Tuesday, June 24, 2014

AHIA MGBEDE: Stephen Keshi, A Hurdle To Clear (2) And Thus Far

BY AMBROSE EHIRIM


Final Draw of the 2006 FIFA World Cup: Coaches of Switzerland Koebi Kuhn, Togo's Nigerian Stephen Keshi, France's Raymond Domenech and South Korea's Dutch head coach Dick Advocaat (L-R) shake hands after the draw for the 2006 FIFA World Cup finals in Leipzig, eastern Germany, December 9, 2005. The four countries were drawn in Group G for the World Cup finals. Date: December 9, 2005. Image: Wu Xiaoling/Xinhua Press


Nigeria's first major FIFA World Cup attempt began in 1976 with the Preliminary Rounds of the African Zone; and, in 1977, when the Final Round of the Preliminaries was played on a league schedule drawing Tunisia, Egypt and Nigeria together as the finalists with one of the three teams to represent Africa. With a home court advantage, Nigeria needed just a win against Tunisia for a spot at the Argentina tournament. 

When it comes to Ahia Mgbede, Nigerians are known to be totally united neverminding the archrivalry between the front-running clubsides of the day and its key players---the IICC Shooting Stars Football Club (Ibadan Investment Credit Corporation) of Ibadan and the Rangers International Football Club of Enugu. There were other picks from the minor clubsides like Haruna Illerika and co. destined to promote Ahia Mgbede spirit in the country, the only source and key ingredient to national unity.

With a nation united on Ahia Mgbede, the death squads ceased to exist in their operations over rival ethnic teams. The consultation of the Babalawos and images of the rivals picked to be pinned during encounters had to be waved for a national call. So, too, was the Oracle visits to the shrines on the Eastside where concoctions of the shrines' red soils and decayed mammals are mixed in drinks for supernatural powers, cast away and done with. There were no more invocations of "Agwuishi na Amadioha" with the chants of "Isee o, Isee o" and things of that nature that the enemy must fall and be destroyed by the gods of nd'amala. And on the Westside, the gods of ifa had also been cautioned to cease and desist as well, regarding its voodoo deities' "eleda" to come through and destroy its enemies before the battle begins. No god was much better. They had come to terms with reality. That what was needed was collectivity for ultimate utopianism.

A dialogue reached between spirits of the land. 

And they arrived.

One nation under God, indivisible with destiny, and oneness becomes the ideal. Folks from all ethnic localities would meet at the pubs and drink in unism. They would drink together on the sidewalks chanting "one nation under God; we shall overcome our predicaments," following calls for more booze and in euphoria, that never had there been a team assembled in the nation's history to play as one with the passion of the sport and a display of patriotism.

On the drive toward Argentina '78, the team built by the Yugoslavian "Soccer Bully," Father Tiko, had nothing in comparison to all of the African continent and what was up and about to unfold on the playgrounds heading to Latin America. So close, and if it wasn't for Godwin Odiye's miscalculated intercepting header, that finest squad would have gone to Argentina and made Nigeria proud. In fact, bring the trophy home. Yes, that's how Tiko's boys were in the day and time they had to be feared and notably, the clubside, Enugu Rangers, defeating Germany's Dundee United in that classic friendly, showing the world they belonged.

The FIFA World Cup had been the treat; the lost, and yet again, Odiye becomes a national nightmare on which the nation is yet to recover.

Then and again, the Eagles had expected to be compensated for that loss---to win the African Cup of Nations for the first time which was held in Ghana, in 1978. It never came. The Chairman Christian Chukwu-led squad had lost to Uganda in the semis while my fellow school mate, the wizard dribbling Ahmed Polo, captained the Black Stars to lift the trophy for a record fourth time.

Playing at the World Cup had become a mirage for a nation so huge in human capital and buoyant in its natural resources to be able to produce an outstanding team on national calls. As of that time, in 1978, a young lad named Stephen Okechukwu Keshi was tapping leather at St. Finbarrs College, and before then, the Iponri neighborhood had been his hangout where folks tested skills in the event of academic scheduled mandates or national calls. The Nations Cup was coming up, and the "bully trainer" Tiko, had kept his men intact save for some new addition which included the youngest to tap the scene on national call; an energetic, athletically combined left-footed striker by the name of Henry Nwosu. The vibrant press had warned the nation's football organizing body not to field him. They called on Tiko to drop him; that he was too young and lacked experience in a tournament Nigeria wanted its trophy bad, on a life and death situation. Nwosu was not dropped; he became the nation's youngest striker and among the cast that brought Nigeria the African Cup of Nations Trophy. Keshi had not been seen or surfaced anywhere he could be identified as a national treasure.

With Nations Cup in the books from a Chairman Chukwu's-led campaign victory, the Jules Rimet Trophy became an immediate target. Appearance at the World Cup never came. it was still a mirage. All sorts of national coaches began to emerge until the employment of Brazilian Otto Gloria Nigerians thought he would deliver not realizing he was an arm chair coaching specialist, not the type wanted by the nation at its desperate hour.

Yes, a mirage and a very distant Trophy from view. 

But then, came Clemens Westerhof and a football clinic that generated and prepared the finest cast for the showdown of nations, clearing the hurdle, eventually. Winning the African Nations Cup Nigeria gained its spot at the 1994 World Cup held on the shores of America. Great representation which overnight catapulted Nigeria as an emerging powerhouse in global football. Keshi was on the roll call in Nigeria's first ever appearance on FIFA's global football festival held around the cities in the United States. Equal to the task and in its rookie year, the Eagles gave its best and slugged it out with the robust playing Roerto Baggio-led Italian team.

The aftermath of the FIFA 1994 USA wasn't favoring Nigeria on the global arena when Westerhof had left and a team determined to reach the top on its level began to lose its steam. Keshi left and came to California for a brief stunt with aging players and a take at coaching. On the squabbles for a national coach after going down the hill on performances, a suspension by the presidency and a Nigerian obsessed with foreign coaches, nothing worked until Keshi was considered for the top coaching job after years of neglect which had him look elsewhere---Mali and Togo---he coached successfully to be given attention.

Like in the first part of this piece, Keshi had been called for a "high tech" lynching by a Nigerian "wild, wild," fanatical mob when his chances became very slim in last years nations cup in South Africa until he turned things around and coached the Super Eagles to victory, winning the trophy as a player and as a coach, and first of its kind in the nation's history. Now the history maker is about to complete another mission and add more credits to boost his resume. I had predicted victory for the Eagles before the Bosnia-Herzogovina encounter. 

Looking closely to the Argentina-Iran encounter, it doesn't take too much probing to come to terms that Argentina is beatable. Without much ado, a fierce Super Eagles attack enforced by the magnificent Emmanuel Emenike would for sure weaken the defense of Ezequiel Garay, Marcos Rojo and or, Pablo Zabaleta and, open up chances for the "spoiled brats'". Victory then, would be easily theirs.  On the Super Eagles defense, like the Iranians did, neutralizing the firepower of its forwards---Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and or midfielder Maxi Rodriguez---they will smile all the way to the Knockout Rounds. Again, the firepower of the Argentinian forwards must be neutralized and its defense weakened.

The line for the Nigeria-Argentina match Wednesday, June 25, 2014 at the Estadio Beira-Rio Stadium, Porte Alegre will be in favor of the Super Eagles. With more opening chances, Nigeria by two.
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