Stephen Keshi led Nigeria to their first Cup of Nations triumph for nearly 20 years in 2013. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
The decision to replace the man who won the 2013 Cup of Nations concludes a fractious few months since the Super Eagles reached the last 16 of the World Cup in Brazil
Stephen Keshi was sacked as coach of Nigeria late on Wednesday night, bringing to an end a protracted and tawdry departure that has dragged on since the end of the World Cup.
It’s a saga that reflects well on nobody and has left the African champions struggling even to qualify for next January’s Cup of Nations and it’s telling of how little football has had to do with the decision that it should have been taken a few hours after an impressive 3-1 win over Sudan that restored hope.
Keshi will be replaced for the two qualifying games that remain by Shaibu Amodu, with the expectation that a foreign coach will be appointed for the finals themselves. For Amodu, having led Nigeria through World Cup qualifying in 2002 and 2010 only to be replaced before the tournament itself, this is something of a specialism – although at least he knows this time when he will be ousted. It says much for the chaos at the top of Nigerian football that one caretaker is effectively succeeding another.
It may only be semantics but there is some doubt as to whether it was actually possible to sack Keshi, given he had ben working without a contract since his deal expired in June. While it’s hard to take seriously the notion of Keshi as an altruist – and he certainly hasn’t been working for free, as some have suggested – it’s even more ludicrous to pretend that he is solely, or even largely, responsible for Nigeria’s struggles. He cannot and should not avoid criticism for the pitiful nature of the qualifying campaign but there are far bigger issues at play. In retrospect, it probably would have been better for everybody if Keshi had accepted the inevitable in the summer and walked away.
Nigeria hadn’t won the tournament for 19 years before Keshi led them to the 2013 Cup of Nations, with what is, it’s widely agreed, a weaker squad than many that had tried and failed in the previous two decades. After the final, though, there was little celebration. The mood rather was tense and Keshi offered his resignation amid reports that the NFF had approached Hervé Renard, who had just left his job as Zambia manager, to replace him.
Keshi was persuaded to stay on but he hasn’t exactly been feted. He went seven months without pay last year as the NFF pleaded poverty – while at the same time looking for “a foreign advisor” to work alongside him. In June last year, after Nigeria had gone out of the Confederations Cup in the group stage (having hammered Tahiti and played relatively well but lost against Spain and Uruguay), the then-NFF president, Aminu Maigari, announced Keshi would no longer have sole responsibility for selecting the squad.
In March, the NFF sent Keshi a letter – one that was widely leaked to the press – upbraiding him for attending a media roundtable and lunch with TomTom, which sponsors the national team, rather than going to a technical meeting in Abuja. Another letter added the further complaint: “You travelled out of Nigeria before 13 February 2014, the day President Jonathan received the Africa Nations Championship [Chan – the international tournament for players based in Africa] team, causing us huge embarrassment.”
But with characteristic cussedness, Keshi stayed on and, in Brazil, he became the first African coach ever to take a team into the knockout rounds of the World Cup. Had the referee Mark Geiger sent off Blaise Matuidi for a foul on Ogenyi Onazi – as he surely should have – Nigeria might even have beaten France to reach the quarter-finals. Keshi’s contract ran out after the tournament but, with no clear decision on whether he should be offered a new one, he stayed on.
Somebody, after all, had to take Nigeria through the qualifiers for next January’s Cup of Nations and the power vacuum at the NFF meant that finding anybody else was all but impossible. Maigiri had been forced out of his position as president by a court ruling in July, which led to Nigeria being banned by Fifa, which considered the move to be government interference. Maigiri was reinstated but then ousted in an election won by Chris Giwa.
Fifa, though, refused to recognise the result and so Maigiri was again reinstated pending further elections. Only the most cynical could see anything suspicious in the fact that, at the end of August, a huge fire swept through the NFF’s headquarters in Abuja. “The fire started from the chief accountant’s office,” said the NFF general secretary, Musa Amadu. Finally, at the end of September, Amaju Pinnick was elected as the new president.
As the political battle played out, Nigeria’s form collapsed. A 3-2 home defeat to Congo meant there was pressure and, while there was no shame in a goalless draw away to South Africa, a 1-0 defeat on a mudbath in Khartoum left Nigeria in serious trouble.
Much of the criticism has been little more than post hoc kneejerkery. To criticise Keshi for taking an inexperienced side to Sudan, for instance, is easy after the fact but the squad with which he won the Cup of Nations included 17 players who had never featured in the tournament before. More serious are the concerns about why Keshi falls out so regularly with his players. Sunday Mba and Brown Ideye seem to have been frozen out, while last week brought a baffling to-and-fro between Keshi and Ikechukwu Uche, with the manager insisting that the Villarreal player had rejected a call-up and Uche saying he knew nothing of his supposed selection.
That meant Nigeria had to beat Sudan in Abuja on Wednesday and, with a much-improved performance, they did, Ahmed Musa scoring twice in a 3-1 win. They lie three points behind Congo and four behind South Africa, but at least know that wins in the final two group games will see them through to Morocco. A win and a draw may be enough to get them through as the best third-placed team.
Fans invaded the pitch in relief at the final whistle but Keshi’s refusal to attend a post-match press-conference suggested all was not well. A few hours later came the confirmation of his exit.
• There remains significant doubt as to where and when the 2015 Cup of Nations will take place, if it happens at all. The Moroccan government asked the Confederation of African Football last week to postpone the tournament, which is scheduled to begin in Casablanca on 17 January, by a month. Without giving a definitive answer, Caf made clear it was reluctant to do so, leading to reports today that the Moroccan government may refuse to host the Cup of Nations at all. There has been no comment from Caf, but it’s understood that the organisation’s president, Issa Hayatou, has sounded out South Africa and Egypt as possible alternatives. Last month, Libya withdrew from hosting the 2017 tournament. A decision on where it will be held is expected next month, with seven countries – Algeria, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Sudan and Zimbabwe – having submitted bids.
Source: The Guardian, UK