While Stephen Keshi has inked a new contract to helm the Super Eagles till 2017, the jury remains out on whether or not his first tenure was a success.
In a way, this is very much a subjective debate based on ideology: results vs. aesthetics. Did Keshi’s team consistently produce good performances? No. However, he was in charge for 68 games and lost under 25 per cent – they undeniably won more than they lost.
So really, it all comes down to what kind of football you prefer.
However, there is another way to look at it, which is infinitely more scientific and easier to agree upon. That is the mandate, in terms of touchstones, given to him by the NFF when he was first appointed in 2011.
He was tasked with qualifying for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, achieving a Quarter-Final place at the World Cup, and the rather more nebulous brief of “rebuilding the team”.
To begin with, he greatly exceeded expectations on the first count, winning the Nations Cup in South Africa just a year after the Super Eagles failed to qualify for the previous edition. That left him with enough credit that, even if he fell just short of his World Cup target, he can still be considered as having delivered on the first two.
It is in the third responsibility that the lines begin to blur somewhat. There can be no denying that he oversaw quite a substantial overhauling of the Super Eagles, winning the Afcon with a squad vastly populated by debutants and youngsters – though players like Efe Ambrose and Emmanuel Emenike were brought into the setup by predecessor Samson Siasia. However, if the aim was to rebuild the team, there can be no justification for the state of the Super Eagles right now.
A cursory look at the starting XI for the Afcon 2013 semi-final against Mali, easily Keshi’s most convincing display, makes for bleak reading. Of the lot, none has improved appreciably; indeed only captain Vincent Enyeama has maintained the same level of excellence.
Tournament top-scorer Emmanuel Emenike has scored infrequently between feuding with his club fans in Turkey. The mercurial Victor Moses was only just starting to rediscover something approaching his best form on loan at Stoke before breaking down with injury. The watertight pair of Godfrey Oboabona and Kenneth Omeruo have struggled for game time in middling teams since then.
Shall I continue? We could do this all day.
There is of course very little a national team manager can do about player performance with their clubsides. But if the aphorism is true, and class is a mean that the very best players will return to following dips in form, what does that say about the team that Keshi built?
It hurts to admit it, so let us say it all together now, group therapy-style: they were not very good at all.
To borrow a construction metaphor, tasked with a rebuild, the Big Boss went with easily obtainable raw materials rather than top-quality, durable ones. The result was a building made ready in record quick time, as evidenced by that triumph in Johannesburg, but which failed to stand by the strength which its individual components supplied.
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In other words, the team reverted to its mean – mediocrity – crumbling under the weight of the expectation it was made to bear. The plaster started to flake, the walls started to crack, and down came the house, pillars and all.
The question this time around then is: what kind of building will the Big Boss give us now? Naturally, one must consider the pool available to Keshi, and perhaps the basis for his return is that it has been acknowledged he worked with what he had (whether he did enough to unearth what he needed rather than simply making do is another matter). Now, things are a lot more different. Samson Siasia has the beginnings of a good unit at U23 level, preparing for the All Africa Games in a couple of months, while the Flying Eagles will be prime for promotion after the U20 World Cup in New Zealand mext month.
Keshi has nothing more to prove as a coach, but the paradox is that the legacy of coaches, especially with a national team, is rarely just titles. Clemens Westerhof may have won the Nations Cup in 1994, but so did Otto Gloria fourteen years prior. The Dutchman, however, is venerated because he created a team whose influence dwarfed all others in Nigerian football history; six years after his departure, his indelible birthmark remained on the Super Eagles.
If Keshi is to cement his legacy, and elevate himself above Gloria and into Westerhof territory, he must demonstrate the sort of courage that has been sorely lacking since 2013, and get the materials for the rebuild right this time.