Abuja (AFP) – One of African football’s most recognisable figures, former Nigeria player and coach Stephen Keshi, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family said on Wednesday. He was 54.
Keshi in 2013 led Nigeria’s Super Eagles to victory in the Africa Cup of Nations, and a year later took the side to the last 16 of the World Cup finals in Brazil.
Only he and Egypt’s Mahmoud El-Gohary won the AFCON as player and coach.
Keshi’s brother, Emmanuel Ado, said the man affectionately dubbed “Big Boss” by fans and players for his leadership, died in Benin City in southern Nigeria, where he has a house and his wife is buried.
“Our son, brother, father, father-in-law, brother-in-law has gone to be his wife of 35 years, Mrs Kate Keshi, who passed on 9th December, 2015,” he said in a statement.
“Since her death, Keshi has been in mourning. He came back (from the United States, where he lived) to Nigeria to be with her.
“He had planned to fly back today, Wednesday, before he suffered a cardiac arrest. He has found rest. We thank God for his life.”
Ado told AFP later Keshi, whose wife died after a long battle with cancer, did not appear unwell and had recently been linked to a coaching job in South Africa.
A friend added: “We suspect he never got over the death of his wife.”
– ‘A superhero’-
Tributes immediately began pouring in for Keshi. Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) president Amaju Pinnick said: “This is devastating. We have lost a superhero.”
The NFF was in touch with his family and had yet to decide on the best way to honour him, he said, but added a minute’s silence would be observed before all professional matches Wednesday.
FIFA’s new secretary-general Fatma Samoura, currently head of the UN Development Programme in Nigeria, tweeted: “The football family has lost a great member.”
Nigeria and Fenerbahce striker Emmanuel Emenike called Keshi a “true legend” and thanked him for his faith in him as a player.
“You will forever stay in my heart the big boss RIP,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
Ghana Football Federation president Kwesi Nyantakyi described Keshi as “a great man and a noble spirit” and a “shining example of dedication to football and to footballers”.
“He was greatly admired by all and he will indeed be sorely missed,” Nyantakyi said in a statement, adding that flags would be flown at half-mast above GFF headquarters as a mark of respect.
South African Football Association president Danny Jordaan and coach Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba said they were “devastated” at the news.
– Player to coach –
As a player, Keshi sparked an exodus of Nigerian footballers to Belgium in the mid-1980s, joining Anderlecht before moving to French side Strasbourg and clubs in Malaysia and the United States.
The defender moved into coaching and took tiny Togo to the 2006 World Cup and was also in charge of Mali before he was called up by his home country in 2011.
Despite his success at national level, his time at the top was often fraught. Keshi complained in 2014 both he and his assistants had gone months without pay, forcing the government to step in.
After the AFCON triumph and the last World Cup his contract ran out but he was caught up in a protracted leadership struggle for control of the NFF.
He was sacked in October 2014 after a string of poor performances but the then-president Goodluck Jonathan reportedly stepped in to order his reinstatement.
In February 2015 he blasted the terms of a new deal as a “slave contract” before finally being sacked in July last year over reports he had touted himself for the vacant Ivory Coast job.
He had previously played there for Stade d’Abidjan and Africa Sports.
The dismissal came after the Super Eagles failed to qualify for the 2015 AFCON in Equatorial Guinea.
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