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“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A tale of two coaches

Intriguing sub-plots always add spice to major sporting occasions and Sunday’s Africa Cup of Nations final will be no different.

While the match itself will be decided by a moment of brilliance, a mistake or even a refereeing error, Nigeria versus Burkina Faso is also in part about the two coaches; two men with contrasting vastly backgrounds but who’ve both overcome great adversity to reach the biggest stage in African football.

Frankly speaking, Stephen Keshi and Paul Put are chalk and cheese.

One is outspoken, the other more guarded. One is African, the other European.

However, in master-minding the success of two unheralded teams, they now share a commonality and both stand on the brink of immortality.
Stephen Keshi (centre) celebrates Nigeria's quarterfinal victory over Ivory Coast
Stephen Keshi is football royalty in Nigeria.

One of Nigeria’s pioneering football exports when he joined Belgium’s Lokeren in 1986, Keshi went on to captain the Super Eagles’ last Nations Cup triumph, in 1994. Keshi gradually earned the moniker of “Big Boss” as much for his imposing play as for his aura off the field – fellow African players speak of his helping hand at a time when the continent’s exports to Europe were few and far between.

Fluent in English and French, it’s this stately quality that now serves Keshi well as a coach.

His journey to coaching’s pinnacle hasn’t been simple, though. Far from it.

It’s easy to forget that after obtaining his coaching badges in the late nineties there were few takers for a young Keshi on a continent that has not always respected its own upcoming African coaches.

His early prospects were not helped by the perceived catastrophe in his first job, as coach of Nigeria’s Under-20 team, of failing to qualify for the 2001 Fifa Youth World Cup. Practically rejected at home, it wasn’t until April 2004 that Keshi got his first job of note, as coach of Togo.

It wasn’t the most glamorous port. Togo were virtually unknown, ranked 154th in the world and had never progressed past the first round in the handful of Nations Cup they’d appeared in.

However, during a triumphant and emotive time, Keshi worked a minor miracle, leading Togo to the 2006 Nations Cup and 2006 World Cup, beating off Senegal, Mali and Zambia. But just as excitement was growing over Africa’s new coaching gem, a row with Togo’s star Emmanuel Adebayor and a first-round exit at the 2006 Nations Cup saw Keshi given the boot.  

His next job, as Mali coach, was ultimately similarly underwhelming. After being appointed in April 2008 on a two-year deal, Keshi was sacked in January 2010 after Mali’s early exit at the Nations Cup. Keshi’s Nations Cup record read: six games, one win, one draw and four losses.

The marriage with Super Eagles, therefore, came at a time when coach and team were probably at an all-time low. In November 2011 when Keshi took over Nigeria had just failed to qualify for the Nation Cup on the back of a disappointing 2010 World Cup campaign. The Super Eagles simply weren’t flying and, at home, were ridiculed as the ‘Super Chickens’.

14 months down the line Keshi is winning the struggle to revive the team despite lacking the full confidence of the Nigeria public and the usual ‘Nollywood’ drama that surrounds the national team.

After the tournament’s opening game Keshi was called by the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) to explain why his team gave away a lead against Burkina Faso. After Nigeria again lost a lead against Zambia, and with their hopes hanging by a thread, Keshi reportedly threatened to leave his job following a heated argument with NFF executive board members.
The Super Eagles have rallied behind their coach
His team has rallied though, beating Ethiopia, Ivory Coast and Mali in successive games.

Now history beckons, if Keshi succeeds in lifting the Nations Cup title on Sunday he will become only the second man after Egypt’s Mahmoud Al Gohari to win the tournament as a player and coach.

Unlike Keshi, Paul Put didn’t have a distinguished playing career, but like Keshi the Belgian has endured crushing lows. In his homeland Put remains unwelcome.

In 2008, Put was found guilty of involvement in the Ye Zheyun scandal by the Belgian Football Association and banned for three years. The charges stemmed from Put’s time as Lierse coach. Twice in 2005 he fielded under-strength teams, seemingly as part of a match-fixing cartel allegedly organised by Chinese businessman Ye Zheyun.

Zheyun fled to China and claimed innocence. Put didn’t have such luck. He was the only person charged in the affair and was vilified in his homeland as a corrupt crook.

Outcast at home Put left for Africa and became the coach of Gambia in 2007. There he had noteworthy success with the tiny West African nation, lifting them from a ranking of 135th to as high as 65th. This success saw him head-hunted last March by a Burkina Faso side that, apart from the tournament they hosted in 1998, had never progressed beyond the group stage of the Africa Cup of Nations.

Put’s feats have been unprecedented. The Stallions won their first Nations Cup game in 15 years against Ethiopia, topped a group featuring two of the tournament’s traditional giants and now find themselves in the final against all odds.

This success, Put hopes, will grant him some sort of redemption and a chance to return home one day.
The Miracle Worker...
Paul Put at work
“It was a very hard time for me and my family and my friends. If they point at you and you are the only one, it is hard,” Put says. “I’ve been fighting, fighting, working, working, day and night, and at least I now I have satisfaction. I know it looks difficult but I want a new chance in my own country.”

Success with Burkina Faso on Sunday will help further. One last challenge waits though, outsmarting Keshi.

In the history of the Nations Cup 14 titles have been won by a local coach and 14 by foreign trainers. In the never-ending argument over local or foreign, this becomes another sub-plot in Sunday’s battle. “I am not against white coaches in Africa,” Keshi said recently. “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,”

A lot, it seems, rides on Sunday’s game then. Tomorrow two proud West African nations will be pinning their hopes on two men who have taken the road less travelled to the top.

9 February 2013


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