouldn't want to make a promise just to satisfy the yearnings of Nigerians, only to fail thereafter with the players I have yet to know very well.
Rating of Nigerian players
I don't know if we have average or high-class players, what I actually need are players, who will fight for their jerseys and work very hard for the team and country to succeed. I need dedicated players, who will have the hunger to win matches and make Nigerians proud as they work to build their personal profiles. It doesn't matter the clubs they play for because, sometimes, a player needs luck to get a big club.
If we want to rate our players based on the clubs they play for, we would be making a big mistake because we once had great players like Humphrey Edobor and Tarila Okoronwata who could not play for big clubs in Europe despite their exceptional skills.
Nigerians want to watch their players play in big clubs like AC Milan, Real Madrid, among others, it is good, but for me, that is not my major consideration. Rather, I want a crop of players who can fight with the last drop of their blood to get the desired result on the pitch for Nigeria.
Of course, it feels good seeing high performance level from the players in Europe and I would want to see them making Nigerians proud as they play in big clubs. But for me, the national team is going to be a collective responsibility for all of us to lift it high. In it, I need players' involvement with great determination and commitment.
In the mean time, I'm impressed with the performance of some of our Europe-based players, who are beginning to come out of their shells. They are beginning to hit form, scoring goals and playing regularly in their clubs. I'm happy with what they are doing at the moment and I pray they remain free from injuries.
Crumbling world of Nigerian football
Apart from being the head coach of the Super Eagles, as a Nigerian, I would say that I'm not happy with the current state of football in the country. When I spoke with my wife from Morocco during the recent Olympic qualifiers, she wanted to know what was going wrong with Nigerian football judging by the way our team played in most game of the tournament.
Obviously, no Nigerian, I guess, is happy with the current state of Nigerian football. Even in Morocco, many people from other African countries kept asking what was happening to the Nigerian team. I lack words to describe the situation but it's something I'm not proud of.
I think we should go back and check what has gone wrong with our under-aged teams. With what happened to the Super Eagles, the Dream Team, Under-17, the Super Falcons and others last year, it's obvious that there's something wrong with Nigerian football. This does not require much grammar, but to get down to action. Every stakeholder/department must get down to work to turn the game round in the country. We need to go back to the basis and work our way back to the top. We have to be professional about it. The key thing is honesty determination for us to succeed. In all, I can assure you that it is not yet over for Nigerian football, there's still bright light at the end of the tunnel.
Indiscipline among Super Eagles
I don't really understand what people mean when they talk about indiscipline in the Super Eagles. We speak much grammar in Nigeria instead of adopting the option of action, which football requires for results to come.
Interestingly, I have spent little time with some of those players we tagged undisciplined ones, and in fairness to them, I can tell Nigerians that I did not see or hear any negative thing about those boys. In fact, I was pleased that I have to tell the boys that I could not understand the basis Nigerians tagged them undisciplined players.
When I was the captain of the national team, they called me all sorts of names. I was called Mafia, a stubborn and arrogant player. They said that I was snobby among other negative names I could not find in the dictionary, but that impression was not the true picture of me. The players may have one or two faults as human beings, but we must listen to them and treat them like human beings, who have their own rights and opinions. None of my player is going to be a prisoner. I cannot treat them like kids because I know that some of them are already parents, who deserve respect in their own right.
But are we tagging the players undisciplined because they asked for their entitlements and rights? If it were the issue of late arrival in camp, I want to say that there must be a common understanding between the coaches and the player(s) involved. If for instance I know that a player is not going to arrive camp on time and his excuse does not suit my plan, I will tell him to stay away. It is as simple as that. If any player tells me that he won't make my Tuesday deadline for example, I will tell him to wait till next time when I invite him again. I won't allow the player to arrive in camp and begin to exchange words with me in front of the other players or on the media. It doesn't give a coach that father figure or make him a good coach.
The media usually make a lot of noise about the indiscipline stuff, and this is where I really need their help. They must understand that building the national team is a national assignment we must carry out together. This generation of Nigerian journalists would want to criticise every move one makes. That is why some players are hostile to them. Some of the journalists go about speculating and writing stories that never happened, thereby misinforming the public. It's unfortunate.
Code of conduct for players
I lived in the United State of America, a country where nobody is above the law of the land, including the president and every other government official. There, the law rules. I believe in the principle of rule of law. If any player thinks that he cannot obey the code of conduct guiding the set up, he would not have a place in the national team. To avoid talking about it all the time, we talk to ourselves like adults. We started that during the two friendly matches we played against Botswana and Zambia. We monitor ourselves both the players and the management crew because we reached an agreement to stick to the code guiding our conducts.
There would be problems if we don't have code of conduct. Even in our home, we have standing rules that guide members of the family, without that, the children could do whatever they like.
Sanctions for violators
It's like the media love to celebrate the downfall and mistakes of people. We don't really need to apply sanctions if we succeed in building a very positive atmosphere - an environment where there would be mutual bonding and understanding like we had it in my days in the Super Eagles.
In my days as a player in the national team, there was oneness. Now, I call on the media to join us in rebuilding the team. If they must criticise a player or me as the coach for not doing well, let it be constructive. They should not because they don't like my face or that of a player do what is unprofessional simply because they have the medium in their hand. We are not perfect and we are all fallible as human beings.
Cabal in Super Eagles
Any player who knows his worth sometime feels full of confidence of himself. And tendencies are there that the way they express themselves might make most people to see them as being arrogant. Jose Mourinho is one of the greatest coaches in the world. He knows the job, but because of the way he expresses himself, people think he is arrogant. In Nigeria, if a player outspokenly asked for his entitlement, he would be called Mafia.
Keshi 'the Mafioso'
I don't know why people called me 'Mafia'. I know that I was never brought up as a Mafioso. My family didn't bring us up like that. I would say that I'm not a Mafioso because it is a negative name in Nigeria. However, there is a positive 'Mafia' when people see you as a boss. I'm respectful and considerate to people, but I hate seeing somebody belittling others or cheating them. If people call me 'Mafia' because I fight for other's right, I wouldn't mind.
There was nothing like having a clique in the national team during my playing days. Nobody dictated to the coach on who to plays in a match and who not to play. Those who were close to (Clemence) Westerhof, (Adeboye) Onigbinde, (Paul) Hamilton and James Peters would testify that I never wielded such influence to decide the line up for matches. Yes, the coaches could show me the line up and sometimes, Westerhof would seek my opinion in picking his players, but I never decided for him who plays and who not to play.
I believe that the coaches made the inquiries because of my closeness to my teammates. I could easily feel them and knew who was mentally, psychologically and physically ready for any match. And that is the approach I adopt now as a coach with my team captains and two or three other key players.
Like in the business world, you need to bring few key players closer to you to steer the boat for you and bring in their initiatives to move the team forward. But mind you, those key players are not indispensable. For me, I can axe any of them that misbehave. But they deserve my respect because I share ideas with them.
So, I never decided the team list for any coach during my playing days because, mind you, I never knew what coaching was all about then. It was only when I attended a coaching course that I realised what coaching was all about. That was when I saw those things I never seen as a player.
Players in Botswana and Zambia friendly
I saw few players who impressed me during those friendly matches against Botswana and Zambia. Some of them, however disappointed me, but I don't need to mention their names in the pages of newspapers. Moreover, I was not the one that invited them for those matches. If I were the one that invited them and got shoddy performance from them, I could easily tell the world that they disappointed me.
If I must go for the good side, I would easily tell you that some of them would surely get my invitation. Players like Joel Obi were awesome in both games. My captain, Joseph Yobo was excellent. Yusuf Ayila was outstanding. I was told that he never partnered Yobo, yet their understanding in the Botswana game was wonderful. This is where experience comes in.
I want Nigerians to know that though we certainly need to have a crop of young players in the team, I cannot, however, build the entire team on young players. We need experience to blend with the power of the youth. I was also impressed with the form of Musa (Ahmed). Nosa Igiebor impressed me when he came as substitute during second halves of both games. The Uche brothers impressed too, just like Etuhu and Fegur were equally remarkable. Most of them impressed me, but some were so disappointing.
Not winning African Player of the Year
I don't think I have any regret for not winning the highest African footballers award. In 1988, I was named the fourth best African player as a defender. As you know, it's always very difficult to name a defender the best player on the continental or world stage. I think it was only Leandro Carvalho that has ever won the Best Player award as a defender. Even when Franz Beckenbauer was on top of his game, he never won the European or world best player award.
I never regretted missing the award, but was happy that my fellow Nigerians and teammates playing in the attacking position won the award almost on annual basis. I didn't win the African Footballer Award, but I'm a happy man today because I won the African Best Coach award in 2009 and won the African Legend award from CAF in 2010. So, though I didn't win the African Player of the Year award, I have two great awards I'm very proud of.
My target now is to mould players who, in the next couple of years, would win the award with ease.
My most memorable moment as a player was when Nigeria qualified for the World Cup in 1994 in Algeria, while my worst game as a player was against Sampdoria in 1988 in Sweden, when we lost 2-0 against Roberto Mancini's team.
The denial to take the Hawks of Togo to Germany 2006 World Cup despite qualifying the team was my worst moment as a coach. It was shocking when it happened, but I regarded it as an act of God. If He had wanted me to be there after giving me the divine favour to qualify the team, I would have been in Germany.
When Coach Shaibu Amodu and I qualified Nigeria for the World Cup in 2002 after winning bronze medal in the Nations Cup in Mali that same year, we were sacked. Such is life. I still hope that I would one day take a team to the world's biggest tournament. I pray for that opportunity to come my way.
Eagles' defence in Keshi's days
There was good understanding among the four of us that played in the defence during my days as a player in the national team. Ben Iroha, Austin Eguavoen, Uche Okechukwu and the late Uche Okafor and Chidi Nwanu, who joined us latter, were all fantastic.
I had nothing against Chidi Nwanu, but he came when we were going to the World Cup. He did not play in the Nations Cup, so it was not easy to accommodate him.
Bright Omokaro, Sunny Obhoigbe and Monday Eguavoen were the players that heightened the competition in the defence. But irrespective of the competition, we played for one another and loved each other. It was great.
Toughest strikers Keshi played
There were two tough European strikers I would say harassed life out of me. They were Anton Belly from Italy and Ramon Diaz from Argentina. In Africa, I would name Roger Milla. He was a very crafty and seasoned player. I respect him. He was difficult to play against. I admire Milla's experience and awesome intelligence.
I did not play for so long in the Nigerian League, but for the little time I played in the league while in the high school, I would name Henry Ogboih and Ifeanyi Onyedika as great strikes, while in the national team, Rashidi Yekini, Thompson Usiya among others must be mentioned. They were great strikers.
Most influential coach in Keshi's life
I want to think that all my coaches made serious impact in my career. The late Otto Gloria, Paul Hamilton, Chief Adegboye Onigbinde, who made me captain of the national team when I was only 20 years old, Chris Udemeze, Father Tiko, Raymond Guzas from Anderlecht, George Lakers, the Belgium national coach among others, were all great.
Dreamed European club
Real Madrid was my dream club, even before I left Nigeria. I refused to play for Anderlecht when we had a Champions League match against Real Madrid until I was forced to enter the pitch and luckily, we lost the match, I think, 4-0.
Even when I had the opportunity to join Barcelona after beating them in the Champions League quarterfinals when John Cruff was in charge, I refused because of Barca rivalry with Real Madrid. I regret I never played for Real Madrid and Liverpool. However, I'm still a strong Real Madrid's fan.
Missing the glamour of today's football
Football today may be more glamorous, but I wouldn't want to take anything away from my playing days. I cherished every moment of those days I had to showcase what I had to make people happy. I derive joy when football personalities like Issa Hayatou tell me that Africa can never produce elegant defenders like me. People tell me about the impact I made to people, which as a player, I never knew. I was fulfilled when a journalist called me a legend and great player, who would never come out of Africa again. I'm so grateful that people appreciated my contribution then.
We may not have had millions of dollars as younger players have now, but for the fact that we are getting these appreciations, we must also have that sense of satisfaction. I'm richer having those compliments and great personality that can open doors for me.
Advice to young Nigerians on tricks of European ladies
In those days, the pressure from ladies was much, especially anytime I finished training or after matches. Most times, they would leave their telephone numbers on my car windscreen, begging me to call them. But as a player, one should always remember what took him to Europe. Any player, who combines pleasure with his career, will have problems. Resistance comes with self-discipline. The ladies will not come when you don't have anything, but chains of them would come when you become famous.
So, my advice to young Nigerians players in Europe is that they should know that there's time for everything. If they are disciplined, everything will work out well for them.
Wife, Keshi's biggest fan and coach
My wife is my number one coach and critic. In my playing days, if I don't play well anytime she was in the stadium, even if we won the match, I would convince her on what happened before she would give me food to eat. So, to avoid her query, I played good football anytime she was in the stadium. She had a particular place she sits at the stadium and once I saw her, I would force myself to fine-tune my game. If I fail to play up to her expectation, I would not sleep that night because she would nag all the way for at least two days. So, my wife is the pillar to all I have achieved in life.
She has managed me very well and will continue to manage me. Even in my coaching career, she goes with me to any major tournament. She harassed me when Mali played against Angola during the 2010 Nations Cup and asked me what the heck we played. She knows little about the game and she has done well for the family too.
I got married before playing in Europe. I met my wife when I was with the New Nigerian Bank FC. Then she was 19 going to 20, while I was 20 going to 21 years. I was the captain of the team then and having her by my side has remained a blessing all along.
Keshi's greatest Nigerian footballer
Thompson Usaiya is my greatest Nigerian player, but I won't fail to mention the late Mudasiru Lawal and of course, 'The Chairman' Christian Chukwu, who we don't really appreciate. Chukwu is like German Kaiser or Beckenbauer, the words of those legends are respected, but who is Chukwu in Nigeria? It's a pity we don't respect our own.
There are other great players in Nigeria like Adokie Amasiemaka, who would have destroyed Europe if he had played professional football abroad.