The first time I met Stephen Keshi was in 2002. He was lying on a sun-lounger by a pool in a hotel in Bamako and I was one of about a dozen journalists crouched at his feet, eager for the views of the great centre-back turned assistant coach. The next time I saw him, four years later, he was fighting Emmanuel Adebayor on a bus in Cairo.
The last time I spoke to him was from a car park outside a warehouse in Johannesburg that, it turned out, stocked poles for erotic dancing as I interrupted my journey to the airport to find out whether he had actually resigned or was engaged in an act of remarkable brinkmanship.
Keshi, who died on Tuesday evening aged just 54, was a brilliant coach. He was a talker, a brawler and a politician. He had the thickest hide and deepest laugh of anybody at any Cup of Nations over the past two decades. His critics, of whom there were many, would point out that he liked money, and that he used football to acquire it, which is true, although he’s hardly unique in that. But he’s also the most successful black African coach of all time, one of two people to win the Cup of Nations as a player and manager, and the only black African to coach in the knockout phase of a World Cup.
Even from that first chat in Mali, it was obvious then that he had a bright future in management. He was intelligent and ebullient, forthright in his answers and, vitally for anybody working in Nigerian football, he visibly enjoyed the process of being questioned and of explaining himself.
Keshi had been a very fine central defender, winning titles in Nigeria and Ivory Coast before moving to Belgium with Anderlecht where he won two cups and a league title. In 1994, he was, in partnership with Augustine Eguavoen, the bedrock of the superb Nigeria side that won the Cup of Nations in Tunisia. He was 32 then and moved to the US, winding down his playing days while studying to be a coach. He maintained a house in California for the rest of his life.
His first steps in coaching came with Togo. In 2004 he took over a side that had only previously reached five Cups of Nations, never getting beyond the group stage, and led them to an improbable qualification for the 2006 World Cup. It was a miraculous achievement but, the following January, Adebayor was left out of the starting line up for Togo’s opening game at the Cup of Nations, a 2-0 defeat to DR Congo. There was unconvincing talk of an injury but as journalists waited in the car park for players after the game, we became aware of a ruckus on the Togo team bus. Looking up, we saw Keshi being restrained by Togo players, fist raised, trying to get to Adebayor.
Keshi, it subsequently emerged, felt he was owed some sort of bonus for the centre-forward’s move from Monaco to Arsenal.
Keshi involved himself in transfers, something that was true even in his playing days. When Nii Lamptey, after impressing at the Under-20 World Cup in 1989, fled the Ghanaian football federation to make for Europe he went via Keshi’s agent in Lagos.
He eventually left Nigeria for Belgium on a forged passport that claimed he was Keshi’s son.
Without Adebayor, Togo lost all three games at that Cup of Nations.
Inevitably, Keshi was sacked, replaced by the septuagenarian German Otto Pfister. Togo lost every game at the World Cup as well. But Keshi would have his World Cup. He had an unexceptional stint in charge of Mali, sandwiched between two other spells with Togo before getting the job for which he had always seemed destined.
Nigeria are the great underachievers of African football. Despite being the most populous nation on the continent and caring deeply for the sport, they had won only two Cups of Nations. They didn’t even qualify for the 2012 tournament. Keshi perhaps, had learned from the experience of his former defensive partner Eguavoen, a decent man overwhelmed by the job, battered by what is perhaps the world’s most demanding football media.
Keshi, right from the off, fought back. Nigeria press conferences usually involve a pack of journalists berating the poor man at the front in the tracksuit; the browbeating carried on, but under Keshi the roles were reversed. This was the Big Boss in action, smarter, tougher, funnier than anybody else in the room. But he was not without humour and his barbs never felt like bullying. He appreciated a joke.
For a couple of years the Second Captains podcast has used a hilarious sample of a charged exchange between Keshi and the BBC journalist Oluwashina Okeleji as one of its stings.
At the press conference in Rustenburg after Nigeria had beaten Ivory Coast in the quarter-finals of the 2013 Cup of Nations, the microphone was handed to the legendary South African journalist Mark Gleeson.
“Where have you been, big man?” Keshi asked (Gleeson is 6ft 10in). “I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“I’ve been covering the big boys,” came Gleeson’s reply.
For a fraction of a second, Keshi tried to look annoyed, but then his head rocked back in a familiar rumble of laughter.
Keshi had shown himself to be admirably independent. He’d infuriated many by calling up four players from the domestic league, and he had shown before the tournament that he was prepared to drop anybody he considered insufficiently committed. The old days of stars pulling out of friendlies and qualifiers at the last minute were ended. Nigeria went on to win the tournament, their first since 1994, and it was discernibly Keshi’s triumph.
Yet even in the hours after the final, the impossibility of the job was revealed as Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) officials approached the Zambia coach Herve Renard with a view to installing him in Keshi’s place. Keshi resigned, prompting my panicked call on the way to the airport, and the NFF was forced to back down. He led Nigeria to qualify for Brazil 2014, and there took them to the last 16 where they were a little unfortunate to lose to France.
His wrangles with the NFF went on and he finally left the job last year, having resigned on at least half a dozen occasions. His wife of 33 years, Kate, died last December and he has understandably had a lower public profile of late but there was still a sense that he had a lot more to give.
He could be awkward and obstreperous, and some of his involvement in transfer dealings was murky, but Keshi was, at international level, the finest African coach of his generation and he was fun to be around. Without his booming laugh, Cups of Nations won’t be the same.
This article was written by Jonathan Wilson, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 8th June 2016 12.19 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010