Soweto – Nigerian Stephen Keshi is on the verge of becoming only the second person to collect Africa Cup of Nations gold medals as a footballer and a coach.
The first to achieve the feat was the late Egyptian Mahmoud El Gohary, who helped his country defeat Sudan 2-1 in the 1959 final and guided the Pharaohs to a 2-0 victory over South Africa 39 years later.
A towering centre-back, Keshi skippered the Super Eagles to a 2-1 victory over Zambia in an emotional 1994 final with the losers fielding a team rebuilt one year after the national squad was wiped out in a plane crash off Gabon.
Keshi had far less success, at first, as a coach at the premier African football tournament, failing to get Togo (2006) or Mali (2010) beyond the opening round.
The failures cost him the posts, with the first sacking particularly painful as it prevented him going to the 2006 World Cup in Germany having taken minnows Togo through a difficult qualifying campaign.
Keshi was appointed coach of Nigeria – one of the hottest coaching seats in African football Ä after former international teammate Samson Siasia was fired for failing to reach the 2012 Cup of Nations.
After decades of reliance on foreign-based professionals, Keshi decided the best domestic talent also deserved a chance, and the move reaped handsome dividends in a shock quarter-final win over title favourites Ivory Coast.
Midfielder Sunday Mba from Enugu Rangers carried the ball beyond several would-be tacklers before unleashing a shot that took a deflection as it looped over goalkeeper Boubacar Barry and into the net for the match-winner.
Many hyper-critical Nigerians had watched the team only draw with Burkina Faso and Zambia in the group stages and felt Keshi was just another in a long line of coaches who promised a lot more than they delivered.
A win over Ethiopia in the final group game marked an upward turn, the victory over Ivory Coast silenced the critics, and the four-goal semi-final thrashing of Mali made the Super Eagles favourites for a third title.
While immensely proud of the class of 2013, Keshi is quick to dismiss any comparison with the team he captained to glory 19 years ago at the El Menzah Stadium in Tunis.
“The 1994 squad was unbelieveable. We were brothers, there was a great spirit in the team. Now there is talent, but we need a strong mentality and character,” he said.
Born in commercial capital Lagos 51 years ago, Keshi made his playing debut for local club ACB and also spent time with New Nigerian Bank, and Stade Abidjan and Africa Sports in Ivory Coast, before heading for Europe.
He joined Lokeren in 1986, moved to much bigger Belgian club Anderlecht a year later and also lined up for Strasbourg in France before returning to Belgium and a contract with Molenbeek.
His playing career wound down with spells in the United States and Malaysia and the coaching career of the physically imposing Nigerian they call 'Big Boss' started nine years ago with Togo. – Sapa-AFP