The Super Eagles coach is proving to be as competitive as he was as Nigeria player and captain, writes Ian Hawkey.
African Cup of Nations: Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi continues to fly high
Stephen Keshi, the Nigeria coach, arrived at Durban's Moses Mabhida Stadium in a playful mood.
Nigeria is the continent's most populous nation, but Keshi's young squad would be the first Super Eagles side in 13 years to reach an African Cup of Nations final, and just before he put them through final practice drills, he indulged journalists a little speculation on his future.
Keshi was asked if he would still be in charge of Nigeria if the team failed to win tomorrow or in the final on Sunday in Soweto. "I could stay," he said, "or I could leave. We'll see. Nigeria is where my heart is, but if there's anyone out there, they should know this coach is ready."
Just to make sure everybody understood the hint that Keshi will listen to alternative job offers, he repeated his last comment in French, in which he is fluent.
Keshi knows his stock has risen as a strategist, man manager and tactician in the course of this African Cup. He also knows the tenure of coaches in Africa tends to be short.
Those who touch success do, however, tend to be employed again somewhere else in Africa. Keshi, who has coached Togo and Mali at African Cups in the past, knows that from personal experience.
What he also knows is that on the managerial circuit of Africa specialists, he is rare for being an African coach who is regularly headhunted.
Keshi has firm views on the tendency among African federations and clubs to prefer foreign managers, mostly from Europe. If he and Ghana's Kwesi Appiah win through to the final, it would be the first time in 15 years that two African managers would be on the touchline for an African Cup championship match.
When asked if such a development would show a growing respect for native expertise, he gave a blunt response.
"I am not against white coaches in Africa," he said. "What I am against is African teams employing mediocre coaches from Europe, 'carpenter' coaches, while we have quality African former players, who can do the same thing, but they don't give them the opportunity because they're just black dudes."
It does not take much to prise out the uncompromising Keshi. As a player he was a muscular, intelligent central defender.
As a captain of the Super Eagles - he wore the armband when they last won an African Cup, in 1994 - he was renowned as tough, and a resourceful negotiator off the field. He knew how to intimidate, too.
One former South Africa player tells a story about the preambles to a World Cup qualifying match in Nigeria, when Keshi encountered one of the South Africans, a diminutive striker named Bennett Masinga, in the lift of a Lagos hotel. "Hey," growled Keshi, with a studied put-down. "Are you one of the ballboys?" Later, Nigeria walloped their opponents 4-0.
Even then, Keshi was nicknamed "Big Boss". As a manager, he would soon show a combative streak.
When in charge of Togo, he had a very public, physical fight with the star player Emmanuel Adebayor after dropping Adebayor at the 2006 African Cup, where Togo eliminated at the group phase.
He left the Togo post soon afterwards, having surprisingly guided them to a place at a World Cup, a brief adventure they fulfilled without him at the helm. His stint with Mali lasted two years, and he is keen to remind his former charges that his familiarity with their football may be helpful.
"I know 85 per cent of their team very well," Keshi said, "and, after the game, I will be asking them how they and their families are.
"But until then, much as I love Mali the country - and it is a great football country - I will be a professional." A professional who with Mali achieved only a group-phase finish at the 2010 African Cup. The country have made it to two semi-finals since.
But Keshi now has broken his own glass ceiling as an African Cup manager. Beating Ivory Coast, as Nigeria did in the quarter-finals, is a feather in his cap, a vindication of some scrutinised decisions he made last month in selecting his personnel.
He opted for youth at the expense of experience in many cases. So far, it has paid off and he is happily playing the ambassador for all the "dudes" who want to show Africans can make good coaches as well as fine players.
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