Posted by Nelson Dafe | 12 July 2013 | 5,192 times
Super Eagles coach Stephen Keshi’s body language resembles that of Manchester United’s retired manager Sir Alex Ferguson in some ways, you might have noticed. Like the great Scott, Keshi chews bubble gum in a sort of cocky way during matches. Like Ferguson, Keshi has a robust, bulky body from whose sides arms are raised bouncily in celebration of a goal, or pontificating fingers are pointed to pass instructions to his field gladiators.
Perhaps more perceptively, we can trace a similarity between the two that goes beyond the mere physical. Both, like other great football managers past and present, possess a certain authoritarian quality. For players in the teams they manage, recognising their primacy is the only way to get along with them; that, or a parting of ways (sometimes violently.)
When the iconic David Beckham, then playing for Manchester United, showed dissent towards Sir Alex during a crucial game at half time some years ago, he not only was at the receiving end of a thrown boot from the angry manager, but was eventually shown the door from the Red Devils. Some other top players who were also at the height of their career were equally sent packing from United when they questioned Fergie’s decisions in manners that threatened his authority. At Man United it was basically Ferguson’s way or the highway. There was no negotiating this fact with the players. The very many number of trophies he won at the club seem to justify his sometimes iron fist rule over players. Ferguson understood all too well that football teams are bastions of instability, and that for a team to make progress the manager or coach has to be seen as a firm leader who was in charge.
For Nigeria’s coach Stephen Keshi, toeing this same authoritarian path has not been a strange approach. In the lead up to the AFCON which took place earlier this year in South Africa, he had a very public spat with one of the key players of the Super Eagles, Osazee Odemwingie. While many people sought to mediate a truce, Keshi stuck to his guns and left the light-skinned attacker out of the party that eventually conquered Africa. The rise of Keshi’s image immediately after the Nations Cup was meteoric. The very demanding football community in Nigeria doffed their hats for the first local coach to win the AFCON trophy for the country. His team selection was praised to the high heavens.
Today, months after that triumph, and after wobbly performances in the World Cup qualifiers against Malawi, Kenya, and Namibia (teams many would regard as minnows), and following the failure to make it beyond the first round of the just-ended Confederations Cup in Brazil, Keshi’s team selection sense has come under some considerable criticism. Many are clearly not comfortable now especially with his shut-out of Osazee Odemwingie from the Eagles. When Keshi came back from Brazil, he would have been expecting questions raised about his not wanting a player who had openly questioned his coaching abilities, but one who many Nigerians feel still has some relevance in the national team.
In responding to claims that Odemwingie would have made a positive difference for the team in its recent outings, Keshi could have fired back by pointing to the Super Eagles failure to qualify for the 2011 AFCON despite having Odemwingie in the team. He could even have gone further by alluding to the fact that it was the distractions caused by Osaze’s quarrels with the coach at the time, Samson Siasia, that caused the team qualification. Keshi would have said, and rightly too, that in the world of football, there are no copper-bottomed guarantees that a single player would turn things around positively.
That Keshi didn’t say any of these offers a glimpse to an interesting fact; that among other inexpediences, saying the above would have meant the end of the possibility of Osaze Odemwingie making a comeback to the team. Keshi, instead, suggested that the door is still open for the lad to play for Nigeria again.
Keshi’s latest stand on the controversial Odemwingie could be seen as a dash of cunning, that is sometimes shown by even the toughest of managers like Ferguson. When Wayne Rooney felt tired with life at United and tendered a transfer request some years ago, it was a slap on Fergie’s face; an act of open rebellion. However Ferguson kept his chin up and negotiated a deal with Rooney to stay, knowing that a replacement of his caliber would be hard to get at that time. But when he later had Van Persie from Arsenal some years later, Rooney became dispensable, as shown in his being dropped from some big games.
Keshi’s recent position on Odemwingie could be a subtle admission that he hasn’t been satisfied with the quality of his attackers recently.
Herein lies the trait of great managers; the ability and willingness to grant a leeway to stubborn players at times, while carrying on an iron fist rule over the rest of the team. To do this and maintain the respect of the whole team, while winning is the greatest achievement. Keshi has his work cut out.
•Dafe is a Benin City-based journalist. Photo, courtesy Osun Defender, shows Keshi and the Super Eagles minus Osaze Odemwingie.
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