Head coach of Nigeria’s Super Eagles, Stephen Okechukwu Keshi, has come a long way. From playing in our national team, captaining his colleagues for years and also replicating same even in some of the biggest clubs in Europe, The Big Boss, like the media rightly and deservedly dubbed him during his active days, sure merits all the accolades that have been coming his way. Ready and eager to take our national team to the World Cup (holding in Brazil from June 12 to July 13), YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, got him to share his plans for the mundial, success secrets and more on Friday, April 18, 2014. This was at gifted designer, Mudi Enajemo’s showroom in Anthony Village, Lagos. Keshi, for those who have forgotten, parades an enviable pedigree. Born on January 23, 1962, the Illah, Delta State indigene remains the only Nigerian player and the second African to have won the African Cup of Nations as both a player and a coach. At a time the manager of the Togolese and Malian national teams, Keshi, married to Kate and blessed with four children (3 girls and 1 boy) once laced his boots for local and international clubs like ACB, NNB, Stade’d Abidjan, African Sports, Lokereen, Anderlecht, RC Strasbourg, Molenbeek, CCV Hydra and so on. His story…
The transition from playing to coaching, what informed it?
I’m just gonna summarize it because it’s a long story. But for me, being on this stage right now is about my daughter. She was in high school and her school wanted a coach and the principal was making an announcement to the students – I need a coach – to coach the soccer team and if you have anybody, let him call me or come to the office so we can talk about it. She came home and said dad, I think you would wanna coach my school? I said I’m not a coach. She said no, but you played professional football in Europe. I said yes, but that does not make me a coach. She said yes, they are 13-years-old, 12-years-old, just like me. Hey! I am not a coach; I played, yes; but I am not a coach. Those are two different things. We argued back and forth. You know how these American kids behave and she went ahead the next day to tell the principal that my dad played professionally for years; maybe you wanna talk to him. So, the principal called me: Mr. Keshi, can I see you in my office, please? And I went. But then I was in school. So, I had to juggle my school, work and coaching these kids and already I had said I was tired of football; I just wanted leave football and do something else. But then I came back to football through her and it’s even more beautiful now than playing. So, that’s how I came back to coaching and that’s it.
Alright! What makes a good coach?
You see, I cannot speak for all coaches. I can only speak for myself. What makes a good coach, I think, is listening to your players, listening to your assistant coaches, having the right drills, the right trainings, because that is gonna make or break the team, because if the players are not stimulated with the drills, the training drills that you are giving to them; after 30 minutes they just fall apart, they will say there’s no fun. So, every training session – that’s what people don’t understand; they think coaching is just to gather the players on the field and start kicking and running, no! You have to have something that will stimulate the players, make them wanna do this stuff and take it from there. And they have to believe in you.
What makes a good player?
A good player does not necessarily have to be a skillful player. A good player for me; my own opinion, is a player that gives 110 percent in training sessions, that is learning from his team mate’s mistake and does not repeat the same mistake. When the coach is correcting James, he is learning from that. Another thing that makes a good player is also by talking, asking questions; asking the coach: what am I doing wrong? When I was playing, there was a time I would just listen as the coach was pointing out all the players not doing things right. He never called me and I had to get up one day and say coach, you didn’t talk about me; I need to know how I’m also doing and he will say oh, no, no, no, you are doing fine. I will say no, I cannot be perfect (Smiling), it’s not possible, I must be doing something stupid. But you see, to be a very good player, for me, is the simplicity of the game. Being smart – because you need to be smart. Your I. Q has got to be high and once you have the I.Q, you have the E.Q and you are ready to learn, you will be good.
What makes a good skipper, a good captain?
A good captain is…he’s just a leader. It’s like you being a father of the nation. A good skipper is someone that has to come last.
What is the costliest mistake that any footballer can make?
Costliest mistake any footballer can make? You know we have the back men in the game, we have the front players, the midfield, defence. Mostly, people see the defence line. When they make a mistake, that’s where they hammer most. But when the mistake comes upfront, they don’t see it. But this is where it generates from and if the upfront cannot stop it and it ends up in goal, they think the defenders are not good or the goal keeper is not good. It’s about the team.
What is the greatest thing that being a footballer has done for you?
This is it right here (Being honoured by celebrated designer, Mudi Enajemo).
What has playing football not done for you?
I don’t think there is.
What do you know now that you didn’t know before as a coach?
(Thinks) – I can’t remember anything right now.
What did you enjoy most as a footballer?
What I enjoyed most was when I made people smile, when I put joy in people’s faces and I just go home and I sleep and I smile and say yes, I just made some people happy.
Can you remember the most memorable goal that you scored?
Uh! I cannot pick one out because I think God gave me some few goals that were wonderful. But I remember the goal I scored in Strasbourg that brought Strasbourg from Division II to Division I and the whole of Strasbourg went crazy; a goal that I scored from about 4 yards and the whole state was men! It was a festival for a week. And I remember a goal I scored for Nigeria; but Nigerians don’t know about this. It was in Angola against the Angolan national team. I remember a goal I scored in Senegal in the 1992 Nations Cup – the winning goal against Senegal; opening game. There are few goals like that.
Any footballer who wants to last long on the scene, what must the person do?
One – stay in prayers; two – be self disciplined; and when I say discipline, there’s a lot that goes with self discipline. At least, you know when to go to bed, you know when to go out, you know when to party with your friends. These are all about the self discipline stuff that you need to really address. If you have that self discipline and of course working hard in training sessions, because most people think if I’m talented, I don’t need to do a lot in training, I just play. No! You are a better footballer when you give everything in training sessions, you work hard in training sessions and in the game, you will just be flying and you will be asking yourself: Did I just do that? Was that me? Yes! Because you are just giving everything on the field after the training session. So, you need that self discipline, you need to hard work and of course you have to believe in yourself because you might come to an obstacle where a coach might tell you; you know what, I don’t think I need you and you will say no, coach, you need me. Trust me! And this is where you need to show your ability, you need to show what you have and that is it.
What is the best way to ensure that stardom doesn’t get into the head of a player?
Yeah! Very good question. I think this is a great, great question you just asked. I think it’s the biggest problem that Nigerian players are having because the moment they see their names on newspapers, television, they go crazy and now they think they’ve arrived and they think that that’s it. Nobody can talk to me, I can’t do wrong. Just believe that you are still learning the game. As a coach, I’m still crawling. I’ve not even started, I’m still learning the game and I’m watching the seasoned coaches, learning from them, the body expression, the way they stand out there to talk when they coach and so on. I think the best way is just to be humble.
Can you recollect the worst match that you ever played?
Worst match? Worst match will be…(Thinks) I can’t remember. Worst match, I’m thinking some game with New Nigerian Bank. No, no…I will take it back. Yeah! I now remember. Worst match was…well, it wasn’t really the worst because I was ill. I was playing with Coach Bale in ACB then and we had a league game against Bendel Insurance in Benin and I only played for about 15 minutes when I was substituted because I wasn’t feeling fine. I was very mad at myself. I cursed myself out and the next day, went back to training all by myself, trying to re-capture what happened, why I was taken out; it had never happened to me. Never! I’ve never been on the bench as a reserve player. It’s very hard for any coach to substitute me. Very hard! So, it was something I took personally and said God, I had to iron this out.
At the peak of your career, you were called The Boss. How did that sobriquet come about?
The Big Boss actually. The Big Boss came about when I went to Europe. I realized that there were a lot of things that we needed to do for the national team because my dream was to make the Nigerian national team a great nation in football and most of our players were still local players and I was trying to take some of them out, because with the little experience I had gained while I was in Europe, I needed to establish it with the players and let the players know what it takes to win a game; I needed to change their mentality that hey, it’s not just all about running on the pitch, you got to do something and I think when I’m playing I’m always directing and all those stuff and the journalists, the media felt that I was a little bit bossy (General laughter) in teaching the players. But I was doing it for ourselves. So, that we can win our games, be happy, Nigerians are happy and they started calling me The Big Boss. And it just stuck.
During your playing days, who was your closest friend and why?
They’ve all been my closest friends…
We know, but there must be one person with whom you shared intimate secrets?
I hate to have one that’s a favourite. I’ve always taken my team mates as my friends, my brothers. That’s the way I carry every one of them. Maybe late Uche Okafor. You know we are all different, we need some kind of talk, some kind of psyching to make the other person feel better and at a point Uche was on that level. But he was somebody that I liked very much.
Outside of the field of play, you look calm and cool. Do you have a dual personality – a lion on the pitch and a lamb outside of that?
No, when I’m on the field, I’m a different person. I’m very aggressive. Aggressive, not to the point of getting somebody injured, but I wanna win. That’s all I want. I will do everything necessary to win because I have to win. But outside the field, I’m a different person. Some people don’t even recognize me and they are like are you Keshi?
Anytime you lose a match, how do you feel, how do you console yourself?
It depends on the game. If I play and give everything that I know I have, I don’t really go crazy about it. But I still feel bad that I lost. But I know I cannot win every game. It’s not possible. But even if I have to lose, I want to fight it to the end and for the other team to know that yes, they played against a team and that’s it. Because it’s not possible that I win every game, but should I lose, let me lose gallantly.
Where do most footballers lose it in terms of attaining and sustaining success? Some of them are here today and gone tomorrow, but you are here and still standing strong. What did you do that they didn’t do?
I don’t know.
Okay, what is the secret of your success as a player and a coach?
I think it’s just that I have a line in everything that I do. This is my job. Period! I don’t mess around with my job. Even for entertainment or whatever, I know when it is time for my work. And when it it’s time for my work, it’s time for my work. And when I’m done with my work, I can do whatever I wanna do. I don’t mix it up. But you find people that mix their job together with some other things and at the end, the job will suffer. So, I like to take one thing at a time and do it and make sure I give it 110 percent concentration and take it from there. When I’m done with that episode, I can do other things. If I’m given the opportunity to clean this floor, I wanna give it the best. Whoever comes in will look at it and say damn, I can actually see myself on this floor. Who did this? This is what I like. I don’t wanna do half and half job, I wanna do it totally that I would be satisfied and whoever comes in will like what he sees.
There’s no debating the fact that God has been so nice to you, what more do you want from God?
Good health. I want long life for my kids, my wife. I’m still in my career, I pray that God will give me more wisdom, patience, the ability to help other people, the less privileged people, that I can be able to help people. I like to help people, if I’m chanced to do that. I want to see people smile, I hate it when I see people moody, their faces all squeezed up. I don’t like it. So, if you allow me, you are gonna have a smiling face.
What promise are you making Nigerians as regards the World Cup?
You see, a lot of journalists, they ask this question. But I cannot promise Nigerians, because one, I’m not God; I don’t know what’s gonna happen. But the only thing I can tell Nigerians is that we will give our ultimate best in every game that we play.
What is the greatest lesson that life has taught you in your entire career?
To be nice to people, to respect every human being that you meet, because in every human being there is a unique thing about the person and what does he want? It’s just the appreciation, it’s just to acknowledge one that you are good and just do the simplest things in life. It’s not about winning billions of dollars and all those stuff, but being able to have fun with whoever is around you and then put smile in their faces. I hate, like I just said, to sit with people with their faces squeezed up. Let’s have fun, life is too short.
Abroad, who is your favourite designer and in Nigeria also?
Abroad, I used to have Gianfranco Ferre. That’s all I wore when I was in Europe and they know me. Sometimes I go to Italy when they have their fashion shows and they invite me. Otherwise, when I was in Belgium, they had my size, so they just ship whatever I need. So, Gianfranco Ferre is just my thing. Great quality and all those stuff. What is fashion for me? Fashion is something that fits you good, that makes you look good and you like it. That’s it. But since I’ve met Mudi; Mudi’s style is just some style. Mudi, I don’t know; he’s a different person. Just like I said, I don’t know how to qualify him, but he has been an awesome person and I think his styles are wonderful. I think Mudi is on the right way.
Which is your favourite car?
Favourite car? Well, my favourite car used to be Mercedes Benz. Yeah! I like Mercedes Benz. Mercedes Benz has different categories, but now I’m driving Range; Range Rover has been awesome. It has also been a great vehicle.
What are your hobbies? Away from football, what do you do to make yourself happy?
I like to watch movies. I think I’m the No. 1 fan of home videos, Nigeria’s Nollywood. I can stay a whole day watching them. I like to read testimonial books, that is real life stories and also listen to music – Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Bob Marley, Ebenezer Obey, Sunny Ade, you know, all those that make sense. I like that, and chill with my brothers and just have fun.
NB: First published May 2014