Stephen Keshi, a winner of the Africa Cup of Nations as a player and coach with the Super Eagles, has died aged 54.
The football legend passed away early on Wednesday after a suspected heart attack in Benin City, Southern Nigeria, according to his brother and manager Emmanuel Ado.
“Our son, brother, father, father-in-law, brother-in-law, has gone to be with his wife of 35 years Mrs Kate Keshi, who passed on the 9th of December 2015,” said Ado in a statement.
“Since her death, Keshi has been in mourning. He came back to Nigeria to be with her. He had planned to fly back [to the US] today, before he suffered a cardiac arrest. He has found rest. We thank God for his life.”
Keshi played in five different African Cup of Nations tournaments, captaining the Super Eagles team to their second continental success in 1994 in Tunisia.
He was instrumental as Nigeria made their maiden appearance at the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the US where they reached the second round before losing to Italy.
He played professionally in Ivory Coast, Belgium, France, the US and Malaysia. He also managed the national teams of Togo and Mali.
Appointed coach of the Nigerian team in November 2011, Keshi handled the Super Eagles over four spells, leading them to the 2013 African Cup of Nations title in South Africa – becoming only the second man to win it both as a player and a coach – as well as the last 16 at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
There is pride in his achievements, sadness at his death and disappointment at the timing of his exit.
“I’m shocked and saddened by the devastating loss of Big Boss, a father and coach who gave many of us a chance to live our dreams,” Lazio midfielder Ogenyi Onazi, who made his senior debut under Keshi, told Al Jazeera.
Another current Nigeria player, Odion Ighalo, added: “What a tragic day. He was one of Nigeria’s greats without doubt; he was a father, mentor and above all a legend. It’s just a sad day.”
Among those paying tribute to him was the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) vice-president Shehu Dikko, who expressed the shock of “the Nigerian football family” at Keshi’s death.
“His name will for ever shine the brightest in Nigerian football because his tremendous success and achievements transcend his country and continent,” Dikko said.
“Death is never right at any age but Keshi leaving us at this age is sad for Nigerian, African and world football.
Keshi is fondly remembered for helping tiny Togo to qualify for their first – and to date only – appearance at the World Cup finals, but was sacked a few months before Germany 2006.
He remains the only African coach to have helped two nations qualify for the tournament.
Keshi – nicknamed “Big Boss” because of his leadership drive – was known for his wit and command of African football’s politics.
He temporarily quit in the aftermath of their Africa Cup of Nations victory following a highly publicised dispute with the Nigerian football authority over unpaid wages and poor treatment.
He reversed his decision and took the team to the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup but as caretaker coach, Keshi endured a turbulent 2014, in which he was sacked by the NFF and reinstalled only after intervention from then-Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan.
His contract was not renewed after the 2014 World Cup but he later returned on a match-by-match deal, which ended in November the same year after failure to reach the 2015 Nations Cup.
In a shocking twist, Keshi was reluctantly handed a new two-year deal in April 2015 by the NFF but was shown the exit door after less than three months in charge, following revelations that he applied to manage Ivory Coast while under a valid contract with Nigeria.
His death came only days after he was strongly linked with South African giants Orlando Pirates, and his former protégé Joseph Yobo summed things up by saying Africa has lost a legend.
“No one can put all his greatness into words. Here’s a man who paved the way for Nigerian players to move to Europe in the 80s, and won the biggest title in African football as a coach and player. ” said Yobo, the first man to reach 100 caps for Nigeria.
“His success in Africa will be difficult to emulate. We have lost a legend and I have lost a leader and idol.”
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