Keshi’s post-Afcon resignation withdrawal saves Nigeria’s 2014 dream

A night is a long time in Nigerian football. This morning, the word is that Keshi has taken back the resignation he announced on Metro FM on Monday evening, after an emergency meeting with Nigeria's Sports Minister Bolaji Abdullahi. In the meeting he received "certain assurances", presumably financial ones.

It appears that Keshi has called the bluff of the Nigerian Football Federation, in spectacular style. He alleged on Monday that the federation had already "sacked" him before his side's shock victory over Cote d'Ivoire – a sacking that would presumably take effect as soon as the Super Eagles were knocked out.

That didn't happen, of course. And then it seems the Nigerian Football Federation forgot or declined to approach him after Sunday's triumph.

Keshi was insulted first by their distrust (officials had allegedly booked return tickets for the day after the Cote d'Ivoire quarterfinal) and then by their complacency in victory. Good coaches have big egos, and big egos need stroking. Diplomacy and manners have never been the strong suit of Nigerian football bosses.

With hindsight, Keshi's comments prior to the semifinal triumph in Durban were a not-so-subtle advertisement of his availability to other employers.

“If God grants me the tournament, the next day I could join another country,” he said. “I'm a professional. It's the same with [José] Mourinho, if he gets a call from a rich team, he goes. I'm here for now, but we'll see if there's anyone out there who wants me.”

The first black coach
And you can understand why Keshi opted to play hardball yesterday. On Sunday night, he resoundingly substantiated his argument about the thwarted potential of black football coaches in Africa. With a little help from Sunday Mba, he turned his tough talk into hard silverware – by becoming the first black coach to lift the Africa Nations Cup title since Cote d'Ivoire's Yeo Martial in 1992. He and his players have also rehabilitated the battered pride of a mighty footballing nation.

But Keshi owes Nigeria more glory. And he owes the continent more of the precious patience he loves to preach about.

If the Super Eagles are to build on their triumph in Johannesburg, Keshi will need to stay in his job until the Fifa Confederations Cup in Brazil this winter, and until next winter in the same neck of the woods, where the greatest stage of all beckons.

Could this Nigerian generation breach Africa's stubborn quarterfinal ceiling on the World Cup stage? Yes. They'd need a bit of luck, but who doesn't, barring the mightiest sides? If Uruguay, Turkey, South Korea and Bulgaria had the players to reach the semifinals, then the Super Eagles do.

Man for man, they may not be as talented or celebrated as the Ivorians, but talent is just one element of a successful formula. Continuity, belief and unity count hugely; and one of Keshi's significant achievements at this tournament was to bond his troops into a warm machine, free of cabals and cliques.

The absence of calm, harmonious preparation has counted against too many African World Cup campaigns in the past.

Job-hopping in African football
Much of the blame for that history of chaos lies with association bosses, who are notorious for axing both local stop-gap coaches and wandering European “carpenters” with indiscriminate zeal. The Nigerian Football Federation has ploughed through an astonishing 19 coaches in the 19 years since the Super Eagles' last Afcon victory. A similar churn rate has stymied Bafana's progress.

But myopic administrators are not the only villains of the piece. Some quality coaches have also been complicit in the dugout carnage. Some leap before they are pushed, taking undue offence at bureaucratic slights. Keshi's brinkmanship yesterday was a bit different, considering that he was in a position of unrivalled strength: his sensitivity was tactically sound.

Other coaches engineer their own sackings by crossing swords with megalomaniac association bosses, having negotiated contract clauses that provide for their severance cheques to be paid upfront.

Job-hopping can be lucrative in African football. It is a perversely forgiving market, in which a coach's reputation is barely hurt by a string of dismissals.

In Keshi's case, he also clearly enjoyed the grandeur of resigning in a blaze of glory. Sometimes it can be a strategically perfect moment to leave – á la José Mourinho's exit from Inter Milan after winning the Champions League.

But Keshi's stock can rise even higher with this team. He should persevere and survive, and tolerate the sins of the suits. His Super Eagles movie has only just begun, and the plot is only beginning to thicken.

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Carlos Amato
Carlos Amato is an editorial cartoonist, writer and illustrator living in Johannesburg, with a focus on sport, culture and politics. He has degrees in literature and animation, used to edit the ‘Sunday Times Lifestyle’ magazine and is the author of ‘Wayde van Niekerk: Road to Glory’ (Jonathan Ball, 2018).

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