Keshi imbues Super Eagles with tremendous self-belief

The ‘can do’ spirit in the Super Eagles’ camp is infectious as the African champions prepared to take on Scotland’s Tartan Army in London on Wednesday night.

In-between having lunch, briefly attending the relaunch of the Nigeria Football Supporters Club (UK chapter), meeting with a group of young Nigerian footballers based in United Kingdom (British Nigeria Eaglets) and granting a series of interviews, Coach Stephen Keshi looked amazingly relaxed and focused on what he wants to achieve with the team at the highest stage.

At the lobby of Hilton Cobham Hotel, the crowd of UK-based Nigerian enthusiasts, journalists and foreign media milled around. Everyone wanted to talk to ‘Stephen’. It is his time, and no one can begrudge him.

Through hard work, passion and dedication, Keshi has evolved from being the most successful captain of the Senior National Team to becoming the most successful indigenous Coach, and will become Nigeria’s most successful Coach overall should his wards cross the Round of 16 stage in Brazil.

He believes they will. “There would have been no reason playing in the qualifiers if I didn’t think we would qualify for the World Cup, and there would have been no reason preparing for the World Cup if I think we were going there just to make up the number.

“We stand as good a chance as any other team in the finals. We will give it our best shot.”

As a player, Keshi started with the junior squad but only narrowly missed being in the Christian Chukwu-led team that won the 1980 Africa Cup of Nations. He became the team’s youngest Captain three years later, and led the squad to win the Africa Cup on away soil for the first time and to qualify for the FIFA World Cup for the first time.

As Coach, he led the team to win the Africa Cup on away soil (South Africa 2013) and to easily reach the FIFA World Cup finals.

Less than 19 months after taking over the team at a low ebb (failing to qualify for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations), Keshi has steered Nigeria to becoming Africa’s brightest prospect going the FIFA World Cup, as attested to recently by Zambian legend Kalusha Bwalya and Togo superstar Emmanuel Adebayor.

“How far do you think your team can go in Brazil?” was a constant line in the interviews. Keshi’s refrain: “We will take it one match at a time.”

Of the 30 players on Keshi’s provisional list, only six have been at the FIFA World Cup previously. The ‘elder statesmen’ are goalkeepers Vincent Enyeama and Austin Ejide, and defender and Captain Joseph Yobo, who all played in the finals in 2002 and 2010. They would have been heading to their fourth World Cup, had Nigeria not narrowly failed to qualify for Germany 2006.

Defender Elderson Echiejile and strikers Osaze Odemwingie and Obinna Nsofor played in South Africa four years ago.

Yet, the confidence is palpable, as the players, in their new Adidas kits, brightened up the interior of Hilton Cobham. You see them looking at you but they actually countenance the Group F games against Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Argentina.

The clash with Iran in Curitiba on 16th June will be Keshi’s 50th as Super Eagles’ Head Coach. Out of the lot, his team has lost a mere seven, three of them friendly matches prosecuted with home boys. Two were at the FIFA Confederations Cup finals in Brazil. But he gives much credit to the Maigari-led NFF for its support and encouragement at all times.

“The NFF President, Alhaji Aminu Maigari, is a marvelous person. He is a great leader of men and we owe much to him and his administration as we look to dazzle the world.”

How far can Keshi and Nigeria go at the FIFA World Cup. “We take it one match at a time,” he restates.