By Ikeogu Oke
Stephen Keshi with the 2013 African Nations Cup
Coach Stephen Keshi and the Super Eagles deserve our warm congratulations for winning the 2013 Orange Africa Cup of Nations hosted by South Africa. I would describe Keshi as an inspirational revolutionary, thanks to his emphasis on using home-based players, who dominated his victorious team.
That must have been inspirational, for the rare exposure it gave the home-based players; and revolutionary, since the trend is for the coaches of the Super Eagles to rely heavily on professional players based abroad who tend to promise high performance while requiring little or no grooming from the coaches.
Home-based players, as Keshi has proved, can be compared to diamonds in the rough. Discovering such gems requires perceptive genius, and polishing them enough to shine and dazzle the world as they did in South Africa requires “lapidary” skill, patience and hard work.
And one must specially commend Keshi’s confidence in the critical choices he made, in himself and his team, which have resulted in their bringing home the coveted trophy, which had eluded us for 19 years, since 1994. Nor should one fail to applaud his blend of idealism and pragmatism, two dispositions without which anyone hardly accomplishes great things.
His belief that he could face and conquer our continent, the world in fact, with a team dominated by rather young and untried players sure to be pitched in battle with many international and foreign-based heavyweights from other countries bespeaks the kind of idealism exhibited by the eponymous hero of Miguel de Cervantes’s timeless classic, Don Quixote, a sort of idealism that borders on quixotism.
But Keshi was also pragmatic in implementing that belief, which must have been informed by his understanding as a good psychologist, which a good coach must be, that such rather young and untried home-based players would have an uncommon hunger for victory unlike their foreign-based counterparts who could be excused for feeling that they have seen much of the world and may have nothing to prove as professional footballers.
Such hunger – I am sure Keshi knew this – could prove to be a more valuable resource for a result-oriented coach and team than a long trail of overconfident foreign-based players who have become so used to playing for “big” clubs and in “big” competitions that they can afford to take their playing in some competitions for granted, and not bother to give their best when they take part.
For them, there is so much to fall back on, unlike their home-based counterparts, with their deep hunger for big laurels, or any laurel for that matter. Little wonder that it was one of the latter type of players, Sunday Mbah, who plays football for Warri Wolves, that scored the winning goal in the final fixture with Burkina Faso, in an effort so desperate that he could be compared to a hungry man snatching meat from the jaws of a lion.
There are times when determination trumps experience as a factor for success. Keshi and his boys proved this with their AFCON exploits. What is more, it was clear that, in selecting his team, Keshi, fondly called “Big Boss” – though I would rather call him “the leader” or “the inspiration” – showed consideration for nothing other than merit, which Chinua Achebe once remarked “is quite often a dirty word” in our country.
But preference for merit, as Keshi has shown through his team selection, can make the difference between success and failure in most of our ventures as a nation.
Now, some lessons stand out from the AFCON success of Keshi and the Super Eagles which I believe could be useful for those eager to ensure Nigeria’s renaissance.
One, that the resources they may be looking for in Sokoto, to adapt a popular Nigerian saying, may be rattling in their sokoto as rough gems awaiting their recognition, polishing and deployment.
Two, that homegrown talent are not necessarily inferior to those sourced from abroad; and this is true regardless of whether the talent sourced overseas are our nationals or citizens of other countries. Incidentally, Chinua Achebe, in Home and Exile, portrays a certain foreign “expert” – an unremarkable, struggling artisan who could have come to Nigeria and gained employment and recognition as an “engineer” – as a charlatan who benefits unfairly from our distorted view of reality.
And Keshi had reportedly decried a situation where “carpenters” are sourced from abroad at great expense to coach our national team even though there is a surfeit of local talent who can do better! Three, that good, determined, visionary and self-assured leadership is critical to their success.
Keshi exhibited these qualities by not allowing himself and his boys to be discouraged by the criticisms that trailed their “unimpressive” start in the tournament, as if mindful of the Igbo saying that “anagh eji ututu ama njo agha”, which roughly translates as “one cannot predict bad market from poor sales in the morning”.
Four, Nigerians need to be more patient with their leaders. A less confident and determined coach than Keshi could have been discouraged by the barrage of impatient criticisms of the “poor” early performance by him and his boys thereby robbing them, and Nigeria, of the ultimate victory in the tournament.
Four, Nigerian leaders need to be resolute in implementing their plans once they are sure of themselves and the workability of such plans and that they are in the overriding public interest. To succeed, they cannot afford to turn like wind vanes in the storm of public opinion, some of which may be uninformed or unwarranted as those critical of Keshi and his boys have proved to be.
Five, Nigerian leaders must have respect for merit above any other criterion in their choice of people to work with. Keshi, as I have stated above, did just that throughout the AFCON tournament; the rest is a historic feat. Six, Nigerian leaders must learn to put high premium on the qualitative human resources Providence has put at their disposal.
Keshi’s bosses in the Nigerian Football Federation reportedly wrote him off even without giving him adequate tools to prove himself, which they would gladly give a foreign coach. Reports have it that they flaunted in his face their plan to hire a foreign coach after what they thought would be a dismal outing for him and his boys. How right the final result proved them and their cynicism!
Unfortunately, Nigeria’s renaissance, and development generally, still suffer serious setbacks owing to the attitude of such leaders who do not seem to know that there is no dictionary in which the synonym of foreign is good, let alone better, or best; but that foreign products are excellent because someone has worked hard to make them so, and are of course local products in their countries of origin.
•Ikeogu, a poet, wrote in from Garki, Abuja, via firstname.lastname@example.org