bout this time in January, white smoke threatened to rise over Rome in quicker succession than Nigeria ever won the African Cup of Nations. Pope Benedict (now Emeritus) announced his resignation in a move few saw coming, especially the fortune tellers. It was safer betting on either the Captain of Ghana or of Cote D'Iviore's golden generation to lift the AFCON 2013 trophy in South Africa. As the story would develop, Joseph Yobo lifted the cup; to the chagrin of the faithful, the NFF almost appealed to the College of Cardinals to check the papal eligibilities of Stephen Chukwuemeka Keshi and Sunday Mba. If we recall, these two gentlemen somehow, miraculously, manufactured a victory for the Eagles of Nigeria. It was a time of firsts. Figure that out.
St Stephen, till date, has largely been successful in providing a reinforcement narrative that emboss individual and team ideals bordering on the progressive. When Pope John Paul II was alive, blazing the trail of popularity, Apostle Westerhof used to introduce new faces - the likes of Elaho, Amunike, Okocha etc as ace-up-the-sleeve for must-win battles. Keshi copied the procedure to effect, with a twist, twenty years later. Mba and Kalu were deployed for the match against Ethiopia. We needed to win to progress. We won. The Ethiopians spent time chasing the Kalu they knew; Mba did the damage. Crucially at this time, Mba did not spit and smile to the cameras like Okocha when couple of his shots went wayward. We wonder till today how Okocho knew camera angles.
To further bore you with details, Keshi's team had a slow start in SA, drew their first two games by playing safe like Coach Onigbinde. It was Onigbinde's stock-in-trade to draw matches, or at best produce wins no greater than a 1-0 margin. The level of criticism flowing in Keshi's direction did not reach vitriolic levels, but they were enough to meet expectations of the ever-skeptical public by almost not qualifying for the quarterfinals. Speculations were rife, he was to be sacked; real rumours abounded that the NFA (no-future-ambition) NFF bought departing tickets in advance of the colossal meeting with the highly fancied Ivorians.
Yet it was the Ivorian captain that was left to rue what might have been. Furthermore in the flight to the finals, the Nigerian Eagles slip stream left Malian Eagles flapping. Conspiracy theorists anecdotally claimed that the heavy defeat suffered by the Malians was partly a result of thinly disguised threat of withdrawal of Nigerian troops from the beleaguered Sahara nation. Therefore in the search for Nigeria's commitment, Mali eased pedal, their French coach used a very bad goalkeeper. Shame on critics, their French coach (who's country also contributed troops to safeguard the Sahelian nation) was a bit inept by consigning their safer keeper to the bench. Their team had no answer to Nigerian concorde; the Malians were out-flown.
In other climes, seven thousand nautical miles, some Ghanaians in Den Haag chose to believe (till tomorrow) that Nigeria was behind Black Stars loss to the Burkinabes. Evidence: to avoid playing Ghana in the finals, Nigerians, in their usual manner, used juju to cause rain to fall, water-logged the pitch, a glorified sand pit in Nelspruit, which stirred flying insects that bit Ghanaian players in their match against Burkina Faso. All these natural phenomena were true except the biting part; why they did not affect the Burkinabe players on the same pitch remains a mystery. The road to Ghana's loss was paved with gold, and it seemed right to man that the less-fancied team from Sankara's country would bite the dust. Ghanaians forgot that the road to AFCON type of heaven needed special navigation. Their team psychologist should have philosophized with an excerpt from Ogundipe & Tregido's English textbook - "May your road be rough". Keshi had it rough.
Every four days during the tournament, the eyes of Nigerians were reluctantly glued to tv sets to watch Eagles perform, in increasingly addictive manner. Similarly, the eyes of the world watched, and waited with baited breath in the last few days, not sure who would emerge Pope, when black smoke gives way to white above the Vatican chimney. Cardinal Ratzinger a.k.a Pope Emeritus Benedict had reigned over the church with awkward certainty; he maintained a twitter account to attract younger faithfuls at a time of immense worldwide technological change; he led over 1 billion people in an age of instant news and analysis; he pushed a global perspective into the heart and soul of followers around the world. And he resigned.
Keshi almost resigned too. The road was rough but he showed strong leadership in Jo'burg '13, and returned the Eagles to the basics we had a foretaste in Lagos '80, Damman '89, Tunis '94 and Atlanta '96 under different tutelage. Despite his success, he wanted to leave his position with respect, an aspect that was clearly lacking from Nigeria's soccer administrators. Now the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), a band of NFA as Great Ife students would rather call them, back-tracked and shouted themselves hoarse to those who cared: hail Keshi, habemus papam, the one with vision for the long haul, a solid care-taker as well as a defining leader of the Nigerian footballing faith.
Still, story also had it that while on their way to cover the departure of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations champions the Super Eagles, at the OR Tambo Airport, South African Police character was questioned when they brutalized two Nigerian journalists. Debo Oshundun (South Africa correspondent of the News Agency of Nigeria -NAN), and John Joshua-Akanji (Deputy Editor of the Sun Newspapers) were cornered because the taxi they were in had a plate number with two different characters (pun un-intended). The police claimed that the taxi had 'suspicious number plates'. The driver of the taxi, that time, a South African, was not touched. Lieutenant Colonel MF Tshabalala, station commander at the Sandringham Command South Africa Police service (SAPS), later apologised for the treatment meted to the journalists of Nigerian origin. In an unrelated development, a certain taxi driver from Mozambique did not escape SA police brutality that eventually led to his exit from planet earth.
'Life's not worth living if I can't have butter on my sweet potatoes.' Harry Weathersby Stamp (formerly of Mississippi) once declared. For this reason, the cup was taken to Aso Rock where President Jonathan ensured a dignified existence for Keshi and his wards, in words and in deed. In appreciation of yeo-man's job, Keshi was conferred with Commander of the Order of Niger (CON) while assistant coaches and Captain of the team, Yobo, got Officer of the Order of Niger (OON), and the rest of the team deservedly became Member of the Order of Niger (MON).
Keshi has since reconsidered his position and he is continuing with his job. Last year, at pains, he reminded us that the current crops of players are work-in-progress. In loose terms, players like Oshaniwa still need a lot to learn (contender for the fastest yellow card in the tournament); that irrespective of form, playing time is not 100% guaranteed (Kalu); and sometimes that aging is equivalent to wisdom for holding the backline-four with mere presence, few minutes to the end of a match (Yobo). Next stop is Kenya. Mba's participation is in doubt due to on-going club ownership wrangling. And Emenike wont make the trip due to injury sustained on duty in SA, thereby robbing Eagles of players that breathe life into the team.
But the remaining band of Keshi boys can still borrow a leaf from the new Pope Francis who has been surviving, nay, thriving on one lung since his teenage years (having lost the other to an infection of sorts). When we confront Kenya in the rarified heights of Kilimanjaro in the next few days, it will be in the backdrop of precedence set by Keshi for genuine progression of the Eagles, and at some social point, the country called Nigeria. However, that last, last, part of this write-up was conceived before the recent pardon granted some people by the Nigerian State (that acted within rights and prerogatives of mercy). As one author wrote, there was once a country, and another retorted, we remember differently.