Big milestones for Nigeria's 'big boss' Keshi

GERALD IMRAY AP Sports Writer Published:

JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi is nicknamed 'big boss' and can now match that with big achievements, after leading his country to the African Cup of Nations title.

Keshi on Sunday became the first Nigerian to lift the trophy as a coach, the first black African manager in over 20 years to win the continental championship, and only the second man to claim the title as a player and a coach.

The rare success indicated a possible change in the landscape of the continent's football, where European managers are typically entrusted with the big African teams.

"It's not for me alone. I hope more African coaches will get to this position and make their country proud," Keshi said soon after his team's 1-0 win over Burkina Faso in the final at Johannesburg's Soccer City.

Keshi, a former central defender who captained Nigeria to its last African title in 1994, represents a new breed of black African coaches and has often said in the past they need to be given more chances, and more space to show their ability.

Ghana's Kwesi Appiah, also a former player, nearly led his country to the final in South Africa, falling agonizingly in the semifinals on a penalty shootout.

"As an African person coaching the team, you do not have time," Keshi said after the final and dressed in a green t-shirt with 'Nigeria, Champions of Africa' printed on the front. "They (fans) want you to have the job today, tomorrow build a wonderful team, the next day win the World Cup. It's difficult.

"If only we can understand how these things work, then we can grow better in Africa. Most of the coaches are not given freedom to work, and express themselves. They hold back a little bit."

Keshi hasn't held back.

Charismatic, multi-lingual and proudly African, Keshi ensured that Ivory Coast's Yeo Martial in 1992 finally had a successor as an African winner and ensured Nigeria's long-awaited victory had a special, Nigerian feel to it after the one-time king of the continent fell on hard times over the past two decades.

"Winning this tournament is mainly for my nation," he said. "I want to dedicate this to all Nigerian coaches."

He earned his chance with Nigeria's national team after spells in charge of Mali and Togo and also as an assistant coach when the Super Eagles last made the final, in 2000.

When he took over the top job after Nigeria's failure to qualify for the 2012 edition, and following a dismal 2010 World Cup, little was expected of the team. Nigerians prepared for more disappointment in South Africa.

But the big boss became a big hit after guiding it to a 2-1 win over title favorite Ivory Coast and its array of stars in the quarterfinals, and throughout managed his players expertly in a 4-1 win over Mali in the semis and a 1-0 defeat of a dangerous Burkina Faso team in the final.

Even without leading scorer Emmanuel Emenike for the final because of injury, and with a late surge from the Burkinabes, Keshi had faith in the team he rebuilt.

"The way the boys were working, the concentration was there so it kept me going that we will get there," he said. "I'm an optimistic person. I rarely think about negativity. Even when it goes bad, I still think it's good.

"There must always be a lesson to add to my future to make it better."