Nigeria’s Coach Makes History

Stephen Keshi is the first African to lead an African team to the second round

Progress in African soccer should not be measured only by how the continent’s teams progress through the World Cup brackets. You can also judge the pace of evolution by looking at who’s standing in the technical area.

On Monday in Brasilia, Stephen Keshi will be inside the dotted white lines as his Nigeria side face France for a place in the quarterfinals. Even this early in the tournament, Keshi is a pioneer: the first African head coach to lead a team into the round of 16. It’s taken a while. Egypt was the first African team at a World Cup, back in 1934. Morocco were the next, as late as 1970, and became the first to reach the second round in Mexico in 1986. In the four decades between 1970 and 2010, 33 African nations qualified but only seven made it past the group stage, all under foreign direction. Of the five African teams in Brazil, only Nigeria and Ghana, already eliminated, are managed by Africans.

African federations habitually bring in veteran, often European, tacticians on the eve of a World Cup, even though the results rarely seem to merit the upheaval. Keshi himself led little Togo to its maiden World Cup qualification in 2006 but was fired shortly before the tournament after a bad Africa Cup of Nations and replaced with Otto Pfister, a German. Amid a pay dispute, Togo lost all three of its group games. In 2011, the West Africans appointed Didier Six, a Frenchman whose only previous management role was with Strasbourg in the mid-1980s.

“The white guys are coming to Africa just for the money,” Keshi told reporters last year. “They are not doing anything that we cannot do. I am not racist but that’s just the way it is.”

The year of 2010 was supposed to be Africa’s moment, but South Africa were the first hosts not to advance beyond the group phase, and of the six sides from the continent, only Ghana made it to the knockout stages. They surely would have beaten Uruguay in the quarterfinals—the farthest an African team has gone, along with Cameroon in 1990—to become the first Africans in the semis if not for an NBA-style block on the goalline by striker/supervillain Luis Suarez.

At the 2010 tournament, Rabah Saâdane of Algeria was the only African coach in charge of an African team. Cameroon? A Frenchman. Ivory Coast? A Swede. Ghana? A Serb. Nigeria? Another Swede. South Africa? A Brazilian. The Ivorians axed the Bosnia-born Vahid Halihodzic three-and-a-half months before the tournament after a quarterfinal exit in the Africa Cup of Nations and replaced him with Sven-Goran Eriksson only 79 days before their first World Cup game. (Halihodzic has just taken Algeria to the second round in Brazil.)

“Whoever the coach is cannot just come in at the last minute, especially if it’s a European coach,” the former Cameroon striker and corner-flag seducer Roger Milla told reporters in 2010.

Combined with the climate of short-termism and the skepticism surrounding African coaches at World Cups, it is refreshing that Keshi—a 52-year-old who played for the talented Super Eagles team that took Italy to extratime in the second round at USA ’94—is prospering and has been in since November 2011. His job security was greatly enhanced last year when Nigeria claimed the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time since 1994.

After a dull goalless draw with Iran in Curitiba, Nigeria edged Bosnia and Herzegovina 1–0, and created some buzz with an exciting 3–2 loss to Argentina that featured a pair of goals from the 21-year-old CSKA Moscow forward Ahmed Musa.

Despite the relative stability under Keshi, Nigeria’s summer has had some turbulence in Brazil—there was a money dispute last week—and the violent tragedies back home have challenged, though not defeated, soccer’s ability to deliver an escape from quotidian reality.

France is expected to prevail on Monday; though who can be sure of anything in this World Cup? One prediction does seem a very safe bet: That Nigeria has performed well enough to evade a repeat of the grisly fall-out from its 2010 exit. Then, the country’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, attempted to suspend the team from international competition for two years, drawing FIFA intervention to address the controversy. A win in Brasilia and Keshi’s men would surely deserve a warm reception whenever they get home.