By Oyediji Oluwaseun Babatunde
Sports Writer, kick442.com Nigeria
Kick442.com continues its coverage of the best players that have played for Green/Super Eagles since 1945 as compiled by Soccernittygritty.
Into the top five on the countdown, Big Boss, Late Stephen Keshi is in the number five spot.
5. Stephen Keshi (Super Eagles,1981-1995)
Easily Nigeria’s ‘most influential’ player and skipper of all time. Stephen Okechukwu Keshi was an embodiment of talent, charisma, leadership, success and of course, who dares not acknowledge his striking good looks. He remains Nigeria’s best defender of all time, hence, his place in the elite cadre- ‘top 5’ of the Soccernittygritty
Keshi, a product of popular Lagos-based High schools- St. Finbarr’s College and St. Gregory’s college. His unique talent had no hiding place, thus, quickly spotted by the prestigious Lagos club – ACB in 1979. Back in the day, it was more ‘fashionable’ to feature for local clubs at home, European sojourn was alien. The Nigerian economy wasn’t doing badly, Naira rubbed shoulders with the Dollar and Pound Sterling, hence, money wasn’t an incentive, rather, passion for the game held sway, well, not for too long.
By the turn of the 1980s, young Keshi was already a cult hero in the local league in ways that defied his tender age. Clubs fought for his signature after five decent years in the league including four with the New Nigeria Bank. Instead, the 23-year old decided to overstep local boundaries and opted for one of the biggest leagues in Africa at the time- Ivory Coast, honed his skills another one year, then he dared to pioneer the exodus of African players to Europe.
Of course, the move was not only a success but even unknown to him, he was just about to announce Africa to the world.
Keshi arrived at Belgium following his move to Lokeren, he was an instant hit and featured 28 times in the Jupiler League alone in the 1986/87 season, added goals to his game after netting 6 times from centreback.
His success convinced European clubs and opened doors for what became a mass exodus of African players, they found home in Belgium.
It was no surprise the biggest club in the league,Anderlecht, came running for his signature, they snapped him up from Lokeren in what later turned out a most pivotal move for Keshi. He was rubbing shoulders with the big boys week-in week-out in Europe’s elite competition- The European Champions Clubs’ Cup now known as the UEFA Champions League.
Keshi gradually commanded the respect deserving of his talent in Europe. He was sublime in Anderlecht’s famous Quarter-final European Champions Clubs’ Cup 1-0 home victory over Benfica, 16th March 1988. He was also instrumental to the Belgian club’s famous 2-1 victory over Borussia Dortmund, 12th December 1990 in a Round of 16 games of the then UEFA Cup now known as Europa League. Such were the clout and superstardom Keshi had attained back in the day when only privileged households had a TV to watch back in Africa.
Following his breakthrough, ‘The Big Boss’ as he was fondly called showed his amazing off-field personality by extending a hand of fellowship to his African brothers, starting with facilitating European moves for players like Ademola Adesina, Austin Eguavoen, Etim Esin and Ghana legend, Nii Odartey Lamptey. Keshi literally ’smuggled’ the Ghanaian into Europe in 1990 and helped him settle in as professed by Lamptey himself: ‘Then I stayed with him for a minimum of six months and he fed me on a daily basis, encouraged me and all that. He did a lot for me. My first contract I signed in Europe (Belgium), he went with me and signed the contract for me. What he’s done for me I can’t pay him back- I appreciate him a lot”. Keshi was indeed a BIG BOSS.
The late former Super Eagles skipper was the first African to captain an European side in Anderlecht. He captained them to the league title in 1991 following two consecutive Belgium Cup titles in 1988 and 1989. He finally moved on to France with Strasbourg in 1991 after 99 games and 18 goals.
Keshi was the pillar and longest-serving captain of the greatest era in Nigerian football which culminated in a maiden FIFA World Cup appearance and African Cup of Nations (AFCON) title in 1994. His left-footed shot against Senegal in 1992 still resonates. Sadly, he peaked in the mid-1990s when he ought to be reaping the fruits of his labor following the breakthrough of African players in Europe. He featured in 4 AFCON, one World Cup, had 64 International caps and nine goals in a 14-year distinguished career. In the end, he’d done enough to be mentioned amongst the elite in the game- a world-class defender he truly was.
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