During the press conference after Nigeria had beaten Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations quarter-final in February, Mark Gleeson—the doyen of South African football journalism—raised his hand to ask a question.
Stephen Keshi, Nigeria’s coach, saw him and recognised a figure who has dominated reporting on the African game for a couple of decades. "Big man," he beamed (Gleeson is 6’9”). “I haven’t seen you in ages. Where have you been?”
"I’ve been covering the big boys," Gleeson replied, at which Keshi, as he is prone to do, tossed back his head and laughed. He knew, as did the rest of the room, that there was a truth in the joke. Nigeria had not even qualified for the Cup of Nations in 2012 and, although they have been regular semi-finalists over the past decade, they hadn’t really looked like potential winners since 2004.
By beating the favourites, though, and beating them convincingly, Nigeria had rejoined the elite. They went on to crush Mali in the semi-final before beating Burkina Faso to win their first Cup of Nations since 1994. There was no doubt that the key figure had been Keshi.
Keshi’s greatest strength is probably his thick skin, his ability to keep crashing on despite all the ludicrous politicking that surrounds the job. He went seven months this year without being paid and, despite repeated promises, he has still not been fully paid what he was owed.
Immediately after the final, he threatened to resign—as per Sports Illustrated—because of plotting against him within the Nigerian Football Federation. Being Nigeria manager is an impossible job. Yet with the media, he has remained tough and good-natured, ready to fight but ready to laugh. It’s little wonder that his players seemingly find him such a source of strength.
Keshi’s charisma and clear force of personality, though, can obscure the fact that he is also a very fine tactician. Many previous Nigeria coaches have had far better squads to work with, but it is Keshi who has achieved the multiplicative effect that Arrigo Sacchi identified as key to the great tacticians: His team’s whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
To an extent that is a result of Keshi’s single-mindedness. The Nigerian press is a vociferous beast, its various factions constantly pressing the case of their own darlings. Keshi, though, has ignored them all. He wants players who are loyal and who do what he tells them, even if that meant doing what would have been unthinkable to many of his predecessors and calling up players from the Nigerian league. He is also quite prepared to kill games, even if Nigerian fans demand entertainment: He knows victory will validate any approach.
That quarter-final victory over Ivory Coast was a case in point. Ivory Coast have, over the years, gotten used to opponents sitting deep against them, trying to absorb pressure and strike on the counter-attack. Nigeria did the exact opposite. The two full-backs, Efe Ambrose and Elderson Echiejile, pushed high up the pitch, forcing Gervinho and Salomon Kalou to defend, something at which neither excels.
Ambrose, in particular, got forward to overlap, allowing Emmanuel Emenike to cut infield, a centre-forward operating from the right and making the most of the space created by the runs of the notional centre-forward Brown Ideye. In the centre, meanwhile, Mikel John Obi played as the more attacking of the two holders, repeatedly surging forwards and so forcing Yaya Toure to defend.
Keshi’s gamble was to make all three of Ivory Coast’s most creative players drop deep, and the result was that Didier Drogba was left isolated, dealing with a miserable diet of hopeful long punts.
Goals from Emenike and the central creator Sunday Mba gave Nigeria a thoroughly deserved 2-1 win, one that had its roots in Keshi’s tactical approach. He has made the impossible seem at least plausible.
The quotes in this piece were gathered in person by Jonathan Wilson at the African Cup of Nations.