Nigeria's football history has come a long way, with a lot of footballers, as-well-as sports administrators recording a lot of firsts. As the Super Eagles begin their Brazil 2014 World Cup campaign on Monday (its fifth World Cup appearance), there is no gain saying that no footballer, dead or alife, has recorded more firsts than the current Super Eagles coach, Stephen Keshi. He remains the first and only Nigerian footballer to win the African Nations Cup for Nigeria as a player and as a coach. He is also the first former national team captain to play at the World Cup and also win a World Cup ticket for Nigeria as a coach. Nigeria has never gone beyond the second round of the World Cup. Will Keshi achieve another first in Brazil 2014 by taking the Super Eagles beyond the second round? Kunle Adewale looks at the challenges ahead for the Super Eagles coach as Nigeria takes on Iran on Monday in her first match
The list of Nigerians that have recorded many firsts in the country's football history is numerous. Late commentator, Ishola Folorusho was the first indigenous football commentator in Nigeria; Mudashiru Babatunde Lawal was the first African to appear in five consecutive Africa Cup of Nations, having appeared in the biennial competition in 1976 through 1984. Late Samuel Ojebode, was the first Nigerian to lead a club side to lift a continental trophy. Late Yakubu Mabo was the first player to score a goal at the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos. Rashidi Yekini's 37 goals in 58 appearances for the national team still tops the all time highest goal scorer's list and the third all-time highest goal scorer in the history of African Cup of Nations after Samuel Eto Fils of Cameroun and Laurent Pokou of Ivory Coast. He is the first Nigerian to be voted as African Footballer of the Year.
It not all about the dead when it comes to celebrating Nigerians that have scored first in sports. Christian Chukwu captained Nigeria to its first real success in soccer, when he led the Green Eagles (as the national team was called then) to lift the Africa Cup of Nations on home soil in 1980. Nduka Ugbade remains the first African to lift a World Cup trophy when Nigeria won the maiden edition of the FIFA U-16 tournament in China. Daniel Amokachi is the first player to score in the UEFA Champions League, when he scored for his Belgian club, Club Brugge, to beat Maccabi Tel Aviv 1-0, at the Lillztadion Ramat Gan Stadium in Israel in 1992. Recounting his experience to THISDAY, 'The Bull' as he is fondly called, said that he felt proud to be attributed with such honour, adding that it was his best moment of the competition.
"Scoring a goal in a big match is an aspiration of any footballer and it can come anytime in a match. But when such a feat becomes a reference point, I do not think I can ask for more," Amokachi said. Joseph Yobo's 96 caps for the national team to date is the highest by any player. However, it not only in football that we have athletes that have scored first, the history of Nigeria's participation in the Olympics will not be complete without the mention of Chioma Ajunwa, who won the country's first gold at the '96 edition of the Games in Atlanta, while current Nigerian sensation, Blessing Okagbare, is the only Nigeria athlete to have won two medals-a silver and a bronze in the World Athletics Championship.
There is no doubt that these are great feats by Nigerian sports men and women, but non can equal the many firsts recorded by the 'Big Boss' Stephen Okechukwu Keshi. After narrowly missing out of the 1980 Africa Cup of Nations winning squad, there has been no turning back for the former Anderlecht of Belgium defender. After he and eight of his defunct New Nigerian Bank colleagues were suspended from the national team for refusing to report to the national team camp, Keshi left for Ivory Coast, where he played for Stade d' Abidjan and African Sports. From there, he left for Belgium and starred for Lokeren and later, Anderlecht, where he used his influence to open doors for many Nigerian players and Ghanaians alike, notable among tham was Nil Odatey Lamptey. Keshi captained the golden generation of Nigerian footballers to win the second African Cup of Nations trophy for Nigeria in Tunisia in 1994 and the same year, led Nigeria to it first World Cup in the United States of America and the team not only qualified for the second round, which remains the Super Eagles best performance at the Mundial, but was voted the second best most entertaining team after the eventual winner, Brazil. The Big Boss was denied an opportunity of being the first Nigerian to play and coach at the World Cup, when as Coach Shuaibu Amodu's assistant, qualified the Super Eagles for the Mundial jointly hosted by Japan and South Korea in 2002. Not deterred by the attitude of the Nigeria Football Association, Keshi took his expertise to Togo and qualified the tiny West African country to its first ever appearance to the World Cup but wrangling between him and Togo's most celebrated player -Emmanuel Adebayor and other political issues denied him of another opportunity to sit on the bench and dish out instructions at the highest level of the game.
Undaunted still, Keshi was recalled by the Togolese FA, he later left for Mali, where he qualified the Eagles of Mali to the 2008 Nations Cup in Ghana but failed to take the team beyond the group stage. He had another stint in Togo until his return to Nigeria in 2011. On taking charge of the Eagles, he never hid his willingness to give home-based players a chance in the national team. They hitherto, were never seen as good enough by his predecessors, Samson Siasia, and it paid off. The former national team captain took the Super Eagles to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa, and he conquer to become the first Nigerian and the second African, after Egpyt's Mahmoud El-Gohary to win the Nations Cup as a player and as a coach. Yet, Keshi is not done.
With Nigeria kick starting her first World Cup game against Iran on June 16, the former NNB captain will enjoy the singular honour of being the first Nigerian to play and coach at the World Cup. He also remains as Nigeria's longest serving captain, having led the national team for 12 years. There is no doubt whatsoever that Keshi is just the first among equals. But the big question remains: How far can he take this current team in Brazil? Following Eagles 1-2 loss to USA in the team's last friendly match before hitting Brazil, Keshi charged his players to emulate the spirit of the Nigerian team to the USA 1994 World Cup if they want to go far in the Brazil tournament Keshi told Africanfootball.com: "The 1994 squad was a beautiful squad. It is my dream to have that spirit in this present squad. To have the unity, the oneness, the commitment, the togetherness, that would be great. I do not want to compare my team with the '94 squad because the '94 squad was different. What I would say is that I am working to ensure that the present team has similar character, team spirit like that of the '94 squad," he said. For John Mikel Obi, he believes the team can take Brazil by storm. "Hopefully, we can see an African team getting to the semifinals or the final of this World Cup. It may take time.Yes, Nigeria could just win the World Cup because in football, anything can happen," Mikel told FIFA TV.
"Anyone that knows Keshi knows how much he demands from his players. He always wants you to work 110 per cent everyday in training and in games. He never wants you to stop. So, I think we've responded well to his demands. We've imbibed that and every player is enjoying the challenge. I can only see a bright future for the national team with Stephen Keshi in charge," he said. Super Eagles goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama also said: "It (an African side winning the World Cup) can happen. It can happen. Nigeria has a good team; Ghana has a great team. Cote d'Ivoire has a great; amazing teams. I believe an African team can win the World Cup. It can happen. I don't believe in negativity. I am a very positive person. So, I believe it can happen in Brazil." Nigeria will face Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Argentina in the preliminary round. Meanwhile, President of Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), Alhaji Aminu Maigari who was with the Eagles at their final training camp in the U.S. before flying to Brazil, said in Sao Paulo that he was satisfied with the Eagles' build-up to the tournament and he was confident the African champions will impress at the finals.
"I want to assure Nigerians at home and in the Diaspora that the Eagles will not disappoint in Brazil. For sure, our people would have wanted the team to win the matches against Italy, Mexico, Scotland, Greece and USA. But we drew the first four and lost the last one. I have spoken with the Head Coach and he is optimistic that his boys will be ready for the finals. The earlier draws, and the loss to Team USA have afforded our boys a lot of lessons, which will be useful against Iran in the first match and subsequently. I have confidence in the team. From what I saw at the final training camp in USA, I believe the African champions are set to do Nigeria and Africa proud at the FIFA World Cup," Maigari said.