A few days before the kick off of the Africa Nations Cup in South Africa, Super Eagles Coach Stephen Okechukwu Keshi in an interview said his boys feared no team in the competition.
The 51-year old, who played at five Africa Cup of Nations finals, winning gold, silver and bronze, leads Nigeria’s charge for a third title in the 56-year old continental football festival as they battle Burkina Faso tomorrow.
Q: Coach, congratulations on your team’s qualification for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. How tough was it winning the ticket, and was there anytime, particularly after the draw in Liberia, that you thought the Eagles might not make it?
Keshi: No way. There was no time I exercised any fear of our not qualifying. Yeah, I always knew that we had to work harder, after the match against Liberia in Monrovia. But there was no time I thought we would not make it to South Africa. I have confidence in my team.
Q: Nigeria last won the Africa Cup of Nations 19 years ago, in Tunisia. What are your real expectations for the 2013 finals?
Keshi: Oh, of course we have real expectation of winning. From the moment we qualified, we knew we were capable, able to win it. So, our expectations for South Africa 2013 is to win the trophy and make Nigerians happy.
Q: How do you see your team at the moment? Are you still rebuilding?
Keshi: Well, the truth is that even if you have been in charge of a team for five years, you still continue to build. Building is a continuous process because you always want your team to be better, you are always looking out for even better players. For sure, I have the frame of the team I want and I believe that the squad we have selected for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations is good enough. What we need is chemistry. Once we have that, we’ll be okay going forward and all the way.
Q: How easy was it for you to draw up your provisional list of 32 players?
Keshi: It was not easy at all. You see, Nigeria is blessed with good players who are scattered around the world. There are some that we have not even discovered yet. After we earned the ticket to the final tournament, we started working: myself and my colleagues in the technical crew.
You know, we played so many friendly matches last year and that enabled us to see so many players. By the time we played Rwanda in the second leg of our Cup of Nations qualifying fixture, we already had the frame of the team we wanted.
It was not easy, and you know, positioning was important. You could have four, five good players that you wanted to take but if they are all playing in the same position, it makes it difficult for you.
Q: What about the final 23?
Keshi: It was not easy either. That one was tough. But we knew what we wanted and there were no sentiments. Current form and positioning played key roles.
Q: At the Federal Executive Council meeting in Abuja few days to the opening ceremony, President Goodluck Jonathan called on the team to do Nigeria proud. Does that put any pressure on your team?
Keshi: Any team going into a tournament must have an ambition to win. We are focused and ambitious. President Jonathan is right to say that, and it makes us all to tighten our belts and know that Nigerians back home expect us to make them proud. It is a normal charge and we are comfortable with it.
Q: You played at five Africa Cup of Nations (1982, 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1994). What memories do you have of these tournaments?
Keshi: Lovely memories, wonderful memories, great memories, my brother. For me, it was always an honour and special privilege to wear the green-white-green. And the Africa Cup of Nations is so special. I went into the field each time wanting very much to do my country proud.
Every match at the finals was great. But the greatest was 1994 in Tunisia when we won it. I told myself that, yes, I have reached the summit now and can be happy forever.
Q: How did you feel missing the 1986 finals?
Keshi: It was extremely painful. I kept asking myself what went wrong. The Africa Cup of Nations is the biggest tournament in Africa and considering the quality and enormity of resources that we have, Nigeria should always be there. Missing the 1986 finals in Egypt was a sad moment.
Q: Which was your most memorable Africa Cup of Nations match?
Keshi: Ah, every match I played at the Cup finals was great. In 1984, we had a young team and we came up against a very experienced Cameroonian team in the final.
The most memorable would be the 1984 semi final, when we defeated Egypt on penalties in Abidjan. They led us 2-0 after 35 minutes and then we told ourselves that this would not happen. We got a penalty and I scored and we went into recess 2-1 behind. We attacked with purpose and they defended stoutly. But eventually, I lifted the ball into the box and Bala Ali headed into the net for the equalizer. We went ahead to win 8-7 on penalties. Tough game.
Q: In your first Cup of Nations playing for Nigeria, Zambia and Ethiopia were also in our group, back in 1982. What memories do you have of the finals in Libya?
Keshi: That’s more than 30 years ago! We defeated Ethiopia but lost to Zambia. Our team had problems and we were not properly coordinated. We had old and young players, like Sylvanus Okpala, Rashidi Yekini, Ademola Adeshina and myself. The old included Muda Lawal and Tunde Bamidele.
In South Africa, we also have a blend of few old and mostly young players. We have to keep telling them about patriotism and dedication and the honour and privilege of wearing the green-white-green. We are here to soar very high.